An Ant Mystery

A carpenter ant wrestled with a wood chip.

She pushed, pulled, and flipped the chip, sometimes sinking her jaws into the wood. I could not imagine why.

Carpenter ants chew wood as they dig their nests in trees, logs, stumps, and human-made structures. They don’t eat the wood. Their shavings, which they eject from the nest site, can form piles that look like sawdust.

But this ant wasn’t making a nest. Was she feeding on something inside the chip, something I couldn’t see?

Carpenter ants eat living and dead insects. They also like meats, sweets, and other foods they find where we picnic. And they love honeydew, the sweet liquid poop of aphids and scale insects. Here’s an ant about to slurp a scale insect’s poo bubble:

Sometimes, the honeydew-makers will poop on command when stroked by an ant’s antennae. A few ant species protect aphids or scale insects from predators in exchange for keeping them supplied with sugary poo. Here’s an earlier post where you can see some ants doing just that.

But back to the ant that has me puzzled. Here’s a snippet of what I saw.

Did you notice her antennae were in constant motion, touching the chip as she explored with her mouth? Ants smell with their antennae, so I imagine she was using them in her search. But… her search for what?

Could it be tiny fungi? Leaf-cutter ants eat fungus, but I’ve found nothing in my reading to suggest that’s in a carpenter ant’s diet.

I filmed for a few minutes, then I checked back frequently for about half an hour. The ant was still on the weathered fence rail, toying with the chip. Then, both ant and chip were gone. Did she carry it off? I didn’t find it on the ground, so it seemed she didn’t simply drop it off the fence rail.

I have no clue what kept the ant poking into that chip for so long. Food seems the most likely reason, but what plant or creature was it?

If you have the answer, do tell! I’d love to update this post with the answer.

Resources and Related Kids’ Books

My favorite resources for this post are books. One is quite accessible to kids, and the other is written for them. Both seem best for middle graders and up. I’m pretty sure both will captivate any kid who’s ever looked (or cringed) at an ant.

Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants, written by Eleanor Spicer Rice and Rob Dunn, with photos by Alex Wild. The book is a fun, engaging resource that’s terrific for both adults and kids from about age 10 or so. More than a reference guide, this book tells the story of ants. It begins with Dr. Eleanor telling about her childhood love of watching ants, followed by easy-to-understand details about ant species and their behavior and biology.

Ants for Kids, A Junior Scientist’s Guide to Queens, Drones, and the Hidden World of Ants. It’s written by Beverly Gerdeman, Ph.D. with illustrations by Kate Francis and lots of great photos. The book explains ant anatomy and biology, with sections about life cycles, colony habits and sizes, ant-to-ant communication, diets, predators, parasites, and more. If that sounds dry, it’s not! The text is detailed but friendly, with art and photos to illustrate key information. Plus, the book includes several ‘junior scientists in action’ activities: mini experiments to help kids learn about the behavior of ants in their neighborhood. Ants are everywhere. This book is a terrific choice for inquisitive kids, and for anyone who might enjoy learning about ants and their significant contribution to our planet.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

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