TBT: Inquiry with Termites

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2009. This is my absolute favorite thing to do with kids. I might even be the “colleague” referenced by Mr. Kessler. I originally did this activity based on an inquiry activity in the BSCS: Biology- A Human Approach (the black one) textbook. I’ll use this with my Biology students this week, and next week at Parent/Teacher Night with their parents- I can give them my contact information on paper… but an exploration seems like a more enjoyable way to spend our 10 minutes together!  -AMI


Before the weekend, I received an e-mail from a colleague asking “Do you know of a good place I can go gather termites… anywhere woody?”

I responded with my suggestions, and because I was intrigued, I replied with a question of my own, “What do you plan to do with them?”

Well, after a making my own way through portions of two decaying logs, and acquiring some special and not-so-special writing utensils, see what we ended up witnessing by watching the following videos…

  1. Termite and paper (30 sec.)
  2. Termite, paper, and pencil drawn Infinity (30 sec.)
  3. Termite, paper, and Sanford Uniball Black drawn Infinity (30 sec.)
  4. Termite, paper, and Papermate Red drawn Infinity (30 sec.)
  5. Termite, paper, and Papermate Red drawn Spiral (30 sec.)

Sorry for the out-of-focus imagery but I hope these 2.5 minutes of observation motivate you as much as they did us before we introduced these creature to our classes today!  Experiment with other colors, other writing utensils, and after your exploration is complete have fun googling to see what is already known about the behavior you witnessed.

Happy Inquiry!

TBT: Fastplant Growing Tips

Editor’s Note: So, Brad Williamson is a pretty big influence on science educators here in Kansas and across the country. Here is a post he originally put on the BioBlog in August 2013. Fastplants are a good way to teach genetics, botany, evolution, ecology… maybe it would be easier to say they are a very robust model organism. 🙂   Enjoy, and let us know if you plan on using Fastplants this school year!

Since many AP Biology teachers are trying to grow Fastplants for the first time, I thought I’d do a few blog posts that follow a generation of Fastplants in my lab.  When I was in the high school classroom I always had a surplus of seed stock available because I was always growing the plants.  Now,  I just grow them occassionally because I think it is fun and also to provide starter seed stock for the new biology teachers that graduate from our UKanTeach program.  Back in July I was fortunate to travel up to the University of Wisconsin for another Fastplant workshop.  Paul and Hedi had Fastplants growing in a number of different types of containers

but I was particularly interested in the deli/discovery cup growing systems because they are very close the the technique I used to use in my classes back when film canisters were available.

The water reservoir (the deli container) can be used to also deliver soluble fertilizer so there is minimal care needed.  These containers are a bit small for weekends so I chose to use 16 oz. containers.

I returned from Wisconsin with some new ideas to try out as well as some seed.  Note that I brought the seed back stuck in tape.  We used the tape to pick the seed up and folded it back over itself to seal the seed in after making a couple of folded over tabs on the end.

You’ll find a description of this technique in several of the resources on the Fastplant website:  http://www.fastplants.org/pdf/growing_instructions.pdf

In the mean time one of my former students asked me about growing Fastplants so I decided to go out and get some more current cost estimates for supplies.  Assuming you have a light source but otherwise are starting from scratch here is what I found.

Soluble fertilizer from a local garden store:  20-20-20 with micronutrients

Artificial seed starter mix soil:

or a larger bag:

Deli Growing containers from Party America or Party City:

along with lids:

The portion cups from Party America cost about $3.50 per 100 1.25 oz. cups.  I already had quite a bit of yellow braided nylon mason twine from Home Depot so I don’t have a cost for that.  The neat thing about this system is that the individual cups can be moved about and that module based system is pretty easy to manage in a classroom.  I also purchased a can of Flat Black Spray Paint (one coat) that I used to paint the deli containers and lids to hopefully reduce algae growth in the water reservoirs.

I marked and cut 1 and 3/8 inch diameter holes in the lids to hold the cups.  I purchased a 1 and 3/8 inch spade bit to do this for about $5.  The holes are cut very carefully and slowly by running the drill backwards or counterclockwise.  In that way the bit just kind of scratches its way through the thin plastic of the lid.  Going in the forward or clockwise direction will likely lead to different levels of disaster—the bit is not designed to cut into such thin material in the forward direction.  If you drill that way you’ll just tear up the lid and likely not produce any holes that will work.

Marking the hole locations with a paper template.

Carefully drilling in reverse to cut the holes:

I added 250 ml of dilute fertilizer solution to each deli system.  I mixed the 1 measure (a full bottle cap from a 20 oz. soda bottle) fertilizer in 1 liter of water and then diluted that stock solution 1 part stock solution to 7 parts water.   I also drilled 1/8 inch holes in the bottom of the 1.25 oz. portion cups, added a 6 inch length of twine to serve as a wick, added moist soil mix to the cups to get ready to plant.

You can see the bluish fertilizer in the systems to the left and the wicks extending out of the cups on the right.  I moisten the soil so that I can work with it in a gallon plastic bag by squeezing water into it.  You can see the bag at the top of the tray.  Before I place a cup of soil into one of the systems I first make sure that the wicking system is working.  To do that I gently poured water from the pitcher in one of the cups until water was dripping from the wick.  This ensures that the soil is moist as well.  Once the water was dripping from the wick I transferred the cup to one of the growing systems.

I then planted 4-6 seeds in each cup (I will trim this back to only two plants in each cup in about a week).  The seeds were simply dropped onto the surface of the moist soil.  They are not “planted” beneath the surface.

At this point I added a little bit of horticultural vermiculite to the surface of each cup.  I got this tip from Paul W.   You could sprinkle a little bit of soil at this point but vermiculite helps the germinating plant to escape its seed coat.  I did not include the vermiculite in the costs above but I imagine it is around $8 for a small bag that will last for years of classroom plantings.

The systems then went under the lights.  Notice how close I have positioned the lights for now.

Day 0.

Day 1:  No apparent change:

Day 2:  We have germination

Day 3:  Most of the plants have germinated.  The cotyledons are expanding.

I’ll continue to report on this round of growing Fastplants.


Reason #47 to Talk Soils with your Students

KABT816VennDiag.001If you are a person that falls into the center of a Venn Diagram with one circle representing RadioLab listeners and the other representing people that watched/attended the 2015 KABT Fall Meeting, you might have already made this connection. If you are not if you fit into this Venn Diagram at all, please do yourself a favor and check out this, and this, and this, and also this… I can wait.

Are you back? Pretty neat, right?

Radiolab’s latest podcast is one of their best (soils bias showing here a bit) and deals with the importance of fungal communities to plant productivity and ecosystem health. It isn’t particularly long, so I intend to use it as homework, or an activity for a rainy day in case one of my sections somehow gets way ahead of the others. #WoodWideWeb 😂

At our 2015 Fall Conference, we had presentations from KU researchers Dr. Ben Sikes and Dr. Peggy Schultz that really lit a fire under the people in attendance. Their research deals with some of the myriad ecological applications of fungi in prairie ecosystems.  I think you will notice some crossover here, which is pretty cool. Dr. Schultz’s talk is especially linked to the information in the podcast, and does a good job of touching on the science of how the AMF (mycorrhizae) function. Here is video from their talks.

Dr. Peggy Schultz (Kansas Biological Survey) beginning at 00:42:15.

Dr. Ben Sikes (Kansas Biological Survey)

Where might this fit into your classes? Is this information an addition to your ecology unit? Or do you work it in when you talk fungi and/or classification? If you have more time to devote to soils and fungal-plant mutualism (environment science and field biology classes?), you might contact the two KU researchers; both labs do a really great job of outreach to classroom teachers and students. You can find their contact information here.

Figure courtesy Dr. Dan Carter http://sewrpc.academia.edu/DanielCarter

Effect of AMF on Growth in Grass Species. Figure courtesy Dr. Dan Carter http://sewrpc.academia.edu/DanielCarter

Not sure where this fits into your class, but want to try? Post a question in the comments or in our Facebook group and let’s have the Hivemind work on it! And let us know if you picked up on the hidden reference to the RadioLab podcast.


Antlion Tips and Tricks

It’s back to school time, which for me means gathering friends and family to help me collect antlions. This will be my 6th year using antlions, thanks to Brad Williamson.

It really is a fantastic way to start the year. Students see a boring pit of sand in a cup, until the inevitable accidental bump and they realize, “It moves!” We first practice generating questions, then students will design a short investigation. Much more information can be found in Brad’s post: Ant Lions and Biology.  I recently heard Paul Anderson talking about the Question Formulation Technique on the Horizontal Transfer Podcast. I’m pretty sure Brad had us do this technique in Research Methods. I will be trying it this year with my kids.

Many teachers I talk to about this have a lot of questions about collecting and sorting them. I thought I’d share some tips and tricks as I’m preparing for the first day of biology class.


Antlions are readily available in Kansas, but sometimes they’re hard to find when you’re actually looking for them. They love fine loose dirt or sandy substrate and some kind of protection overhead. I always find them around houses that have an overhang, or under porches where bare soft soil is found. I also see them in my parent’s pasture near trees or under the cow feeders.


The best tools I’ve found to capture the antlions is a metal spoon. The antlions mandibles can usually be seen at the very bottom of the pit.


Knowing the location of the antlion within the substrate, scoop with the spoon under the pit. If disturbed, they will back up and are sometimes hard to find. My method is to go through and scoop the pits, and put all the scoops into the same bucket. I sort out individuals later, because it’s easier and I don’t always get an antlion with every scoop.

Collecting Video

Sorting and Preparation

I use 2 oz cups, which work well for one antlion each.  If you get substrate from outside, or if you have substrate with large pieces, you could sift it before adding it to the cups. Fill the cups with substrate and have them ready.

One spoonful at a time, look for the antlions. Sometimes they are difficult to see if they don’t move. I shake the container, or blow on the substrate and wait for movement. Put one antlion each of the prepared cups.

Sorting Video


Can you spot the antlion?


They are easy to find… if they move!

Tricky Antlion Video

DO NOT DISCARD THE DIRT THE FIRST TIME YOU GO THROUGH IT! I guarantee there will be antlions that you miss. Every 7-8 scoops, I put into a pie plate. I leave these pie plates out overnight. The next day, you can see pits or “doodles” to find the antlions.

1059 1055

At the end, I even put all the dirt I’ve gone through into one final container and wait to see if there are any pits. There usually are!

Now I have individual containers ready for the students. While the antlions sometimes make a pit within an hour, they all should make one overnight.


Other Tips and Tricks

  • As stated in the post linked above, finding the antlions is the limiting factor. Ask around, post that you’re looking for them on Facebook!
  • I’ve never been bit, and my students have never been bit even though they try!
  • Sometimes they look dead, but are not. Better put it in a cup of dirt to see if it makes a pit or not!
  • After the initial observations, I sometimes keep the ant lions together in a large container full of substrate. This works fine for me, but if an antlion falls in another antlion’s pit, it will probably be eaten.
  • They can go some time without food, but it’s better to feed them ants every couple of days.
  • Insect speed slows down as temperature drops. If you’re room is freezing, the antlions will be less active.
  • Make sure you return at least some of the antlions to where you found them so you don’t wipe out the population.
  • You don’t need other people to help you collect the antlions, but it’s fun!

While collecting and sorting takes some work, I think it is worth it.

If you want the students to actually do investigations with the antlions, you’ll need a lot! So get out there with your spoon and bucket!


Happy hunting!

2016 Fall Conference Agenda

The KABT Fall Conference is returning to Emporia State University 10 September 2016 after many years alternating between the KU Field Station and Konza Prairie. We hope that you can join us for a day of collaboration where we can guarantee you something you can take back and use in your classroom the next week.

Many of the presentations at our 2016 Conference will focus on the use biological specimens, live organisms, and hazardous materials with students and in an educational setting. Our presenters are classroom teachers, professionals from regulatory agencies, and college professors.

2016 Conference Map

The conference will take place on the ESU Campus in the Science Building (highlighted yellow on the map). Free parking will be available in the lot located behind the Science Building (orange on the map). The conference cost is $15 and KABT memberships (starting at $15) can be purchased or renewed at the door.

Conference presentations proposals can be submitted here (closing soon). The current agenda is available here: KABT_2016ConferenceAgenda.

If you have any questions, please contact Drew Ising at drewising@gmail (email) or @ItsIsing (Twitter).

Conference Agenda

8:15-9:00AM Registration. Light refreshments available.

9:00AM Welcome, Introduction

9:05-10:00 AM Captain Dan Melson, Law Enforcement and Daren Riedle, Wildlife Diversity Coordinator, KDWPT.  Current Kansas Wildlife Regulations Relevant to High School & College Biology Teachers”

10:00-10:40AM Brian Burbeck, Compliance, Assistance & Enforcement Unit, Kansas Department of Health & Environment, Bureau of Waste Management. “Current Hazardous Materials Regulations Relevant to Kansas Biology Teacher”


10:50-11:25AM Charles Krumins, Compliance, Assistance & Enforcement Unit, Kansas Department of Health & Environment, Bureau of Waste Management. “Current Hazardous Materials Regulations Relevant to Kansas Biology Teachers—II”

11:25-11:55AM Peggy Shaver, DVM MPH, USDA-APHIS-Animal Care, Fort Collins, CO. Overview of the Animal Welfare Act for Biology Teachers”

12:00-1:00PM LUNCH. KABT Members will meet from 11:55-12:05 to vote on KABT Officers and Representatives.

1:00-1:30PM Supervisor Dwayne Holsapple, Kansas City Office, Drug Enforcement Administration. “Scheduled Drugs, Symptoms, and Enforcement within the Educational Setting”

1:30-1:50PM Michael Ralph, Biology Teacher and Author, Biology Rocks! New Options in Animal Behavior and Experimental Design”


1:55-2:25PM Kelley Tuel and Jessica Popescu, Biology Teachers, Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies (BV CAPS) and Seaman High School (Topeka). “Sickness at the Salad Bar: CDC Workshop Lessons”  [Materials provided]

2:25-3:15PM Bill Welch, Biology Teacher, Derby High School. Bioenergetics and Food Webs, an Insect/Plant Model [Materials Available]

3:20-3:45PM Noah Busch, Biology Teacher, Manhattan High School. “Determining Mosquito Distribution from Egg Data:  The Role of the Citizen Scientist”


3:50-4:35PM Jane Hunt, Kansas Corn Commission. DNA and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) [Door Prizes]

4:35-5:00PM Jessica Popescu, Biology Teacher, Seaman High School (Topeka). “Modifications and Accommodation in STEM”