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.
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.
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.
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!