My Son Once Got an Ant Farm for His Birthday

My son D. once got an ant farm for his birthday from a friend. I remember being intrigued—I had heard about the miraculous things these little social insects could do. And imagine being able to watch their whole world create itself, in a microcosm in D.’s sunny bedroom.

We had to mail away for the ants. While we waited for the package to arrive, we opened the envelopes of sand white like salt, their tiny houses with purple roofs, ramps that spiraled like staircases, and rooms we clicked together. My son was six at the time; he could barely contain himself waiting for the little guys to arrive.

After a few days, the ants came wiggling from Fed Ex. They were in two test tubes, caps sealed with a bright yellow label: Ants do bite when threatened, so handle carefully.

The instructions directed us to put them in the fridge to calm them down. We put them in the door compartment next to the eggs, and waited. They eventually became groggy, and we dumped them into their new front hallway.

Of course, they had to be fed—so we left a tiny crust of bread soaked in sugar water. They quickly stuck to it, drinking with tiny antenna straws. 

Each morning, we peered through the magnifying skylight to see what they had done.

They marched in circles, inside thick tubes between their parlor and the bedroom. They worked harder than we could imagine working, carrying heavier loads than their tiny frames should. They seemed to be moving things back and forth, organizing and reorganizing, creating new pathways every night. We were fascinated by how they stepped aside for each other as they marched from one room to the other.

After a few days, a few died. But the instructions said, “Don’t worry if some die because we have sent you more than enough.” The workers efficiently piled up the dead ones in a corner and covered them with a pile of sand. Ants are fastidious; they like to keep their home clean.

My son fed them a pinhead peel of an apple, a tiny crumb of hamburger, a few drops of water for during their work. Imagine—one drop of water enough for fifty ants!

I am not sure what we did wrong. But they kept dying off inside the tiny mazes. Each day, a little less work got done, and the pile of corpses grew and grew.

Eventually, around Christmas, there were just three or four left. They still kept plugging along, moving and hauling sand toward some end that we didn’t understand.

Then one morning, we saw that the hardy ones, too, were on their backs. They were simply left curling in their little ant-made caverns. There was no one left alive to carry them back.

The good news? D. does not appear to be traumatized by this event in his formative years. He was so young that I don’t know that he even remembers his ant family.

That is, unless he he has post-ant-farm PTSD that explains his aversion to geometry.