Ants don’t like NASA inventions

Charlene Ng
Charlene Ng |

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Ants are one of the most hard-working creatures on earth. And the experience of keeping them as pets was nothing like I had expected.

During the summer holidays, I was browsing shopping websites and stumbled across a product shaped like a small and thin fish tank. In the container was a blue gel-like substance. After clicking into the product page, I found out it was called an ant farm. I watched the video that went along with the webpage, and in it they described the translucent blue gel was actually technology from NASA. The blue gel is just like an alternative for dirt and soil for the ants to dig tunnels in, except it was infused with necessary nutrients that the ants needed to survive. At that moment, I thought cool! I had the idea that I didn’t need to do anything to keep them alive. Just dump the ants in the gel without supplying food, water or air, and they will start digging an elaborate maze of intricate tunnels. The ants live a long happy life, and I get to observe and learn about the mighty creations of Mother Nature in the process. On the webpage, it stated they would give 25 harvester ants for free, so that was even better.

With those series of thoughts in mind, I ordered one ant farm off the Internet and waited in anticipation for the doorbell to ring and the package to arrive. When it finally did, I tore open the packaging and discovered all 25 ants cooped up in a thin drinking straw with small soiled balls of toilet paper clogging both ends. In disgust, I emptied the whole tube into the container. Out of the 25 ants, more than half were dead from suffocation, thirst or simply the repulsively unhygienic environment they were packaged in. But I already put everything into the container before I realised this slight problem. At that moment I thought it didn’t matter if there were corpses because the live ants didn’t seem to be affected by them. Some have already started digging aggressively within a few minutes. My whole family crowded around the dining table where the ant farm was placed and watched on with curious fascination.

About 12 ants were still alive and they immediately began communicating with each other by rubbing and intertwining each other’s antennae. Different jobs were given to different ants, some were piling up the bodies in one corner, others were starting on the tunnel-digging.

One ant stood out most from its companions. It was larger than the rest of them and a lot more hard-working. I watched it open up its ginormous (for an ant) mandibles, plunging them into the semi-solid blue gel, pull a large (for an ant) chunk out, and set it aside. I sat there transfixed, spellbound by the quirky charm of the ants.

The next day afterschool, I couldn’t wait to see how the ants were doing. Since it was a rather hot and humid day, the air conditioner was on and mist formed on the inner walls of the container. The ants made some progress on the tunnels, but not much. I couldn’t see clearly because of the mist so I didn’t stare at the ants for a long time like the day before. Since I wanted to surprise myself with the tunneling progress, I left the ant farm alone for a few days.

It was a bit of a letdown when I came back to inspect the farm. Several more ants had died. There was one tiny tunnel on one side that was vertical and went halfway down the gel, but that was it. Oh well, nature is unpredictable. I lifted the lid to examine the newly dead, and out rushed a trail of putrid stench that made me almost drop the container. It was the smell of rotten meat and dog poop, sour and bitter to the nose. I looked a little closer and saw that some brown liquid from the dead ants had seeped into the blue gel. The water droplets that formed from the mist had caused the ant bodies to start decaying and let out the horrible smell. The ants were gradually awakened by the incoming fresh air, and began eagerly crawling up the walls. I slammed shut the lid, not wanting to deal with the mess.

Several days later, I realised even more ants had died from the rotting and unbearable surroundings. Out of guilt and pity, I opened the small hole on top of the lid and sprinkled some cookie crumbs, disregarding what the instructions said. Immediately, the ants came alive after days of being immobile. They clung on to the crumbs like they were a lifesaver (they probably were). Clearly, the laboratory-made blue gel didn’t seem very delectable to the ants.

But it was clear that I didn’t learn from my mistakes. After a few days, mold began to grow on the leftover cookie and spread to other parts of the blue gel. I learnt later that my dad had thrown in a dead mosquito into the mix. I accused him, by which he defended himself indignantly (“Of course ants love eating dead moldy insects mixed with their own kind’s bodies!”) By this time, there were only 3 ants alive. The condition inside the container was so dreadful, I couldn’t imagine anything surviving in there other than cockroaches. I told my dad to get the remaining ants out and throw away the ant farm. He gingerly picked up the ants, and flung them out to the bushes outside. I know they can’t survive for long without their colony, but at least they can enjoy moments of fresh air and freedom.

This ant farm experience was an epic failure. Nevertheless, I learnt a bit more about ants and their nature in 2 short weeks. There is one thing I know for sure though and it is to never get another ant farm.