by Kirsti Abbott & Kate Lafferty
I think it would be fair to say that when the extension students at Deepdene Primary School in Melbourne first started their School of Ants experience they were sceptical. They very deliberately told us that they thought ants “were just tiny brown and black things that get into your sugar. What on earth could we learn about them that is interesting?” And we nodded, smiled and proceeded with what would be a turning point in their respect for not only ants, but little things that we so often miss in our busy, upward looking lives. Those very same, sceptical kids had changed their tune after 10 weeks to “ants are the most amazing creatures alive!”, and “I never imagined that ants would be so diverse and interesting”.
Mesmerised by the end of the introductory session, Harley was asking about zombie ants, Patrick was intrigued by slave-making ants, and most of them were in awe of swimming ants, gliding ants, turtle ants, leaf cutter ants and Martialis heureka. Seriously – learning that someone named a biological organism because they thought it looked like a martian?! Kids love that stuff!
Once they were suitably inspired with the weird and wonderful ways ants had occupied the planet, and the strategies ants employed to remain successful, social organisms, we ventured outside. This was important. Getting outside as soon as possible was crucial to keeping the enthusiasm high. We turned over rocks, searched tree trunks, scratched at the dirt and poked in holes to reveal all manner of ‘tiny brown and black things” that Kirsti put names to, and gave personalities. The ants were starting to become part of the fabric of their school for these students.
Our mission was to stick as closely as possible to School of Ants protocol to determine what ant species were lurking in the paved and green spaces around the school in eastern Melbourne. Unfortunately we couldn’t track down anything like the prescribed Pecan Sandies, so replaced them with macadamia shortbread that we figured was comparable. What we did find however, was that our ants didn’t really like the cookies at all. In fact, they didn’t like it for 4 weeks coming into summer, so whatever ants we collected to input into School of Ants’ international database were collected by hand from around our cookie bait cards. No matter – we had loads of time to search other surfaces for ants, discuss and watch foraging behaviour, hypothesise why the ants didn’t like our cookies and discover a plethora of other invertebrates in our immediate surroundings. Patrick uncovered some scale insects producing droplets of honeydew that started a whole journey into mutualisms and invasive ants. The students gained an appreciation for collecting data on site conditions and the importance of abiotic variables on the activity of the ants.
Our time outside came to an end and we really hadn’t been as successful in collecting as many ants as we’d hoped on both green and paved areas around Deepdene Primary School. But the microscopes came out and the opportunity to identify their specimens had the students just as excited. None of them had ever used a ‘proper’ microscope, and none of them had imagined, even in their wildest dreams, what incredible shapes, colours, spines, hairs and stings that these ants actually sported. We learnt ant morphology and identified a Tetramorium and Iridomyrmex species, and no matter how hard it was to sit still at a microscope, these kids persevered, and were determined to find out the names of their ants.
Melbourne Museum and Melbourne Zoo were a highlight of the term’s project, where the students kept all eyes to the ground and pooters in mouths, and collected ants from the Australian section of the zoo as well as the forest area at the museum. Kirsti provided easy-identifiers in the form of ant t-shirts for everyone (check out the photo), which we wore with pride!
From the classroom to the ‘outside lab’ for collection and experiments, to the ‘inside lab’ for identification of specimens with a stereo microscope, then a field trip to put their knowledge into context and action, the students felt part of a special expedition of inquiry. A year later those involved still stop me to talk about ants; parents are still grateful for introducing their children to a micro-world at their feet. We didn’t provide much of an insight into the urban ants of Melbourne, but this was just a first pass……