When my husband, Chris, was growing up, he really wanted an ant farm. But his mother, squeamish about hosting a family of insects in her home, would not allow it.

My mom was more easy-going in the ant department. For a time while I was in junior high, we had a thriving ant farm set up on a shelf in the bathroom. It was fascinating to observe the ants as they built tunnels and hills, and otherwise went about their business, seemingly oblivious to the fishbowl situation in which we had placed them.

Fast-forward many years. This past Christmas I purchased Uncle Milton’s Giant Ant Farm for Chris. He had knee surgery scheduled for the end of December, and I figured the ants would keep him amused throughout his recuperation.

When you purchase an Uncle Milton farm, the ants do not come in the box along with all the other equipment. Instead you get an order form, and for $3 you can send away for a special breed of ants that work like crazy and don’t reproduce (they are all the same sex). I did this before I wrapped the gift, in anticipation of the ants arriving shortly after the holidays. But instead I received a postcard indicating that it was too cold to ship ants, and I would have to wait until spring. Oh well . . .

This April we received a standard brown envelope in the mail from Uncle Milton. It contained a sealed plastic tube full of rather large, reddish brown ants. The instructions indicated that I should first set up the ant farm, and then place the tube of ants in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to make them less active and easier to transfer to their new home.

The ant farm is made up of two clear plastic panels that snap together into a frame. There is a green plastic divider with a farm motif of barn, silo, and house that runs across the center. Your pour special sand into the bottom half of the ant farm, add enough water to make it “like real earth,” and then snap the base into place. Once everything has settled, you open a special hatch at the top and add the ants. Simple enough. A small bag of food and a water dropper come with the kit, so that you can keep your new pets from getting to hungry or dry. The farm itself seals up quite tightly so you don’t have to worry about the ants escaping finding their way into your kitchen cabinets.

After chilling the ants sufficiently, I gingerly upended the plastic tube into the opening at the top of the farm. They tumbled in after a few taps, and most just kind of sat there, stunned, as the instructions said they would. I moved the farm to a shady spot in our living room – too much sun can cook your ants – and went on about my day.

After only ten minutes, though, Chris passed through the room and noticed that the ants had already begun to make a tunnel. By that night, they had made several short trails in the dirt and had sequestered the small tidbit of ant food I had dropped into the farm in a custom-made storage area.

For over a week, we observed the ants creating tunnels and hills and otherwise keeping quite busy. It was as fascinating as we had hoped it would be. I added a few drops of water every other day as the instructions recommended. I added a little bit more ant food too, and then a piece of black mushroom that had fallen to the floor from our Thai take-out order. The instructions encouraged us to add the occasional tidbit of fruit or vegetable, or even a breadcrumb, to offer the ants some variety.

By soon we noticed that the number of ants was diminishing. They hadn’t touched the mushroom (granted, it’s not typical ant fare). They didn’t seem to be accessing the food supply at all. And there were little dark areas all over the farm where the ants seem to have crawled to the end of tunnels and died. One by one, more dark areas appeared, and fewer active ants were visible. By the end of two or three weeks, all the ants were dead.

“I killed the ants!” I cried. I was horrified. What had I done? They were supposed to live for months, even years. I had kept them watered and fed, kept them warm, but not too warm. I didn’t introduce any “foreigners” into the colony (which can promote warfare). And still they all died – or committed suicide – in some sort of bizarre Jonestown Massacre type fashion.

Before I took the farm apart, I referred to the instruction booklet once again, to make sure I hadn’t missed something obvious. And there in bold face were the words “Never overfeed your ants.” Oops. I had been so concerned about them finding enough food in what seemed to me like a sandy wasteland, that I’d apparently given them way too much. That would explain the giant storage area they had created for what was probably a season’s supply of food, administered over the course of seven to ten days.

I think I will give up on ant farming for the time being — but not forever. I plan to rinse and thoroughly clean the ant farm and put it away, but I intend to resurrect it someday. When my ant farming confidence returns, I will order new sand and new ants and try again.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
June 2006

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.