Dear Ant Experts,
My name is Roger, and I am 5 and a half years old. We have an ant farm, and we have ants (not fire ants, harvester ants), and we would like to know how to mark them so we know what their names are and what they're doing every day.
I like science and experiments and inventing. I would like your help because I really want to remember my ants and remember their names and know what they're doing every day. I thought maybe we should paint them, but I thought that might cover the holes on their body. What kind of paint do we need to use?
Roger (With some transcription help from his mother, Andrea)
Dear Roger (and Andrea),
How great that you are already so excited about biology! Keeping an ant colony is always great fun and we understand that you want to know your ants by names.
Marking ants can be difficult. The paint you can use is non-toxic acrylic paint. You can paint very small dots with a very fine wire (for small ants) or a very fine brush (for large ants). You don't need to worry about harming the ants, researchers paint them for some experiments and the ants do well after they have been painted. It is only very difficult because the ants don't like to be painted. To slow them down, you can put the ants in the fridge. This only slows them down for a very short time. But you can also put the ants in the freezer. That slows them down for a longer time, but be careful not to leave them in the freezer too long. Try 2-3 minutes first and see how long they need to recover. If they recover very fast, you can leave them in the freezer a bit longer, maybe 5 minutes. You can also work with them on a cooler pack that is refrigerator temperature (freezer temperatures might harm the ants if you take too long while you're painting them), this will help keep them cool for longer. Some scientists use a special refrigerated table for keeping organisms at a certain temperature while they are working with them. Be careful when you handle them! Feather-weigth forceps (e.g. found here) are best for holding the ants and picking them up. This type of forceps is very soft and does not harm the ants.
We also have to warn you not to get stung by the ants. If you really have harvester ants, they have a very painful sting. This sting can have severe effects on you for several hours.
Here you can find some great pictures by Alex Wild of ants that have been marked by researchers.
Enjoy your ant colony!
Steffi Kautz, Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team