The Silence of the Ants

Workers feed from the sugar tower. Photo by author.

When I realized they were escaping, I had to call for backup and in a panic, I made the worst possible decision.

The ants were filing out at lightning pace, streaming picnic-style onto my living room table. I threw the half-dozen extra workers I could grab into the nearest ant house: my empty AC formicarium.

It hadn’t been prepared — no sand or dirt. I dropped the sheet of glass on top, smashing one worker.

But before this containment would end, things would get much, much worse.

The Workers Are Dead, Long Live the Colony!

About two weeks after getting my starter colony of six C. Cerasi ants, I killed my first worker.

Before I understood the perils of honey, I’d placed a tiny drop — less than thumbtack-sized, or about one drop from a toothpick — into the world’s tiniest bowl. I gingerly placed this dish of honey in the ant world.

The next day, I noticed a black, ant-shaped blur in the very center of the honey dish. Huh? What had this crazy ant done, crawled all the way into the pool of honey?

Yes, she had. And now she was dead, and I was guilty of (ant) manslaughter.

Queen and workers climb the feeding tower. At left, on the vertical wall, larvae.

Since I only had five workers, this was a tough loss but I forgave myself and returned to youtube for further ant keeping instruction.

I ordered ant feeders (in three sizes) that keep ants fed, and safe. I switched to sugar water.

Ants Communicate

Months after that first loss, I had a thriving colony of approximately 300 ants. They divided their time between forest and desert — the PH (Piece of Haven) and the AC Outworld.

Despite several moves, they had survived.

I’d watched a documentary in which two scientists dug up a colony of over a million Argentine leafcutters and despite great odds, located the queen. They shipped the colony to Britain to study ant behavior and communication.

Among the many fascinating observations, the researchers recorded ants making noise. The leafcutters had signals for danger; micro-microphones recorded constant humming and chirping within the colony.

We can’t hear them because they are so tiny.

A C. Cerasi worker travels along the shaft of a cue tip, with two grains of sand attached to her.

In my new colony, I noticed the same phenomenon. The ants moved at a lazy pace from a distance but with a strong magnifier it was obvious they were sprinting — especially after receiving a dismembered cricket or wingless fruit fly for their weekly meal.

Their minuscule size makes it difficult, at first glance, to appreciate what they are really up to.

I was taking a look at the colony last night, when I suddenly noticed two ants roaming across my living room table.

I scooped them up with a cue tip and opened the AC outworld top to reintroduce them when I saw two-dozen ants peering over the outworld’s edge — poised to escape.

Escape and Destruction

I acted fast. I called for my husband, and tried to nudge them back into the outworld. They resisted; intoxicated by the whiff of new territory, they weren’t giving up easily.

Soon, I had four ants crawling on my hands. I shut the AC outworld top and pressed firmly.

Without thinking, I lifted the glass top to my unused AC formicarium and deposited the hand-crawlers inside its tunnels. My husband helped by holding the glass upright. I scooped up two more workers and threw them in, then quickly shut the lid.

I checked and saw no more loose ants.

Half a dozen were crushed in the AC outworld when I securely shut its lid, but that couldn’t be helped.

AC outworld (left) and formicarium. A few trapped workers can be seen at forward edge of the outworld. Photo by author.

The situation was contained, for now.

In the AC formicarium, a pancaked ant lay splayed, crushed by the glass. Another ant was frantically trying to reach her.

It was heartbreaking; I had to look away.

But what had led to this near-catastrophic escape?

I Make Everything Worse

With cursory examination, I realized the AC outworld had an inner lid that didn’t close completely. I had swabbed Vaseline* as a barrier but the ants had learned to crawl through it.

I applied more Vaseline, like a temporary coat of silicone, to the AC outworld inner edge. This kept the ants from slipping through the tiny space.

Meanwhile, I turned my attention back to the AC formicarium tunnels. I saw that not one, but three ants, had been crushed when the glass ceiling was lowered. (All three were female and had literally been crushed by a glass ceiling. Coincidence? I think not).

Glass covered AC formicarium, with several trapped and dying workers. Photo by author.

An hour later, forty ants were making their home in the AC formicarium. I attached vinyl tubing from AC formicarium to the AC outworld, hoping the ants would make their way back.

Many did return to the AC outworld, but several dozen scattered in the opposite direction — into the AC formicarium.

I told my husband, “The ants are tying to rescue their dead sisters!”

He said, “Don’t worry, they’ll eat the dead ones.”

But a couple of the crushed ants seemed to be moving. It wasn’t clear they were dead. Sadly, they were slowly perishing under the glass.

I couldn’t bear thinking about their slow deaths, crushed by a glass ceiling.

I decided to lift the glass again, scrape them off, then lower it.

Why Am I Such an Idiot?

I wish I could take that decision back.

You can imagine what happened. Of course, as soon as I lifted the glass, several ants crawled atop the little mesas. Realizing my mistake, I instantly dropped the glass — this time trapping several more gals.

But the second time it was much, much worse.

In horror, I saw that the trapped ants — some of whom were still moving — weren’t alone. Their sisters had crawled to the edges, attempting to help them!

It was truly a horror show on miniature scale.

I imagined them, screaming for help, like earthquake victims trapped in a fallen building.

One unfortunate ant was trapped just near the edge of a “mesa” and several of her compatriots were nearby. The worker at the head of the pack reached out with her antennae and was able to touch her trapped sister, but could not free her from the crushing glass.

My only consolation was that the Queen was far from this disaster. Could she hear their desperate cries for help?Although I imagined them frantically calling to each other, all I could hear was silence.

The silence of the ants.

AC= “Ants Canada” brand.

Formicarium is an area, sometimes with tunnels, where a colony of 20+ plus ants can live. It resembles their natural underground home.

Outworld is a space where ants can be fed, constructed to resemble “above ground” in their natural habitat.

*Vaseline is probably okay for a larger species that doesn’t tend to escape, but a bad choice for C. Cerasi. I later discovered all AC products need a coat of silicone to contain this genus.




Writer by day, reader by night, napper by afternoon.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Aestivation v/s Hibernation

Join Our Team as a Visiting Bio / Science Fellow

Petroglyphs on the Mesa

Mars Crash of ’96: what will happen to plutonium and us?


Worm Neurons Repaired with Genetic Engineering

How to Create Intelligent Life Forms

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jean Campbell

Jean Campbell

Writer by day, reader by night, napper by afternoon.

More from Medium

Your Last Meal on Earth

The Urban Air Parks Are A Good Place For Kids


The Night the Devil Danced Through our Town