Ants Under A Microscope – Classification, Microscopy, And Observation

Ants are really common little insects so I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of contact with them already. They’re in most back gardens – in fact, they’re almost everywhere. There aren’t many places where you can’t find ants. 

They’re also really smart and strong insects -if you’ve ever sat and watched an ant farm you’ll know this.

They have a really amazing way of working together in colonies and they can even carry up to twenty times their own bodyweight!

And if that doesn’t sound like a lot, put it this way, if a human could carry twenty times their own weight it would be the equivalent of carrying something around 4000 lbs in weight. 

Ants Under A Microscope - Classification, Microscopy, And Observation

Since ants are such interesting and complex creatures, it is only in our human nature to want to learn more about them, how they work, and what their bodies are like.

Observing ants under a microscope is a great way to learn more about them. However, if you’re planning to do so there’s quite a lot you’ll need to know before you start.

My goal is that by the end of this article you will know absolutely everything so that you can partake in this experiment like a pro! 

So what are we waiting for? Let’s jump straight into it. 

Let’s Learn About Ants

Okay, first things first, we need a little background knowledge. Here I’ll run through everything you need to know about these insects. 

It’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that ants are one of the most common insects across the world.

They can be found in various different terrestrial ecosystems. It is believed that there are currently over 12,000 different species of ants in the world (and that is a lot!)

So where did ants even come from? Well, they actually evolved over 120 million years ago from these little wasp-like organisms.

And if I haven’t already convinced you about just how many ants there are – they make up over 30% of the Amazon’s total animal biomass. 

Ants are very social creatures, quite like humans, and they live in these really incredibly organized societies known as colonies. They even exhibit complex social behavior in their interactions.

A colony of ants will have at least one, but sometimes several egg-laying queens.  This queen then ‘rules’ over an army of hundreds of female working ants. 

Male ants aren’t seen as often as female ants as they usually die once they have mated. You can usually recognize a male ant from a female as most male ants tend to have wings. 

Classification

So what are the general classifications for ants? Well, they are part of the Animalia kingdom. They are Arthropoda which is a fancy way of saying that they are animals with an exoskeleton.

They also have jointed appendages and a body that is segmented. They come under the class of Insecta which covers basically any insect. They come under the order of Hymenoptera.

This is a fairly big group, bees, wasps, ants, and others fall into this category. And then Formicidae is the name of the family, this is just another word for ants. 

Some of the more common species that you’ll come across are: 

  • Black Carpenter Ant
  • Bullet Ant
  • Redwood Ants
  • Blood-red Ants

The Study Of Ants

If you’re looking for the correct name for the study of ants, it’s myrmecology. We as humans have always been quite interested in the study of ants, in fact, they have been studied throughout most of history.

But it was Anguste Forel who is truly credited for his study of ants. 

Throughout his formative years, he collected and classified several different types of ants.

As he grew older, he only grew wiser and in 1857 at just the age of 27 years old won the Thore Prize at the Academy of Science for his work with ants. He was responsible for a lot of our knowledge of ants’ anatomy. 

Then in the late 1890s comes along American entomologist and myrmecologist William Wheeler.

Wheeler’s studies allowed us to learn more about the behaviors and characteristics of the ant. He also named many new species of ants which has led him to be globally recognized in the field. 

Objectives

So what is the objective of the experiment you’re about to conduct? Well, this allows us to study the morphology of not only the ants but also their eggs, larvae, and pupae.

When you’ve finished this article you will be able to do the following: 

  • Know how to prepare a specimen for observation
  • Learn how to use a microscope to study several different parts of an ant. 
  • Describe the morphology of an ant’s eggs, larvae, and pupae. 

Magnify Before Microscope

A little piece of advice for you, whether you’re doing this experiment yourself or teaching it to students, it’ll help you a lot if before you observe anything under a microscope, you do so with a magnifying glass. 

Doing this will give you a general idea of their morphology before you start looking at them under the microscope. 

Requirements

Here’s a quick list of everything you’re going to need to do this: 

  • A magnifying glass or lens
  • Some ants
  • Ant eggs
  • Pupae 
  • Larvae
  • Some plastic tweezers
  • Leather gloves (these are optional)

Procedure

Procedure

So how do you go about doing this? I’ll give some step-by-step instructions below. But just before I do this, I have a few tips for gathering some of the things mentioned above. 

  • Ants- Ants are super easy to find so you shouldn’t have much trouble. Literally, just have a look outside and they should be hiding somewhere. Check under rocks or in the soil and it shouldn’t be too long before they start to appear. 
  • Order them – If it’s easier for you, you can buy ant kits that will have everything that you need, eggs, larvae, queen ant, and workers. You can also order your ants either alive or dead.
  • Ant Eggs – Ant eggs are most easily founds in wetlands if you want to retrieve them yourself. 

Step-By-Step Guide

  1. Make sure you’re wearing your gloves so that live ants cannot pinch or bite at your skin. 
  2. With your tweezers, pick up the ant and observe the different parts of the insect. You should be able to see the head, thorax, exoskeleton, abdomen, legs, antennae, and mandible. Always be very gentle and careful when handling insects. 
  3. If you have the chance to observe the eggs, you’ll want to place them in a Petri dish or on a microscope glass slide. Use black paper under the Petri and glass slide for contrast to make observing them under the magnifying glass easier. 
  4. Use the tweezers again to carefully pick u the larvae and pupae and make your observations. How do they compare to the appearance of the eggs? 
  5. Record your observations down on a piece of paper. 

Observations

So now that you’ve done this you should have observed a couple of different things. Below you’ll find out everything that you should have been able to observe throughout this experiment.

The Ants

Depending on what ant you’ve observed, their size could be varying. Much like with humans, some are just bigger than others.

However, regardless of their size you should be able to notice that every ant has three main body parts. The head, thorax, and the abdomen.

The thorax is the middle of the body that the legs are attached to. There should be six-segmented legs attached to the thorax. If there are wings attached to the thorax, then the ant is male. 

When you look a the head of the ant, you should also see a pair of antennae, as well as two compound eyes on either side of the ant’s head.

There should also be visible mandibles (which are basically mouthparts) that will be highly serrated. 

You should be also able to identify the ants’ exoskeleton. This is a really important structure that will look almost like leather. The role of this is to protect the ants’ organs and muscles. 

Eggs

You can use a magnifying glass to observe the overall shape and size of the ant eggs, but because they are so incredibly small (about 1mm) you can’t really see much more than this and would need to use a microscope to observe ant egg morphology. 

Larvae  And Pupae

Under a magnifying glass, larvae look a little bit like worms in their shape. You’ll also notice that, unlike grown ants, larvae don’t have eyes or legs. 

It can differ depending on the species but usually, pupae are in a cocoon. If they are not cocooned, you’ll notice that they look very much like adult ants.

The only real difference being that their legs and antennae are completely folded against their bodies.  

Preparing Specimen For Observations Under A Microscope

So unlike using a magnifying glass, when you want to observe ants under a microscope you’re going to need to prepare a few chemicals for identification.

There are actually a few ways you can go about this. Here’s what I would recommend. 

Storage Using Ethyl Alcohol 

Requirements

  • Ants
  • 70-75 % ethyl ethanol
  • Insect Pins
  • Tweezers
  • Triangular Point
  • Water-soluable glue
  • Scissors. 

Preparation

Why are we storing the ants in 70-75% ethyl alcohol you ask? Because it allows your specimen to last for a much longer time. 

If you want to really be able to study your ant in great detail then you’ll need to follow these steps to prepare the ant specimen. 

  1. You need to make triangular points. You can order these online or you can make your own using a pair of scissors. Cut a small piece from acid-free paper that is an appropriate length to hold the ant. 
  2. Using a small amount, glue the ant to the tip of the triangle. The bottom of the ant should be glued down to the point with the point extending from the right side of the ant. 
  3. Pull the legs down so that the whole body can be seen but do so gently. 
  4. Use the insect pins to hold up the points. 

There are also a couple of other methods you can use. Which you will use will depend on what you are trying to observe. 

Standing Position – In this position, the ants’ forelegs are facing forwards while the middle and hind legs face backward. The mesosoma (middle of the body) is uplifted slightly so that you can get a better view of the segments around the waist. 

Wilson Method – In this position the legs of the ant are bent in a central position. You then glue the second and third coxae to the point so that the head of the ant is pointing to the left. 

Basket Shaped Legs – In this position, as it says in the name, the legs are bent in a basket-like way on the ventral side. The ant is glued on the tip of the triangle in a way that the metatarsae and tarsae are touching the tip. The antennae are also bent to face downwards and this lets us elevate the head and mesosoma so that we can observe them easier. 

Dissection 

Now that we’ve observed the outside of an any, you may be wishing to observe the inside. If you want to do this, you’ll need to dissect it. 

Requirements

Requirements

What do you need to dissect an ant? 

  • Gloves
  • Dissecting knife
  • Saline
  • Water

Procedure

To dissect an ant just follow this step-by-step guide and you’ll be on your way. 

  1. Put on your gloves.
  2. Grab your dissecting knife, and carefully separate and detach the main segments of the ant. You’ll want to detach the head, thorax, and abdomen. 
  3. Next, you’ll need to carefully cut down the length of the abdomen to observe the intestines. Once you’ve made the cut you can use your tweezers to gently pull it open. 
  4. If you have a dry specimen you’ll need to rehydrate and soften it. You’ll need to immerse the ant in diluted detergent (about 8 parts water to 1 part detergent.) Do this for approximately ten minutes. 
  5. Then transfer the ant into saline or sap water and leave it for about 20 minutes. Then air dry and dissect. 
  6. Once you’ve dissected the ant, the physiological saline can be added before you observe it under the microscope. 

Microscopy

Now it’s finally time to take a look underneath the microscope. So let’s get straight into it. 

Requirements

  • Specimen (ant)
  • Stereomicroscope
  • Petri dish

Procedure

Let’s talk about exactly what you need to do once you’ve got your ant ready to be looked at under a microscope. Just follow the instructions below. 

  1. Make sure you’ve turned on the lighting of the microscope as the light can then reflect off the surface of the ant. 
  2. You want to start on the lowest power objective. 
  3. If you’ve glued your specimen, you should be able to observe it directly under the microscope at this low power setting. You can then turn the pin of the revolving turret to get a clearer image of the ant. Some prefer to pop the ant in a petri dish so they can focus on the ant before moving to observe different parts of its body. 
  4. If the ant is dissected, place the segments of the ant onto the petri dish and follow the same instructions of step 3. 
  5. While looking through the microscope keep turning the knob until the image is clear in focus. 
  6. You can then gently move the Petri shish to get a clear image of each individual segment. 
  7. Repeat these steps as needed for the eggs, larvae, and pupae. 

Observations

You might be wondering what you should have been able to observe while looking under a microscope, well look no further.

Here’s everything you need know about the observations of ants under the microscope. 

Ants

Again, through this experiment, you should be able to see the distinct parts of the ant. The head, thorax, and abdomen.

But since the microscope has much higher magnifying power than that of the magnifying glass, you should be able to see a little more detail this time. 

When looking at ant wings, whether they are a males or the queens, you should be able to see that they have irregular veins which will strengthen the wings. 

You should also now be able to identify the petulous which you’ll find between the thorax and the abdomen. This is a really vital component for an ant as it is what keeps them flexible.

The petuolus lets the abdomen bend under the body and pray poison from the abdominal glands. 

Ants also have eyes that are similar to flies. Depending on which species you observe, the size of their eyes will differ.

Under a microscope, you should be able to see numerous units called ommatidia in an ant’s eye.

Sometimes you can even see three small eyes which are arranged in a triangular shape – these are common with queens and males. 

You should also be able to better see the ant’s mouth now.

You should be able to see two large upper mandibles, the upper lips called the labrum, the lower mandibles called the maxilla, as well as the lower lip which is called the labium. 

You should also be able to see a lot of fine hairs on the ants now. These will be most visible on the head and upper legs.

Larvae 

When looking at larvae under the microscope you should be able to now see a few things you couldn’t before. Here are a few things to look out for: 

  • Small Hairs – larvae should be growing little hairs that will allow them to remain attached to each other and onto various different surfaces. 
  • No Limbs – The larvae won’t have developed any limbs yet so you should notice that they are absent. 
  • Mouthparts – Mouthparts of larvae should now be developed to allow them to eat. You should be able to observe the mouth under the microscope. 

Pupae

Most species of pupae will be in a cocoon. But for those that are not cocooned, under a microscope, the pupae will appear to be in the fetal position. Their legs will be crossed at the lower part of the thorax. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Ants Have Eyes?

Yes, ants do have two large compound eyes to see. But they also rely on their antennae to recognize and detect nestmates from potential enemies.

Both eyes and antennae are visible under a microscope. 

What Magnification Do You Need To See Ants? 

If you’re wanting to observe an ant’s anatomical features you will need your magnification setting to be at around 8x. 

How Do You See Insects Under A Microscope?

You’ll need a low-power microscope to view insects such as ants under a microscope. This type of microscope is favorable because it provides a clear 3D image. 

How Long Do Ants Live For? 

Typically a common black garden ant will live for around four years. Other species of ant can live for a much shorter time. For example, the Pharoah ant will live for just 4-12 months. 

Can Ants Feel Pain? 

Studies have shown that insects such as ants and fruit flies can feel something similar to pain. It’s called nociception. They’ll feel this if they encounter extreme heat or cold or anything physically harmful.

They will react very much in the same way that you and I may react to pain.

Final Thoughts

Viewing ants under a microscope is, in my opinion, a great way to learn about an ants’ anatomy. I think it is also a great experiment for teachers to use to teach biology.

It is really easy to identify the different parts of the ant and creates a hands-on, interactive learning experience that is going to sink in much more effectively than just reading about it from a book. 

This experiment allows you to record and identify several different species of ants and allows students to be able to compare the shape, size, and structure of the specimen they observe.

Not only this but you can also use this experiment with other insects such as termites and then note the similarities and differences between the two. 

Not only is this great for the students, but it’s also beneficial for teachers as it’s an experiment that is fairly easy to conduct.

You can collect most of the items you require yourself – you could even have students pick and find their own ants to observe. 

But if you would prefer, or you have the funds to purchase the kits, you can conduct the experiment completely hassle-free as all of the main work has been done for you. 

Jennifer Dawkins