School of Ants skitters around Australia

The School of Ants citizen science project ventured out of its nest in Armidale and the North West Regional Science Hub earlier this year when coordinator Dr Kirsti Abbott skittered, with her family in tow, around a big part of Australia. Discover where Kirsti’s epic ant trail has taken her, including visits to remote schools and swarming into regional festivals in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

One of the aims of our School of Ants 2015 tour is to bring schools and individuals into a yearlong citizen science project, where participants agree to collect ants monthly on the same day. Synchronicity in ecology data collections is rare, typically because a small team of scientists just can’t be in too many places at once. But luckily for us, citizen science makes this possible!

All in all School of Ants received 52 registrations across Australia, of which half of the participants agreed to collect ants at yummy food baits at the same time as each other every month. In addition to this data collection, this approach created a sustainable, real science enquiry project that inspires students to connect and learn about their planet. This is why our citizen science offering attracted so much interest and excitement.

That there are more insects than any other multicellular living thing is reason alone to get down and dirty with them. School of Ants invites kids all over the country to ask questions and tell us what they want to know about these little things that run that world. These conversations will inform how we design future education programs for School of Ants.

As part of my tour, I was privileged to meet with many curious and expanding young citizen scientists. Participating schools in rural, regional and remote Australia were treated to whole days of antics programmed around each monthly collection. In Lockhart (NSW), Brewarrina (NSW), Gympie (QLD), Longreach (QLD), Cairns (QLD), Alice Springs (NT), Kununurra (WA) and Kimba (SA), we covered topics from zombie ants to ant behaviour and diet. Students, their teachers and parents helped collect data and graph it. We used microscopes to look at the many bizarre features on ants’ bodies, and evens screen-printed ant t-shirts by hand!

School of Ants took citizen science into festivals too, appearing at The Planting at Woodfordia in southeast Queensland, and the Alice Springs Desert SMART EcoFair where the untapped potential for citizen science is enormous! Ants are always the uninvited but ubiquitous guests at these events.

This year School of Ants has identified 61 species of ants that come to food within an hour, three of which are considered invasive species. Among the most common species are those that Australians commonly refer to as ‘little black ants’ – those dominant critters that you notice at your lunch when you drop it, or at the washing line as the humidity increases. These ants are performing jobs in our urban environments that we take for granted every day. School of Ants’ mission is to quantify those jobs. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

About the author
Dr Kirsti Abbott is an ant ecologist at the University of New England and coordinator of the citizen science project called School of Ants. Kirsti is also a member of the North West Science Hub. Listen to Kirsti talk about her adventures with School of Ants on ABC radio.