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Ants Under The Microscope guide

Observing Ants Under The Microscope

Ants are tiny yet interesting creatures that are fun and enlightening to observe under a microscope, or even a simple magnifying glass or the camera lens of a smartphone. Even at low magnifications, you should be able to see plenty of details as to how the ant looks, how it moves, how it eats, and even its different body parts.

There are also different kinds of ants, so it’s especially interesting to see how they differ in terms of appearance, including their size and color. You can observe a live ant and see how it moves and reacts to stimuli, or look at prepared slides of the specimen to see more detail.

What microscope should you use?

When viewing an ant under a microscope, it’s important to use the right type of microscope, such as a dissecting microscope or a low power stereoscopic microscope, so that the specimen can be viewed safely and in better detail, and in 3D.

With this, the overall physical structure of the ant can be observed, including its eyes and wings. Apart from these anatomical features, you can also observe the ant’s habits. 

However, if you want to look closer to see more intricate details and smaller body parts, a higher magnification microscope must be used. As such, the specimen must be prepared into a slide so that it’s flat and translucent, which enables it to be focused, allowing for a higher resolution of the magnified image.

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How to observe ants at low magnification

Looking at ants through a simple magnifying lens, a handheld microscope, or a dissecting microscope, is simple and easy. The ant just needs to be caught and placed on a glass container or a petri dish, then observed through your chosen type of microscope.

An 8x magnification power should be enough to showcase the ant’s movement and habits, as well as its various anatomical features. Afterwards, you can simply release the ant, or prepare it into a specimen slide.

ants under microscope
Image sourced from agric.wa.gov.au

This is an image of a group of argentine ants taken at low magnification, which are common brown ants that come from South America and are generally considered as house and horticultural pests.

How to observe ants at high magnification

An easy and relatively humane way of viewing an ant under a microscope, if you’re using higher magnification lenses, is by purchasing prepared slides of various body parts of the ant, such as its wings, mouth, and legs.

This should reveal smaller details, and is a better option that ensures you will see everything you need to, especially if you are not yet adept at preparing specimen slides of insects. These slides also last much longer, and thus can be brought out multiple times.

However, if you wish to make your own slides, there are certain procedures that must be followed in order to prepare the specimen correctly.

Image sourced from clemson.edu

Take a look at this hyper distinct image of an imported fire ant, with the details of the face and antennae clearly visible, even some of its mandibular area. This type of ant also originated from South America, and eventually infiltrated several Northern American states.

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Ant specimen preparation

The first step that needs to be done is to collect and preserve the ant by placing it in a tube of highly concentrated (75% to 95%) ethyl alcohol to make it stiff and brittle. This should wash off any dirt and contaminants, and drain the bodily fluids of the ant.

As soon as that happens, the ant should be transferred to a new tube of ethanol, which should then be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place, such as a refrigerator, to preserve the color and structure integrity of the specimen.

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Materials you’ll need

For this part, you will need to collect a sizable number of ants, preferably across different species and castes. You will also need vials for storage, as well as ethanol for preservation.

Point mounting

Pointing, or point mounting, is the process of mounting a specimen on insect pins. This allows the specimen to remain largely intact and undamaged, showcases the finer details of the specimen, and makes for an easier manipulation of the specimen as it is being studied.

The field collected specimens should be transferred from their vial onto a small dish containing alcohol. An adequate number of representatives for each caste or type of ant should be selected for a more efficient mounting.

That said, ant specimens are typically mounted in sets of three, depending on their size and caste. This allows for an easier and faster observation time, since several ants can be viewed under the microscope simultaneously.

Doryline ant

Here is a simple view of an ant that has been prepared and mounted on a point before viewing under a typical light microscope. What you’re seeing here is a Doryline ant that is brightly illuminated, hence the minute details including the hairs are clearly visible.

Materials you’ll need

When it comes to point mounting, using the best supplies is essential in ensuring that the specimen lasts as long as possible. These include #3 pins, laser cut points, clear and water soluble glue, vials, filter papers, a watch glass, and a pair of forceps.

The procedure

The first thing you need to do is to prepare a set of points in advance. The more precise the holes for the pins, the better. Each ant should then be stretched out carefully by using forceps, so it’s not all curled up, thus making sure that the legs do not obscure the body.

Then, take one ant at a time, and glue it on the tip of a point, preferably along the ant’s leg area (specifically the basal segment), in such a way that the ant is horizontal and upright, with the point extending from the right side of the ant.

Aside from this, there are a couple of other options in mounting ants and other insects on points. What works best depends on the size of the ants, among other factors.

Final reminders

Selecting the best ants from your collection is important. For example, an ant with its mandibles open will allow you to view its teeth. To ensure that you have a wide selection of viable specimens, it’s important to do the initial preparation correctly.

It’s also important to remember not to pin the ant directly so as not to damage it, and not to drown the ant in glue, which obscures plenty of essential details. Moreover, stretching the ant is a delicate and difficult process, and takes a lot of time and practice to perfect, but it’s important.

Finally, it’s also a must to properly label the specimen, ideally with archival quality paper. This should state not only the specimen’s details, but also that of the collection site, and the collector’s name and information.

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