The Current

This 8-year-old's passion for ants is 'inspiring,' says biologist and ant-ficionado

Benjamin Arana-Stirling isn’t your average eight-year-old insect hunter; he’s an entrepreneurial ant dealer. He trades his finds to other ant collectors and aficionados — for $30 a pop. And he’s not alone in his fascination with the creatures.

'How'd I describe them? Beautiful, wonderful creatures,’ says Benjamin Arana-Stirling

Benjamin Arana-Stirling, 8, collects ants and sells the queens to other ant enthusiasts for $30 each. One Canadian biologist who studies ants says Arana-Stirling's fascination with the insects is what makes his work meaningful. (CBC/Mary-Catherine McIntosh )

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Eight-year-old Benjamin Arana-Stirling loves ants — so much so, he's made it his task to hunt for their queens, luring them into test tubes where he feeds them honey by toothpick, and watches and cares for them.

But he's not your average insect hunter; he's an entrepreneurial ant dealer. He trades his finds to other ant collectors and aficionados — for $30 a pop. 

"How'd I describe them? Beautiful, wonderful creatures, and cool to watch," the Halifax boy told The Current

It can be a tough business. Benjamin estimated he's been bitten by about 50 fire ants. But he loves them anyway.

"They're cool as well, because they can actually float on water and go underwater," he explained.

He's not alone in his fascination with the little critters. Ehab Abouheif, a biology professor at McGill University in Montreal, said it's kids like Benjamin that give his work meaning.

"I've spent my entire life, you know, studying ants," he said. "To see other people, especially so young, get so excited about their social lives … I find it really inspiring." 

You might find yourself inspired by ants, too, if you hear Abouheif talk about them. There are 15,000 species of ants in the world, he said, all of which possess "amazing behaviours."

Ant cemeteries, and waste management

Abouheif remembers walking around a tropical forest in Costa Rica one time and looking down to see a group of leafcutter ants up to something funny.

"No joke, they were carrying all their trash in a very orderly manner, and they were depositing it," he said. 

He recalled seeing the ants carry the garbage to the edge of a river bank, and drop it into the stream so it would float away from their colony.

"They have this amazing orchestration and chemical language, and that allows them to co-ordinate their behaviour and do amazing things that we would see in human societies," said Abouheif.

One of the ants Benjamin has collected, seen in a test tube. The Halifax boy says he feeds the insects honey and cares for them. He wants to collect as many as 60 some day. (CBC/Mary-Catherine McIntosh)

"Believe it or not, they actually bury their dead just like humans."

When an ant dies, he explained, the other ants carry them to a sort of "ant cemetery" — a pile of dead ants in the corner of their nest.

Queen ants, and colony police

And just like people, different ants have different roles to play in their ecosystem.

Every ant colony has a queen, who is responsible for the reproduction, Abouheif said. The queen can live for up to 30 years, while worker ants only live for three months.

But if one of the [female] workers decides they also want to reproduce, effectively competing with the queen, "then the whole society collapses," he said.

To protect that from happening, ants have what Abouheif refers to as ant police.

"If a worker tries to reproduce, they can sniff her out," he explained. "The police force goes bee-lining to the reproducing worker and aggresses her until she stops."

Ehab Abouheif, a biology professor at McGill University in Montreal who has spent his whole life studying ants, says he's inspired by kids like Benjamin, who shares his passion for the insects. (NSERC)

Abouheif's wife often laughs at him because he always has his eyes peeled to the ground, watching for these little critters, he said. But he can't help but be fascinated.

"We walk without any attention to the remarkable societies that are just under our feet," he said. "I can't tell you how many people are just stomping on things that I would kill to have … or to collect."

As for Benjamin, he plans to continue collecting ants; he wants to have as many as 60 different specimens. He's even got hopes of teaching his dog to sniff them out.

That's the kind of dreaming that Abouheif loves, he said, because it "moves knowledge forward."

"[Professors] don't often have the time … like this, you know, amazing eight-year-old boy, to spend in nature just watching [ants]," he said. 

"I think there's going to be an amazing collaboration between us and these citizen scientists to help us actually understand [them]."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Mary-Catherine McIntosh. 

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