* Prices may differ from that shown
My son is fascinated with tunnels for some reason. At one point he asked for a hamster. I asked him if he really wanted a hamster - and all the work that entails or he just liked the cages with connecting tunnels. Turns out it was the tunnels. So when I saw this, I knew he would like it - and ants should be a lot more low maintenance than a hamster. The worker ant only lives about 5 months, so unless by some chance a female worker breeds ( very are and since I don't think we have a male even less likely), or we find a pupa which hatches into a queen, or perhaps buy one, the colony will die out in the fall. This might be just as well as I don't know if the cold above ground would kill them even though they are indoors.
I bought our atmosphere sets from ebay, for £4.80 each with free postage, new but some had slightly scuffed boxes, and ended up buying 3 sets as my son spent his money on two more. I have just checked and there are several more at this price currently available. He envisioned a huge tower, but it didn't quite work that way. There are two versions of this kit readily available in the UK - the single pod, with only one tube ( which doesn't really go anywhere. The single pod, which sells for nearly £20,, and the 4 pod set which currently sells for £ 9.99 directly from Amazon.
WHAT'S IN THE BOX?
2 red tinted pods
2 clear pods
a length of red tubing which is meant to be cut into 4 bits
6 legs - or support pieces
1 clear canister, very much like the old film containers which is called an ant catcher
1 red food canister
12 O rings
tweezers ( although I'm not sure why, you'd crush and ant if you picked it up with these)
A pippette for dripping water through the ventilation holes, or directly into the pod for planted pods.
WHAT'S NOT IN THE BOX?
Ants - you can catch your own or order online either from Interplay, the company that makes this set, or another source like. Interplay charges £5.95 including postage for 45- 50 ants. This group will not include a queen, nor does it appear to contain larvae or pupa. Interplay only sells the harmless, common black ant. Alternatively you can choose from a wide range of packages from the Queen Ant Shop, many of which contain queens, eggs etc with prices starting at £4.99 and free shipping. This business not only does the common ant, they have a few imported varieties, the native but more unusual yellow ant, and if you are not quite right in the head a few varieties of red stinging ants. I can't quite imagine putting these deliberately in my house, and the business makes very clear they are not suitable for children. I did to write to the fellow, who is very knowledgeable and happy to offer advice. I don't think he would even sell you the red ants if he knew they were for children, advising the common black as the most active, or the yellow if you want something a bit different.
The basic model is pretty quick and easy to build. I would estimate less than ten minutes, with eh child doing most of the construction. Because we had bought 3 sets, construction was more complicated. My son had envisioned recreating an 8 pod set which was pictured on the back of our first set. However even with 3 sets, we did not have enough legs. If we had been able to build this - it would have taken a very large area to set up as well as each base is nearly 12" across. We ended up building a smaller set with two bases and 9 pods. This later had to be downsized when I accidentally snapped a leg, leaving us with 8 pods.
We built this without paying much attention to the instructions. The bottom half of each pod is meant to be all open , while the top part is divided into 3. Our way didn't work and meant switching everything around - after we put the ants in. You need to do it the right way because the ventilation and water holes on the top. Word to the wise : read the instructions.
The instructions are well written and contain a lot of additional information about the life cycle of ants and general ant care. There are even a couple of recipes if you want to start cooking for you ants. There is also a picture of a real ant colony, showing how this is modeled after their natural habitat. There is one suggestion I found a bit silly though. They recommend adding other creatures, like a seperate earthworm pod and perhaps a water filled pod with triops or brine shrimp. We have in fact accidentally created an earthworm pod, as I have noticed an earthworm is living in the pod with the cress sprouts, but I don't think triops or brine shrimp would be a good idea. Triops require a much larger space than this, and brine shrimp require frequent aeration, especially in a very small container. I think either would die in the pod. I think sets like this fail when they try to do too many things. This is grand as an ant farm, it's best to leave it at that I think.
I am hoping to add aphids in the summer though if I can find a suitable food source to keep them alive in the pods. Ants do keep aphids in the wild for a sweet substance they secrete, so this would be very educational for the children to observe. If not well - it's better than poisoning them and they are a real nuisance with rose bushes.
Both of my boys love this. they love the tubes and the general set up. Having extra pieces makes this even more fun, but a single four pod set is would have been adequate. having extra pods means we can try different things though. We have two pods with creeping plants growing in them, thanks to Lady Bracknels generous gift of some starter plants, creeping Juli I believe. Another pod has cress. The other pods have mixtures of material. Foolishly I put cotton wool in one ( it was meant to soak in liquid for drinking) but the ants love it. Others have soil, sand, grass cuttings and a fiber substrate intended for reptiles and invertebrates. The ants seem to prefer the dryer soil and sand. The ones with plants are kept wetter.
This set is well sealed and you are unlikely to have escapes - unless some idiot leaves a tube disconnected or a plug off. This has happened once when we were rearranging the pods. The idiot shall remain nameless, to protect the guilty. Thankfully, it was when this was first set up and we don't seem to have lost many - if any - and the children didn't mind too much. It meant my oldest had to collect more ants, but he really enjoyed his father getting upset about it, so I'm sure it was worth it. Especially as it has future wind up value. I'm currently looking for plastic ants to decorate his food with or put on his face when he is sleeping. Needless to say this would be more of an issue if we were to have ordered one of those really nasty stinging varieties. You do have to be very careful that the pod seals perfectly when assembled though. This should be no problem with sand or soil, but if you have plants, a small stem sticking out can create a gap - which might result in escapes.
Patience is a virtue, but not one common to children. It did take the ants a few days to start using the tunnels. My sons were dissapointed at first, thinking that ants were not able to climb up the tunnels, but it was just a matter of giving it some time. I don't think they would have minded if they were sure that the ants would figure it out in time, but they were concerned that the set was just not going to work. The ants also hid most of the time the first few days, so yo do have to wait a few days to really enjoy this. On the plus side, the fact that the ants are less active at first makes any adjustments you need to make easier.
So far our problems have been minor. I did snap one leg, but that was my fault. The overall construction is very good. We did have some problems with the food conatainers and ants becoming stuck in these. I phoned the company and they are sending out a new food container, so I would advise you to observe the food jars closely and if ants get stuck, dump them back into the pods and phone Interplay. I considered rating down on this, but customer service was so brilliant, I decided to keep the 5 star rating. You are advised to place all food in the feeding container so you can throw out anything that is not used. Apparently the ants will keep their own area tidy, if need be using an extra pod as a rubbish dump. I certainly hope so as I can't imagine any way of cleaning this once it is set up. The other issue is ants do not live forever. I am looking into buying a queen, but I don't know if one can be added or the temperature requirements. Worst case scenario, the ants will die off ant this will need to be put away in winter, but one can always collect new ants in the spring, and I do feel that children can understand that an ant is not meant to live for years. Also an ant farm is basically a group of anonymous creatures, it isn't like the children will form a special bond with one.
This can also be connected to Interplay's Ant World, a more traditionally shaped ant farm, and you can interconnect as many Antosphere pods as you like. this can also connect to Interplay's worm farm or Eco Dome. Interplay also has some really brilliant looking sets like Antlantis, Fantasy Island, and the Mayan Ant Invasion, which I would love to have, but they do not seem to be available in the UK. I did find one ebay seller willing to ship here, but at a price of nearly £70 it was well out my range.
I think this is an excellent toy. Even at full price, I feel it does represent value for money. It is educational and fun, and has encouraged my sons to want to learn a great deal more about ants. It really is a nice looking set up, and I love that we can create different types of environments in each pod, giving the ants a more realistic environment, as the clear balls with plants would more closely resemble what they are used to above ground, while the red pods create a more natural underground habitat for them. I feel that it much more fun watching them scamper about the different the levels than a single rectangle like most ant farms use. Of course the rectangular ant farm might be a fun add on at some point. I also think it is more educational as the children can experiment with different types of environments and see which the ants prefer. If we are able to add aphids to a planted pod this will add a whole new dimension to the set up. The children can also experiment to find out which foods the ants like best, what times of day they are most active in, etc...
Obviously this toy is not suited for every child. A wee neighbour girl approached my son to see what he had in the collection jar and ran away screaming. This obviously would not be a good gift for a child phobic of insects. The manufacturer advises that this set not be used by a child with a known allergy to insect stings or bites, or by a child under 36 months, which I feel is rather obvious. But if your child likes creepy crawlies this really is a very interesting toy. It is set up in a large window sill between my computer and the children's and I have to admit, I often find myself observing the ants as well.
Update : I've just ordered the eco dome to go with this. It it a huge terrarium which makes it's own weather systems and everything. Got a cracker deal @ £15 but ebay has one more for £20 if anyone is interested.
* title stolen from a comment by Catsholiday in a private message.
Update - I've had to update and lower my rating on this. It was a brilliant set while it lasted, but sadly the plastic where the tubes attached began to crack and would snap off inside the tubes when you pulled a tube on or off for anything. It ended up basically falling apart, so has been replaced with another type of any farm.