Charles Henry Turner and his ants
Flipped Photo by NeilsPhotography under CC license.

“Charlie, where are you?”

Charlie could hear his sister calling. Her voice drifted through the dusty buildings like sunlight. But he wasn’t paying attention.

Instead, he was watching ants.

The small, brown insects came from a hole in the bricks of a wall. When they stepped into the bright sunlight, they stopped.

Charlie thought about his reaction when he came out of his house into the day. Could ants see?

The way they followed each other in a jagged line across the path didn’t seem like they could see. It was more like they were smelling their way. Did ants have noses?

If they followed each other by sight, then they would notice if a rock blocked their vision and go around, he thought.

If they followed each other by smell, maybe a rock placed on their path would keep them from being able to follow. Would they get lost? How would they find their way back?

Charlie found a small pebble and waited for a break in the line. He didn’t want to ruin his experiment by adding dead ants to it. When he could, he put the rock in the way and waited.

The ants walked up to the rock and got lost.

That must mean they followed by smell, Charlie thought.

The ants piled up against the rock like they were going to push it out of the way. Then one of them found the trail again by accident. As soon as it did, Charlie saw a shiver go through the line and the ants made a new path to follow. Before long, they were marching into the shade and the hole in the concrete on the other side of the street.

“Charles Henry, you know Mama told you not to go playing with bugs again. You better not be getting dirty!”

Charlie’s sister seemed to be getting closer to him. Her voice was louder. But Charlie had one more thing he wanted to know.

If the ants followed each other by smell, did they know he was holding an apple just above them? Some of them seemed to. The little sticks he thought might have eyes kept stretching up toward his hand. Like they were stretching to see if they could reach. Some of them even climbed on the backs of others to see if they could get up there.

Charlie dug a fingernail into his fruit, pulling a small chunk away. It fell before he could catch it. The apple was juicy, so it made a small splat when it fell, white apple surrounded by a darker ring on the ground. It was a hand or so away from the ant line, but Charlie didn’t try to move it closer.

If the ants could smell it above them, could they find it off to the side?

It didn’t take too long before little scout ants started making their way out toward the piece of fruit. They were afraid at first, but then, when they saw others had tried, some would wander further out. Finally, they found it and Charlie saw another shiver run through the line.

Suddenly, there were ants coming from inside the brick and inside the concrete, all of them heading out to the fruit. A solid brown line formed and a mass of ants gathered under the piece of apple. Slowly, the ants started passing it along the line.

How did they know? What made the shiver? Charlie wondered. He hadn’t heard anything, but it was like they all heard a trumpet.

“There you are!”

Charlie felt his sister’s hand grab at the collar of his shirt.

Charles Henry Turner - zoologist“I’ve been calling for you. You need to stop spending so much time with bugs and pay more attention in school. Bugs aren’t going to earn you a living.”

His sister had no way of knowing it, but Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) would one day be famous because of what he learned about bugs.

Here are some things he discovered:

Bugs can hear and recognize pitch

Honeybees can see color

Sand wasps have specific hunting habits

Cockroaches can learn by trial and error

Charles Henry Turner and his ants