How to Look at an Ant Hill

© Copyright 2020 Natalia Orasanin, Ryerson University. 

   Upon first glance, an ant hill may resemble an insignificant pile of dirt. Often found squished between cracks on the sidewalk, forest trails, and in tufts of grass, ant hills are commonly encountered in the spring and summer months. Like their creators and inhabitants, ant hills are often overlooked or merely stepped on by kids playing tag. However, despite their plain exteriors, these habitats are incredibly complex through their function and city – like structure, built within walls of vegetation and soil. The insides of ant hills are rarely seen by human eyes unless they are destroyed or dissected. However, with a curious eye one can slowly uncover how a seemingly insignificant pile of dirt may actually contain a complex and sophisticated little world of sorts, filled with labyrinths and tunnels that allow for constant activity and life beneath the surface. 

     A cookie dropped on the pavement may often result in hundreds of hungry ants flocking around it, gathering crumbs to eat or take home. If you allow your eyes to follow the direction of these ants, they may lead you to their ant hill, where they will likely store the cookie crumbs and other foods. Although the exterior of the ant hill may just resemble a mound on the ground, upon closer look one may see thousands of little pieces of dirt or vegetation that fabricate the ant hill. Figure 1 features what resembles a large mound located in between a crack in the pavement. There appears to be thousands of little pieces of dirt, soil, and debris creating the mound. The materials that form the hill have not merely appeared out of thin air. Rather, each piece contributes to the whole, and was carried individually by a worker ant, not only for its own benefit, but for the benefit of the ant colony.

This image is of an ant hill located in between a crack in the pavement. The hill is comprised of thousands of pieces of soil, dirt, and sand, and is relatively small in size.
Figure 1. Luke Jones. Anthill in Shadow. 23 May. 2009. Flickr, befuddledsenses/6126386168.

     However, ant hills vary by size in accordance to which ants they are housing. Larger ant hills feature local vegetation that is specific according to the region, such as pieces of twigs, sand, leaves, or pine – needles (“Ant Hills”). A process of collaboration also happens between the ants, the sun and the rain. For larger ant hills, the rain works to harden the top of the mound as it brings the materials of the ant hill closer together (Andrews 101). Through looking closely at larger ant hills, the fruits of the colony’s labour can be made more apparent. The emptied cocoons of the young ants are often placed on the top of the ant hill in order to demonstrate how successful the colony is (Andrews 112). In this way, ant hills are unique creations that differ from one another, according to ant type, colony, or geographic region. Although there are plenty of similarities, various hills present differences in slope, size, and material, differences that are ultimately dependent on their creators.

      Figure 2 demonstrates how beneath the surface of the ant hill remains a world that is invisible to us, one that is marked by tunnels that head in various directions. Ants are not insects headed towards a single direction, yet they are still not lacking in purpose. The space is communal, and paths are created and crossed by hundreds of ants within the colony with the purpose of storing food as well as producing and caring for youth beneath these surfaces (Andrews 98). Due to the fact that they are beneath the surface or underground upon entering the ant hill, ants maneuver through these tunnels in complete darkness (Andrews 104). Seeing as the ants are so often in the dark, young ants are brought to the top of the hill during the day time in order to collect the warmth from the sun (Andrews 113). Ultimately then, ant hills are sites that constantly facilitate growth, movement, development and new life.

Illustration of the tunnels in/underneath ant hills. The ant hill is a kind of labyrinth that features a multitude of tunnels all headed in various different directions.
Figure 2. “Ant Hills.” Antkeepers, 2020,

     Perhaps the reason why ant hills receive little attention may have to do with the general annoyance people may feel towards their inhabitants, critters that often infiltrate their homes. Ant hills in themselves create a sense of interiority for ants. They are contained structures that are created by elements and materials of the outside world. These hills point to spaces below or inside the ground that are safe for ants and larva. Yet it is precisely when ants seek to leave their interiors that they are subject to external predation. Ant infestations in homes result in their extermination, and ant workers are constantly subject to the dangers of other insects or running children while gathering food for their colonies and materials for their hills.

Works Cited

Andrews, E. A. “An Ant Hill.” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 34, no. 2, 1932, pp. 97–114. JSTOR,

“Ant Hills.” Antkeepers, 2020,

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.

Jones, Luke. Anthill in Shadow. 23 May. 2009. Flickr,    befuddledsenses/6126386168.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.