Archive for September, 2009

Dave’s AntWorks Day 4: Disco Ants

Antworks Illuminator
Ants with mood lighting.

Our ants haven’t made much more progress today, so I thought I’d attach the AntWorks Illuminator to their habitat and see if it gets them in the mood to tunnel.

The Illuminator is very cool. It slips right into the base of the AntWorks and has 4 blue LED Lights in an array which light up the gel from below. This turns the AntWorks into the coolest night light in the universe.

The other cool thing is that as the ants pass above the lights, they cast shadows in the gel, which looks kinda eerie. If they are active, the lights look alive.

You can’t see it in this picture, but the ants seem to be tunnelling in the gel mounds they created "above ground". There is what appears to be an ant encased in the gel. Not sure yet if it’s a dead ant that they entombed, or if it’s just an ant that’s sleeping in a tunnel. Otherwise, the ants are tunneling upwards in one corner again. They now have a tunnel all the way across the bottom connecting four vertical shafts.

Dave’s AntWorks Day 3: Space Age Ants

AntWorks day 3
We have tunnelage!

Our ants in the AntWorks continue to build their tunnels. They even connected the one that goes behind to the straight vertical tube, giving them a little shortcut. Now they are extending the tunnel that runs along the bottom of the AntWorks.

There’s some discoloration of the gel that the ants deposited at the top. Some may be ants in the top showing through the gel, but I believe some of it is ant poop in the gel. I’m not sure what I can do about that. Every time I take the lid off, the ants scurry to the top and get very excited. I suppose you could put it in the fridge and slow the ants down, but I’m not sure what that would do to the gel.

Experiment patch

Advertising for AntWorks says that it is "based upon a 2003 NASA Space Shuttle experiment". Well, yes, it is, sort of. The experiment was part of the Space Experiment Module (SEM-14) on board STS 107 (Space Transport System mission 107). Unfortunately, this was the Columbia mission that disintegrated in orbit, so the experiment was not recovered after the flight. It was not exactly a NASA experiment, however. The experiment was part of S*T*A*R*S (Space Technology And Research Students), which allowed students from around the world to fly experiments on the Space Shuttle. The Ants in Space experiment was conducted by the G.W. Fowler High School in Syracuse, NY, which is very cool.

Image from onboard Columbia showing the ants progress on their tunnels in space
STARS module prototype

The gel was developed in order to see how ants tunneled in the weightlessness of space compared to ants on earth. If they had used sand or earth for the experiment, the tunnels would have collapsed on the return trip due to the extreme G-forces. It also wouldn’t have allowed them to see the tunnels as clearly. The ants in space were released into the gel to begin tunneling at the same time as ants on earth in an identical module so that they could compare their progress. Although the experiment did not return, they did determine that the ants in space made tunnels faster than those on earth. And that they were a bit more erratic.

Back here on earth our ants’ tunneling has seemed to slow a bit. They also seem to be sticking to the corners and bottom at the moment. Hopefully, they will create more tunnels in the middle soon. This morning I watched one ant work quite hard to bite off a chunk of gel while her sisters kept nudging her from behind. It looked like they were impatient with her progress.

Incidentally, all the ants that you receive are all female. In fact, almost all the ants you ever see are female. Male ants are only created as needed by the queen for reproduction.

AntWorks tunnels
Tunneling along the bottom of the AntWorks
You can just see the area where the ants have connected the tunnels as they cross paths

Dave’s AntWorks Day 2: Ants get busy

AntWorks first tubes
Our ants didn’t sleep much last night.

Overnight our ants were quite busy. They began two tunnels from the starter holes I created last night. One tunnel goes straight to the bottom and the other curves behind the first one. I’m not sure at this point if they are going to break through to the other tunnel, or continue on behind it.

You can see all the little chunks of gel they have removed from the tunnel and deposited on the surface at the top. Oddly, they are also taking the gel chunks up the walls and sticking them there. Wonder how they know that will work.

The instructions tell you to open the lid now and then and give them some fresh air. When I did that today, they got very excited and started running all around. There are air holes in the lid, but apparently they like getting fresh air. On the right of this photo you can still see the other two starter holes in the gel. I don’t think they are holes any longer from the top because they seem to have buried them in the gel chunks.

They seem to have made a little room
at the bottom of the tunnel

Other than removing the lid for a "few seconds every week or so", there isn’t much more you need to do to care for your ants. The gel is their food and water, so you don’t need to find food for them or give them a drink. Other than that, you just need to keep them out of direct sunlight because ants prefer shade. I also suspect AntWorks would heat up pretty much in sunlight and cook the ants in their gel. That would be bad. The ants prefer room temperature between 58 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

This basically leaves you to watch your ants at work. And they are busy. Ants do sleep, but I haven’t seen any that seem to be sleeping yet. They all seem busy. The manual says that some ants sleep while others work, so there is activity 24/7.

The whole family is enjoying watching our new buddies building their tunnels and scurrying around.

I should point out that AntWorks is not meant to be an ant colony. That is, it is not meant for long-term ant populations with a queen and breeding. It is meant to house about 20-30 ants for their lifetime and give kids and adults an opportunity to get to know these incredible creatures. The gel makes the entire tunnel system, and the ants activities, available to a degree that an ant farm with dirt could not. But it is not meant for long-term sustainability of a colony.

A close up of the ants in their tunnels.

Dave’s AntWorks Day 1: Our Ants Get a New Home

antworks new
AntWorks habitat ready for ants.

The AntWorks ant habitat has been one of my favorite "toys" since we first started selling them several years ago. It’s been some time since I started one of my own, so I thought I’d get one going and post some blogs with the ants’ progress. Check back on my blog, or click on the AntWorks category to see the entire process form beginning to end. All the photos in this post will be ones I’ve taken from this "group" of ants and I’ll give an honest report of how things go.

If you’re not familiar with AntWorks, it is "A Space-Age Habitat for Ants". You can get more information here, but basically it is a gel that supplies everything the ants need: food, water, and tunnelling medium. It is also fairly clear, so you can see your ants’ tunnels and see what all of them are doing while they make their way around in their habitat.

Ants in their tube
Our new ants in their luxury travel accommodations

On September 21, I ordered my ants online from one of the ant suppliers listed in the AntWorks booklet. They were $4.95 total including shipping. The ants are not included in the price of the AntWorks, but you can gather your own ants from your yard if you prefer (care should be taken). On September 26th, they arrived in the mail. They mentioned that some of the ants may not arrive alive, but mine were all just fine. We were on our way out for the day when the mail was delivered, so we weren’t able to start our AntWorks right when they arrived, but the ants were fine until later that evening when we were able to put them in their new home. I wouldn’t keep them waiting too long, but a few hours was fine. The timing on our ant order was great because my Niece was visiting and she was able to help us. Her hand is in some of the pictures here.

Poking holes in AntWorks
Poking holes in the gel to help the ants get started

The ants you receive are Harvester Ants. They are a really good size to view, but they should not be handled because they do sting. They arrived with a sheet warning "Caution! Do Not Touch These Ants!". Fortunately, there is no real reason to handle them, they come in a nice little tube ready to be added to your AntWorks.

When you’re ready to add your ants to the AntWorks, you are instructed to place them in the fridge for about 10 minutes, which slows them down. While we were waiting for them to calm down in the fridge, we followed the instructions and poked 4 holes in the AntWorks gel to make starter holes for the ants to tunnel. There is a little stick included for this. This makes it easier for them to start tunneling, and I think also gets them started in the locations you would like them to tunnel, so plan your starter holes well. We also wiped off a little bit of condensation that was on the plastic above the gel when we opened it. This is normal and the instructions tell you to just wipe it off.

AntWorks getting ants
Adding our chilled ants to the AntWorks habitat

We took the ants out of the fridge after 10 minutes and they were fairly quiet. Unfortunately, it took me too long to get things set up for taking photos and they began to get active again, so we popped them back in the fridge for a few more minutes to calm them down again.

Next, my son gently "poured" them into the AntWorks habitat. Since they were still chilled, they were not moving much and there was no chance of them getting out the top. This was a chance to clean out some of their poop that poured out with them using a damp Q-Tip. We closed up the lid and waited for them to come around, which they did soon. Obviously, the ants were quite curious about their new home and they began exploring it as soon as they woke up.

They didn’t start tunnelling just yet but we did enjoy watching them for a while. They sometimes check out our starter holes, but by the time we all went to bed, they hadn’t made any tunnels. Check back to see their progress the next morning!

AntWorks with ants
Our ants in their new home, still groggy from the fridge

AntWorks magnified
Getting up close and personal with our ants using the included magnifier. You can also see one of the starter holes.

The secret afterlife of peanuts

Packing peanuts

We picked up a load of used packing peanuts and other packing materials from a local college department yesterday and I began thinking that I’ve never really told our customers and visitors the things we do, and the concerns we have, for the environment.

Dave’s Cool Toys strives to use recycled materials whenever possible. We also recycle or reuse everything we can. This not only helps protect our environment, but it lowers our costs, which allows us to keep shipping fees as low as possible (we do not make money from shipping charges).

Much of the packing material we use in our shipments is recycled. We pick up packing peanuts, bubble wrap, and packing paper from local businesses and sometimes from individuals when it’s available. We re-use all packing material we receive from our suppliers. We do purchase packing peanuts new, but we are using less of them all the time as we find other resources. We have tried biodegradable packing peanuts, but were not happy with them. They cost somewhat more than standard peanuts, they didn’t fill and cushion the shipments nearly as well as we would like, and in damp weather they shrink and stick together. We use them when possible for fill when the items are fairly safe from breakage. We have instead focused on obtaining used peanuts and it’s been quite successful.

We also use as few peanuts and wrap as possible by cutting down cartons to size when packing your shipments and simply by arranging items to reduce the need as much as possible.

We receive many of our shipping cartons from a local printer that receives envelopes in them. Once they’ve used the envelopes, they save the cartons for us and we pick them up on a regular basis, flatten them, and store them for future shipping. We also reuse as many cartons as possible from shipments from our suppliers.

Some cartons cannot be re-used. Either they are too damaged, or have so many markings on them that it would not be practical to clean them up. In this case, we recycle them.

Packing Peanut Lamp
Packing Peanut Lamp. Yikes!

We recycle as much as possible. All waste corrugated cardboard is regularly taken to our local recycling center, as well as office paper, catalogs, plastic bags, flatboard, plastic, and foam. Other items we recycle are printer cartridges, glass, metal, electronics, and more.

Here in Bethlehem, PA we have an excellent recycling program. Much recycling is picked up at the curb, but we also have a great drop-off center. They take cardboard, paper, magazines, plastic, glass, cans, newspaper, phone books, textiles, aluminum, scrap metal, foam, and appliances. We also have a large compost center where yard waste can be dropped off and finished compost is available free of charge. We recycle all these items in our household as well.

Our recycling center also has a free shredding service and I want to assure our customers that we are very careful when recycling to destroy all personal information that may be present. We either cross-cut shred papers here in our office, or witness it being shredded at the recycling center.

One other area in which we reduce waste is packaging. Some of our suppliers allow us to order their items (mostly wooden toys) either with packaging, or without. Since we are an online store, we don’t need to worry about how our items will look sitting on a shelf in the store, so whenever possible, we order without boxes and packaging.

Speaking of wooden toys, many of the ones we carry are made from either scrap wood from other manufacturing processes, or, in the case of Tree Blocks, wood that is the discards from managed paper forests that might otherwise go to waste.

We encourage our customers to recycle their packing materials when they receive their orders. There are lots of good resources for this, but one of the best we’ve found is Freecycle. Freecycle is an online group who’s users post items they no longer need for others to re-use. Another resource is your local mailbox or eBay store to see if they would like them. Many would gladly take them for their shipments. You can also call the Peanut Hotline (I kid you not) at 800-828-2214, a toll-free, automated 24-hour service that provides the location of the nearest site that accepts loose fill packaging for reuse.

Packing Peanut Sculpture
Metal Sculpture from packing peanuts

If you are looking to dispose of your biodegradable packing peanuts, you may not want to flush them. Apparently they can cause clogged sewer lines when large quantities are flushed. Instead, spread them in your lawn or garden and hose them down lightly until they disappear. They are made from food starch and are perfectly safe for the environment. Obviously, this won’t work with Styrofoam peanuts.

Or… you could try making a lamp out of them. I found this interesting post online of a lovely lamp made from old packing peanuts (see photo above). Not sure how safe it is.

Maybe you’re artistic. Then try out this project… zinc casting sculpture using packing peanuts.

On the other hand, if you need some packing peanuts and want to make your own, try this interesting project. Yes, it is instructions on how to make your own cornstarch packing peanuts. OK, it’s probably not practical or cost-effective, but it might make an interesting project with the kids on a rainy day when you’re bored. Really bored.


The World Welcomes Buzz Lightyear Home from his Mission in Space

Buzz Lightyear’s record-setting space station mission.

Buzz Lightyear in space
Buzz Lightyear, looking very confident before blastoff.

He may be just a toy, but Buzz Lightyear has just recently returned from quite a trip. In May, 2008 Buzz was launched into orbit on board Discovery for a 6 month scheduled mission aboard the International Space Station as part of an educational program teaching children about space. But his mission was so successful, that NASA and Disney extended it to more than a year. That means that Buzz holds the record for his stay in space, surpassing the longest duration mission held by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov set in 1995.

Buzz Lightyear in space
Buzz’s pal Woody sees him off on his journey.

Buzz, a 12-inch tall action figure, finally travelled into space through a partnership between NASA and Disney Parks to encourage students to pursue science, technology, and math. To further encourage students, NASA and Disney have created an online program called the Space Ranger Education Series.

Buzz returned to earth on board the Space Shuttle on September 12, 2009. Buzz spent 468 days in space, beating the record by 30 days. His good pal Woody was on-hand to wave goodbye when he lifted off in 2008, but was probably not there when he landed since the Shuttle had to land in California. After several "debriefing sessions" Disney is planning on a ticker-tape parade for Buzz in honor of his space duration achievement on October 2, at Walt Disney World along with his space station crew mates and Apollo 11 Astronaut, Buzz Aldrin (who maintains that he is the real Buzz)

Buzz Lightyear in space
Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger, on duty.

While on-board the station, Buzz made some video recordings designed to teach kids the basics of working and living in the weightless environment of space. In one video, an astronaut sleeps with Buzz, letting him go as he drifts off, which lets Buzz also drift off across the station. He will also contribute a journal about his adventures.

Buzz also made some great videos before he left for his adventure. Scroll down to see one of them.

Buzz Lightyear in space
Buzz’s triumphant return to California.

Buzz wasn’t the only toy in space for this mission. STS-128 pilot Kevin Ford, brought a model of the space shuttle along for his elementary school as well as a model car for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Astronauts are allowed to bring a small amount of personal items along on their trips into space. They are usually out of reach for the duration of the flight.

Will Buzz’s space adventure be reflected in the upcoming Toy Story III? Probably not. Will Toy Story III be delayed due to Buzz’s extended space mission? Hopefully not. But a re-issued Buzz action figure will be on-sale at Disney resorts to commemorate his mission and Buzz, the Astronaut, will be on display at Disney in the future.

Dave’s Cool Toys Blog
We post news about new toys on our site, new toys in the market, general toy information, or stuff we just thought was cool (usually toys).

We welcome your feedback and comments.

Be sure to check out our toys at Dave's Cool Toys. We work hard to find toys you won't find at the big box stores. Now go out and play!

Dave Ference

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