Never Used a Pooter?

Cal Academy scientist Kelly Herbinson collects ants with a Bay Area science teacher

As the winter drags on, I often think fondly of a chilly Saturday in December where I found myself in a small alleyway in San Francisco trying to suck elusive ants into a rubber tube called a pooter. What was the point of this seemingly silly endeavor? I was leading a QUEST educator training with the California Academy of Sciences (one of the more fun parts of my job).

I was first introduced to the pooter, an insect catching device, last July at the California Academy of Sciences Nature Journaling workshop in the Trinity Alps and little did I know where it would lead.

The Nature Journaling workshop blended sketching and watercolor techniques with information about the natural area in which we camped. In addition to discovering I could actually be artistic (not one of my strong suits in the past) and falling in love with vegan cashew chili (I’m a big fan of meat), the highlight for me was learning how to catch small insects by sucking them into a vial at the end of a long rubber tube.

This contraption, which includes a small piece of gauze between the vial and the rubber tubing, so you don’t suck the insect all the way into your lungs, is the aforementioned pooter. By the end of the workshop, we had planned a joint educator workshop using QUEST media about invasive species with the hands-on ant collecting activities from the Bay Area Ant Survey and the California Academy of Sciences.

QUEST's Jessica Neely collects ants with a pooter

Fast forward four months. In early December, 29 Bay Area science educators gathered at the California Academy of Sciences to learn about Bay Area invasive species. We started the day off with QUEST’s television story San Francisco Bay Invaders, moved to some discussion about how to help our students become “media savvy” in the 21st century, and then it was time for the pooters.


Educators paired up and we took a field trip to the alley behind the Cal Academy – not the most ideal location to find ants, but it was the best we could do with limited time. It was so cold that day that Kelly Herbinson, our ant expert, had to set out bait for the ants in the morning. We poked, prodded, searched high and low, and a few of us were able to capture the cagey little critters with our pooters. Kelly led us through the identification process (yes, I’m sorry but some ants were harmed) and introduced everyone to the Bay Area Ant Survey, an amazing citizen science project where just about anyone can contribute to scientists’ understanding of the distribution of ants in the Bay Area by capturing, labeling, and sending in their ants.

Teachers study ant samples to help identify the ants they collected

A few post-workshop takeaways:

  • Despite what you hear on the news, science teachers are doing wonderful work with students
  • Students are getting their information from an increasing number of sources and teaching them how to be media-savvy is tricky (not something that is currently tested on standardized tests...)
  • Most importantly, ants are AMAZING! Did you know that the trap-jaw ant can snap its mandibles shut so hard and fast on an object that it can propel itself backwards 2 feet to escape predators?

Please add a comment if you know of a great educational resource for teaching about Bay Area invasive species. And please share your story if you use QUEST with your students!