Ask Dr. Universe

Episode 2: Ants, Face Masks, Pins and Needles, Gummies, Spider Webs

October 21, 2020 Washington State University
Ask Dr. Universe
Episode 2: Ants, Face Masks, Pins and Needles, Gummies, Spider Webs
Show Notes Transcript

Have you ever wondered why ants build hills? Why face masks are effective? Why we sometimes get that pins and needles feeling when we sit too long? How gummies are made? Why spiders hang upside down in their webs?

On this episode, we’ll dig into these great kid science questions with help from researchers at Washington State University. Thanks to Asher and Natalie for helping read the questions on this episode. If you would like to help read questions on a future episode send an e-mail to

Thanks to WSU researchers Rob Clark, Darrell Jackson, Marian Wilson, Hang Liu, Connie Remsberg, and Todd Murray for helping with the science.

If you'd like to submit a question of your own for a chance to be featured on the podcast visit


Dr. Universe 0:03

Hello young scientists. I'm Dr. Universe and if you're anything like me, you've got lots of big questions about our world. On this episode, we'll explore questions about ants, face masks, gummies, that pins and needles feeling and spider webs. Thanks to Asher and Natalie for helping read the questions on this episode. If you'd like to help read questions on a future episode, send an email to Let's get started. 

Natalie 0:30

Hi, I'm Natalie. This question comes from Isabel, age 4, in Eagan, Minnesota. Why do ants build mounds? 

Dr. Universe :39

My friend Rob Clark is a scientist who studies insects. He’s also really curious about ants. 

Rob Clark 0:47

There's just a huge diversity of the types of nests ants make. You see ant hills on the sidewalk. That's one species. There's carpenter ants that make their nest in dead wood. There's acorn ants that make their nests in small twigs and acorns and they have only a couple workers and then you have massive underground labyrinths that are essentially like cities that have millions and millions of workers. 

Dr. Universe 1:08

Why do they make all these different homes?

Rob Clark 1:11

I mean, the reason ants are building all these complex nests is they live in colony. They are social insects. All ant nest start with a young queen that has never had a colony before, she mated with some male ants, and now she's going to start a nest. 

Dr. Universe 1:26

That sounds like a big job. How does she do it?

Rob Clark 1:28

The queen will excavate a small hole in the ground and she'll do that by picking up a little bit of soil with her mandibles. 

Dr. Universe 1:35

Okay, young scientists, so the ant uses her mandibles or jaw parts to move dirt around. As she digs, she leaves a pile of dirt behind. And those are the hills or mountains we sometimes see outdoors.

Rob Clark 1:47

As she lays more eggs, has more larvae, and the colony starts getting more food resources, you know, they have to expand the size of their house.

Dr. Universe 1:55

Ants keep very busy building their homes but they also have other kinds of jobs, like farming. Can you tell us about that? 

Rob Clark 2:03

A lot of insects like tree hoppers and aphids will actually have sugary poop because they just eat plants sap. Their poop is called honeydew. And ants will actually farm aphids like you would a farm cattle. They get liquid food from them and then they protect them from natural enemies.

Dr. Universe 2:19

I guess you could say one aphid’s, honeydew is another ants dinner. Whether they're farming or building nests, the 13,000 species of ants on our planet are pretty amazing. Here's the next question.

Natalie 2:32

Here's a great question from Jocelyn, age 9: Why do we get pins and needles in our legs when we sit for too long?

Dr. Universe 2:38

When I got your question I knew just who to ask.

Darrell Jackson 2:42

I am Dr. Darrell Jackson. I am a professor at Washington University. My research involves stroke in terms of a decrease of blood to the brain. And so that's the kind of research I do. I'm glad to be here.

Dr. Universe 3:02

Well, thank you so much for helping us with this answer. What happens when our legs and arms fall asleep? 

 Darrell Jackson 3:10

You get pins and needles in your limbs, which could be your arms or legs due to a compression of your nerve that's supplying that limb.

 Dr. Universe 3:20

I did some research and found out bundles of nerve fibers are what help us sense things like temperature, vibrations, pressure and pain. Nerves can help the brain and body send messages to each other. Sometimes the message the nervous system transmits is to move your body,

 Darrell Jackson 3:35

The limb will become numb. And that will send a signal to you to readjust your posture so that you're removing that compression on that nerve. Now when you do that, you're going to activate pain receptors and then what they're going to do is they're going to send information from your limb into your spinal cord ultimately to your brain. And you're going to perceive pain in the form of pins and needles.

 Dr. Universe 4:06

It all happens really fast, right?

 Darrell Jackson 4:09

It's very, very fast right. You'll feel that almost immediately. Right? Once you get up and move around. 

 Dr. Universe 4:15

When the body senses this tingling pain, it activates another pathway. The brainstem helps send information back down to the spinal cord to make the body less painful and tingly. The information moves at an incredible speed—about nine laps around a standard running track in a single second. Jackson reminded me our nerves not only help us sense pain, but are also a big part of why we have memories. He said one unsolved mystery about the brain is exactly how humans store their memories. But that's a question for another time. If you keep asking great questions, maybe you can help us learn more about the brain and body.

 Darrell Jackson 4:51

It’s a really, really cool question ask. Very complex.

 Dr. Universe 4:56

And now another great question.

 Asher 4:58

Hello, I'm Asher. Here's a question from Marian, age 12, in Ohio: Dr. Universe with the coronavirus, why is it effective to wear a mask? How does it make life safer?

 Dr. Universe 5:09

Whenever I go out and about I make sure to wear my face mask. Like you, I wanted to find out exactly how they work. So I asked some experts.

 Marian Wilson 5:19

I'm Dr. Marian Wilson, I'm a registered nurse.

Dr. Universe 5:22

You’ve been a nurse for 30 years and have a lot of experience helping people. Why is it effective for us to wear a face mask?

Marian Wilson 5:31

There's really two main reasons why. One is to protect yourself and the other is to protect others.

Dr. Universe 5:39

How exactly do masks protect us?

Marian Wilson 5:42

When we talk when we sneeze, when we sing when we laugh. We spread droplets into the air all the time, not just when we're sick. But with the COVID pandemic going on. We know that some people may have virus in their droplets and those droplets could infect and make another person sick.

Dr. Universe 6:02

Thank you so much. That's a good reminder for us to keep our droplets to ourselves. Now we turn to my friend Hang Liu, a materials scientist. She reminded me masks can be made up of different materials. A lot of reusable masks are made up of tiny fibers such as cotton from plants. 

Hang Liu 6:20 

The face masks that we wear, they can help to block those droplets. So when we see droplets they are larger sized particles that can be your saliva or mucus droplets. These droplets, they contain germs. Those droplets can be blocked by fabrics.

Dr. Universe 6:39

The material’s fibers create a kind of obstacle course for the germs, especially if there is more than one layer of fabric. To learn about pore size and find out what size droplets the material can help block scientists can use microscopes, take images and analyze those images with software. One really interesting mask is the N-95 that healthcare workers use. It has a unique feature in the middle layer. 

Hang Liu 7:02 

When these fibers are produced, they are electrically charged, so the charges can actually attract the germs and then allow them to stick on the fibers. 

Dr. Universe 7:12

You know health care workers delivery drivers, postal workers and grocery store employees continue to do their jobs every day. I asked Marian one more question. How can we help these essential workers stay safe? 

Marian Wilson 7:23

So when you wear a mask, it's your way of saying “you know what, I'm going to do everything I can to keep people well because other people are doing something for me.” They're risking their health by working and so I'm going to do everything I can and one thing I can do absolutely is to wear a mask. 

Dr. Universe 7:42

Leave at least six feet between you and people who do not live in your household, too. Together, we can help each other stay safe and healthy. Here's Natalie with the next question. 

Natalie 7:53

Hayden, age 10 in Webb City, Missouri wonders, how do we make gummies? 

Dr. Universe 8:00

I asked my friend Connie Remsberg, a pharmacist at Washington State University, all about it.

Connie Remsberg 8:05

Gummies, what makes them gummy like and that elastic type of feel to them, is gelatin. 

Dr. Universe 8:13

The gelatin is made up of things called proteins and peptides. They come from animal bones or cartilage and when we dissolve gelatin in water the tiny proteins act kind of like spaghetti and get all tangled up together. Between the tangles there is space to hold sugar and water. 

Connie Remsberg  8:29 

What you would do is you take that gelatin and you apply heat to it and you melt it, you add different ingredients to the mixture…so sugar, flavors, coloring…then you heat it up to a certain temperature. And then once it's at that temperature what you do is you take it and you pour it while it's still hot, because it will melt and it'll turn into a liquid, and you essentially take it and pour it into a mold. 

Dr. Universe 8:57 

Remsberg is very curious about compounding. Pharmacists can combine different ingredients together to create a medication that's just right for a patient. Gummy vitamins are just one example. The body needs 13 different vitamins so some people will take a vitamin gummy in addition to eating fruits and vegetables. With help from a grown up you can find instructions for making gummies and other gummy bear experiments at And now we come to the last question for this episode.

 Asher 9:33

This question comes from Aubrey, age 10, in New Jersey. Dr. Universe, Why do garden spiders hang upside down in the middle of their webs?

Dr. Universe 9:41

That is a great observation. My friend Todd Murray, a scientist who studies insects at WSU, told me about a group of scientists that once made a simulation of orb weaver spiders and their webs. They wanted to investigate a question a lot like yours. So what did they find out about the spiders? 

Todd Murray 10:00

They orient head down basically because they can run to that that captured prey faster.

 Dr. Universe 10:08

Gravity helps them as they run down the web, too. Especially in the fall when the spiders are eating a lot and have a bit more weight to carry around. I heard you know about an insect in Costa Rica that can hack the web designs of orb weaver spiders. Is that true?

 Todd Murray 10:23

This parasitic wasp lays an egg on a spider, that egg hatches, and then that little grub attaches to the abdomen of the spider. So it sucks the blood from the spider on the outside of their abdomen. And that grub sits there and kind of steals the nutrients from the spider like a vampire does, or tickers you know other blood sucking creatures. As that grub then grows on the spider, the spider does a really amazing thing. So that spider will go up and create a web that it doesn't know how to make. It'll make a web that essentially looks like a nice, comfortable hammock, then it'll go up and deposit that larvae into that hammock. Then the spider goes and dies.  

Dr. Universe 11:14

Ah, nature. That is fascinating. Insects can sometimes influence how a spider built its web. Thanks for telling us about it. I'll be keeping my eye out for beautiful spider webs around the neighborhood. That's it for this episode. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question and to our researchers at Washington State University who helped with the science. And thanks to you for listening. You make this podcast possible. As always, you can submit a science question of your own at That’s a-s-k-d-r-u-n-i-v-e-r-s-e dot w-s-u dot e-d-u. Who knows where your questions will take us next.