About this lesson
Are ants always ruining your picnic or in your kitchen? Have you ever noticed that some ants are drawn to your potato chips more than your candy? Their snack choices will tell scientists something about the food that’s available to them in nature.
Prepare a picnic for ants to learn more about what they’d like to eat, then count the ants, tell us a little about the environment you found them and report the results.
Since 2011 the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University has been asking the question, “What ants live where?” and citizen scientists have been answering by collecting ants with cookies in their backyards and schoolyards and mailing them to the lab. Now we are asking another question about those ants:
What do ants prefer to eat around the world?
The nutrients that ants forage for at different times of year will give us a lot of information about their dietary preferences as well as the types of food that ants might seek that would balance their diet.
Ants and citizen science
How to participate
Gather the bait-making materials together – they’re all food safe so there’s no requirement to do this in a lab. Not pictured is Pecan Sandies (shortbread cookies with pecans) because we were eating them when this picture was taken. (Photo by Lea Shell)
While you’re at it, also gather up materials for labeling, collecting ants and general data writing-down. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Write some stuff down. Keep things honest by labeling 12 index cards with the bait types (cookie, water, salt water, sugar water, oil, amino acids -- 2x each) and locations (green or paved, both for each bait type), this will keep things organized when you find yourself with four tubes filled with clear liquid and a cotton ball. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Now mix the baits. Put 14 tablespoons (200g) of sugar in 1000mL of water to make a 20% solution. It won’t dissolve immediately, so you may need to help it by heating it and stirring it. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Like this. While you’re at it, label the flask or beaker with “sugar” – in a few minutes it’s going to look just like “salt” and “protein” and “water” – taste tests in the lab are highly discouraged and not as fun as you’d think. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Make Amino Acids Solution. Add 14 tablespoons (200g) of pure L-Glutamine powder in 1000mL of water to make a 20% solution. Stir. Do some push-ups. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Make salt solution. Add 2 teaspoons (10g) of salt to 1000mL of water to make a 1% solution. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Soak cotton balls in the solutions. The trick is to keep them all separate since they’ll look all the same really quickly, so use those handy pre-labeled cards and bags. You’re going to do 2 cotton balls for each of the 5 liquid baits since they are going into two different locations each (green and paved). (Photo by Lauren Nichols)
Place the “green” set of baits outside, about one foot (or a third of a meter) apart each. Leave the baits out for an hour. (Photo by Lauren Nichols)
Record the starting time for laying out baits and what the temperature is outside in Celsius because it’s science. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Place the “paved” set of baits outside, again about the same distance apart. Collect the baits after an hour on the ground. Leave the baits out for an hour. (Photo by Lauren Nichols)
Quick, like an ant-loving ninja, after an hour has passed, pick up and zip up the ants/cards into a bag. Sometimes the ants are really small, so do this for all of the baits. Warning: students who are allergic to ants should not complete this task in the rare likelihood that students will be stung or bit. (Photo by Lea Shell)
Bring the ants inside and count how many are in each bag (through the bag, do not open the bag inside) using the data sheet to keep track. Record the data online using the link below. Then, release the ants in the place where they were caught outside so they can make it back to their colonies. (Photo by Lea Shell)
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Pure L-Glutamine powder in solution (20%-L glutamine)
- Sugar Water (20% sucrose solution)
- Salt Water (1% solution)
- Cotton balls
- Pecan Sandies cookies (or a similar shortbread cookie)
- Photocopies of “Experiment in Progress” signs – one for each sample site if other people are present in the collection site
- Sandwich sized Ziploc bags (12 total)
- White 3×5 index cards (12 total)
- Pencil for data recording and labeling
Download Ant ID Activity (PDF)
About the science
- We know what happens in wild nature, but we don’t know what happens in the nature around where you live.
- Scientists at NC State have worked for more than a decade to learn which ants live where.
- What we don’t understand is how this relates to what ants actually do. How fast they come to sugar, how fast they come to a cookie you drop, or how fast they come to all of those resources around us.
- This matters because when ants come to your picnic they’re doing the same sorts of things they’re doing when they control pests in agricultural fields. The same sorts of things they do when they come into your house as a pest themselves; the sorts of things they do when they disperse seeds and carry out other important processes. We know that as we build cities, as climate changes, as habitats change that the ants change. But we don’t have a good sense of how what they do change. So here we’re trying to understand what they’re doing now in order to understand what they might do in the future.
About the Research
So the next goal of this project is to understand, in light of differences from place to place (how much rain there is, how hot it is, how much food we leave out and how many buildings there are) what determines how fast ants come to different kinds of food. (Photo credit © untamedscience.com)
We have big predictions about what this should look like globally. We think that in the tropics, many diverse kinds of ants get to all the food faster than anywhere else. We think that in the desert the ants are probably faster to get to water. But we don’t actually know this anywhere in the world yet. (Image: CODAP screenshot of all Ant Picnic sites so far)
What we especially don’t know is how what ants do in the wild of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Peru or Copenhagen compares to what happens in your backyard. This is where the data you are collecting comes in; you will help us to see what’s really going on at your picnic. (Photo credit © Natural History Museum of Denmark)
Ants at a cookie bait in Peru. (Photo credit © untamedscience.com)
Join students and scientists around the world who have sampled for Ant Picnic; ranging from students in Peru to the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. (Photo credit © untamedscience.com)
Project Kenan Fellows
About the Scientist
Dr. D. Magdalena Sorger is a research post-doc in the department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. She studies the natural history, taxonomy, distribution, behavior, and life history traits of ants.
About the SciArt
Students Discover SciArt is created by Buzz Hoot Roar, the amazing team that brings science to life in their graphics-driven science blog.
About the Artist
Caitlin Atteberry is a graphic designer based in Raleigh, NC. Find Caitlin’s other work conveniently at caitlinatteberry.com.
NC Essential Standards
Explain how factors such as food, water, shelter and space affect populations in an ecosystem.
Summarize how food provides the energy and the molecules required for building materials, growth and survival of all organisms (to include plants).
Next Generation Science Standards
Within individual organisms, food moves through a series of chemical reactions in which it is broken down and rearranged to form new molecules, to support growth, or to release energy.
Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem. [Emphasis on cause and effect relationships between resources and growth of individual organisms and the numbers of organisms in ecosystems during periods of abundant and scarce resources.]
Common Core Math Content
Understand that patterns of association can also be seen in bivariate categorical data by displaying frequencies and relative frequencies in a two-way table. Construct and interpret a two-way table summarizing data on two categorical variables collected from the same subjects. Use relative frequencies calculated for rows or columns to describe possible association between the two variables.