Ant Picnic

Ant Picnic

Grade levels K-5 or 6-12 

2-3 hours

Biology / Ecology

Download Teacher Guide

Welcome to Ant Picnic

About this lesson

Are ants always ruining your picnic? 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. Diet preferences and needs for humans are well documented, however, we are still learning about the diet preferences of ants in different parts of the world. What ants eat at different times of the year and in different places around the world tells us what might be missing in their environment and how climate change could impact ant populations.

Since 2011 the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University has been asking the question, “which ant species 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?

In this activity, students learn about the major food groups and explore the diet preferences of ants by participating in a real science project. Students will set out prescribed ant food baits, collect the baits, count the ants present at each bait, and share the data with a scientist. The data students collect will contribute to a large database with data from students from all around the world who are doing the same experiment. Scientists use these data to explore regional and global trends in ant food preferences so they can learn about more complex things like the environment and climate change.

There are several additional lesson modules that will work well in combination with this activity. For instance, the Ant Picnic Data Analysis Activity allows students to explore their ant picnic data further, ask (and answer) their own scientific questions and compare their data with ant picnic data collected around the world. In the Ant ID Activity students learn how to identify ants, including ants they have collected as part of their Ant Picnic. These and more activities can be found at

Curriculum alignment

North Carolina Essential Standards

  • 1.L.2.2
    Summarize the basic needs of a variety of different animals (including air, water, and food) for energy and growth.

  • 4.L.2.2
    Explain the role of vitamins, minerals and exercise in maintaining a healthy body.

  • 6.L.2.3
    Summarize how the abiotic factors (such as temperature, water, sunlight, and soil quality) of biomes (freshwater, marine, forest, grasslands, desert, Tundra) affect the ability of organisms to grow, survive and/or create their own food through photosynthesis.

  • 8.L.3.1
    Explain how factors such as food, water, shelter and space affect populations in an ecosystem.
  • 8.L.5.1
    Summarize how food provides the energy and the molecules required for building materials, growth and survival of all organisms (to include plants).
  • Bio.2.1.4
    Explain why ecosystems can be relatively stable over hundreds or thousands of years, even though populations may fluctuate (emphasizing availability of food, availability of shelter, number of predators and disease).

  • Bio.4.1.1
    Compare the structures and functions of the major biological molecules (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids) as related to the survival of living organisms.

Next Generation Science Standards (N.G.S.S.)

  • MS-LS-1-1
    Conduct an investigation to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of an investigation.

  • MS-LS2-2
    Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on predicting consistent patterns of interactions in different ecosystems in terms of the relationships among and between organisms and abiotic components of ecosystems. Examples of types of interactions could include competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial.]

  • MS-LS1-7
    Compare the structures and functions of the major biological molecules (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids) as related to the survival of living organisms.

Materials list

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  • Amino Acids: Pure L-Glutamine powder in solution (20% solution)

  • Sugar Water (20% solution)

  • Salt Water (1% solution)

  • Water (tap water is ok)

  • 5 containers for mixing solutions (e.g., glass jars, flasks, etc.)

  • Measuring spoons or scale

  • Cotton balls (5 per group)

  • Pecan Sandies cookies (or a similar shortbread cookie)

  • Student Data Sheet (one per student) – available for grade levels K-1, K-5, 6-12 (see Teacher Guide for corresponding Student Activity Sheets)

  • Experiment in Progress” signs (one for each experiment site)

  • White 3×5 index cards (6 per group)

  • Sandwich Ziploc bags (6 per group)

  • Pencils for data recording and labeling


Warm up
Warm up

Warm up

Warm up exercise (approx. 5 min) as students arrive to class (directions can be written on the board or projected so that students can complete task while teacher takes roll or completes other administrative tasks):

  • Take out a blank sheet of paper and pen/pencil.
  • Make a list of everything you have eaten over the past 48 hours.
  • To the best of your abilities, categorize these food items by type, e.g., meat, poultry, vegetable, starch, etc.

After 5 minutes have elapsed, you can engage students in a discussion of different food types and varying qualities of each type. The United States Department of Agriculture provides a number of free educator resources on nutrition that you can download and share with students.

Artwork by Magdalena Sorger

Step 1
Step 1

Step 1

Prepare baits:

  • Put 3 1/2 tablespoons (50 g) of pure L-Glutamine powder in 250 mL of water (Note: The powder will not dissolve in the water. Just mix the water and powder before soaking the cotton ball!)
  • Put 3 1/2 tablespoons (50 g) of sugar in 250 ml of water (You might need to heat the solution!)
  • Put 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 g) of salt in 250 ml of water
  • Quarter some Pecan Sandies, you’ll need one quarter per bait station. If you're using a different shortbread cookie use approx. 1 square inch.
  • No special preparation is required for extra virgin olive oil and water.

DO NOT add any additional food types to your Ant Picnic experiment! This would change the experimental protocol and we wouldn’t be able to compare your results to everyone else’s. If your students are interested in testing other food types, please refer to extension activities.

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm & Magdalena Sorger © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 2
Step 2

Step 2

Put students into small groups (3-6 students) – each group can conduct one experiment (i.e. place 6 baits). If materials are scarce or class size is small, it is also an option to set up one experiment as a whole class. All following directions are per group.

Label 6 index cards with the bait type names (amino acids, cookie, oil, salt, sugar, water), the date and a unique identifier per group (e.g., group name, number or symbol).

Also prepare the “Experiment in Progress” sign.

Artwork by D.M. Sorger

Step 3
Step 3

Step 3

Soak one cotton ball in each of the 5 solutions and prepare to bring the soaked cotton balls outside to your experiment site. Also, bring a quarter of a Pecan Sandie cookie (or about 1 square inch of a shortbread cookie) and prepare to crush it at your experiment site (no need to add a cotton ball to the cookie bait).

Artwork by D.M. Sorger

Step 4
Step 4

Step 4

Put your 6 index cards down at your experiment site and place a cotton ball soaked in the corresponding solution and a crushed cookie onto each index card. Arrange them 1-2 inches apart from each other. This can be done in a circle or a group (avoid putting them in a row so that all baits are close together).

Artwork by D.M. Sorger

Step 5
Step 5

Step 5

Record the start time and information about the site and weather conditions on the data sheet. Place the “Experiment in Progress” sign at your experiment site.

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 6
Step 6

Step 6

Wait at least one hour. During this time return to the classroom and engage your students in class discussion using the discussion questions (see worksheet) as a guide. If you have additional time, consider doing the Spirit Ant Activity (or one of the other teaching modules you can find at

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 7
Step 7

Step 7

After one hour return to your bait stations. Bring 6 zip-lock bags and record the end time on the data sheet.

Carefully walk up to your bait stations (so you don’t scare any ants off) and BEFORE picking up any index cards, count the number of ants you see. Record the numbers for each bait type on your data sheet (if there are too many ants you can estimate the numbers).

It is possible that some or all of your baits will have no ants at all. This is also a result of this experiment so go ahead and record your data. We still want to know about it, even if all your numbers are zeros. But please, note that even if you don’t see any ants at first, they may be small and light-colored or they may be UNDER the index card. Pick up each index card as if there were ants and put it in a zip-lock bag as explained in the next step. When you return to the classroom examine it carefully to confirm that there were really no ants at the bait.

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 8
Step 8

Step 8

Take a picture of your experiment. The ants at each bait type and your labels of each index card should be clearly visible. You can also take individual pictures of each bait card. Please include EVERY bait card in your picture, even if there are no ants. [Please note that you can only upload a single picture so you will need to combine individual pictures into one big one.]

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm & Magdalena Sorger © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 9
Step 9

Step 9

Quickly place each index card including the cotton ball and any ants into one bag.
This might be difficult because ants gathered at the bait might escape as you pick up the card. (Do not combine all index cards into one bag!) Warning: Students who are allergic to ants should not complete this task in the rare likelihood that they will be stung or bitten!

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 10
Step 10

Step 10

Bring the zip-lock bags into the classroom and count how many ants are in each bag (do this through the bag, do not open it!). Counting is done three times for each bag and then averaged. Record values on the data sheet. Once the ants are counted they can be released back to where they were collected. If the number of ants is higher than students can comfortably count while the ants are moving around, place the zip-lock bag in the freezer overnight and count the ants the next day; high numbers can be estimated by dividing the bag into quadrants.

If you are running out of time, you can freeze all zip-lock bags overnight and have students count their ants during the next class period.

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Step 11
Step 11

Step 11

Enter the data online here. This step should be done either by the teacher or with extensive teacher supervision to ensure everything is being entered correctly.
Your data has now been sent to a scientist and will be incorporated into a large data set, along with data from students around the world who are also completing the Ant Picnic experiment.

Artwork by Emilia Rubæk Holm © Natural History Museum of Denmark

Enter Your Ant Picnic Data Here

Are you ready for Ant Picnic?

Take the quiz to find out!

Teachers, you can self-check if you have everything you need for Ant Picnic. You can then provide the student version of the quiz to ensure your students are ready – and use it as a grade!


Before you start (some helpful hints)

  • Before you start this activity, we suggest doing a general introduction to ants. For instance, you can do the Spirit Ant Activity before starting Ant Picnic and allow students to present their work to one another during the hour-long wait time when the food baits are set up outside. An even more general introduction to ants can be found at

  • The ant picnic experiment will work best on a warm day with no rain and no or minimal wind. If it is windy, you will need to secure the index cards (with a small rock or skewer) so they are not blown away.

  • The baits need to be left out for at least one hourif you teach shorter classes, you can spend one class period setting the baits out and a later class period picking them up and counting the ants. The final data can be shared with the earlier class period the following day. Additionally, ants can be frozen and counted during a later class period.

  • If you are doing this experiment in a nut-free school, you can use a nut-free shortbread cookie as your cookie bait.

  • Please do not add any additional food types to your ant picnic. We will not be able to use your experimental data if you don’t follow the protocol meticulously. See extension activities for additional options for your students.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  • What if students get upset about the fact that ants might die as part of the Ant Picnic experiment?

  • My student has a nut allergy / I’m in a nut-free school – what can I do?

  • What is the “control” in the context of the Ant Picnic experiment?

  • If you are doing this experiment in a nut-free school, you can use a nut-free shortbread cookie as your cookie bait.

  • My students didn’t get any ants and feel like the experiment “didn’t work” – what can I tell them?

  • It’s windy – what can I do so the bait cards don’t get blown away?

  • A larger animal ate the baits (squirrel, cat, dog, racoon, etc.) – what can I do?

  • My class period is shorter than 60 min – can I leave the experiment out for less time?

  • My students want to test additional food types – what can I do?

…download the TEACHER GUIDE at the top of this page to get the answers!

Are you a Girl Scout?

Log in at SciStarter to start a Journey (incl. Ant Picnic) with your Troop and earn a badge!

Wanna know who the ants you collected with Ant Picnic are? – Me too!

Participate in the Ant Picnic ID project. All you need is a clip-on macro lens for your phone (at least 15x and ideally with additional light like this one) and you’re good to go.
1. Download iNaturalist app on iTunes or Google Play Store
2. Select “More…” in bottom menu bar > “Projects” > search “Ant Picnic ID” and join
3. Use clip-on macro lens to take pictures of Ant Picnic ants and upload to project!
Once you upload your ant pictures, you can also use these Identification Keys to identify the ants yourself!

Opportunities for Extension

  • Test more food typesIf you would like to compare other food types in addition to the standard Ant Picnic baits, you can do that in a separate experiment. Please set this up on a different day or in an area at least 50 yards away from your regular Ant Picnic experiment site. If you would like to share the data from your own unique experiment, please enter it in the comments section when you submit your Ant Picnic data. We would love to hear what kinds of food you tried and how the ants liked it!

  • Compare green and paved sites — Set up your Ant Picnic experiment in both a green location (grassy or woody) and a paved location (sidewalk or parking lot) at the same time. Record each site as a separate experiment following the directions above. When you are done, you can compare the number of ants that arrived at these different site types as well as the food preferences of the ants. This adds an extra level to the experiment, which will challenge more advanced students.

  • Working with data / Data analysis — Ant Picnic data can be explored by students of all ages. Review the Ant Picnic Data Analysis Activity for various options that are adjusted for different grade levels. It includes a basic data exploration and discussion recommended for grade levels K-8. More advanced students can try their hand at analyzing data using an interactive online platform called CODAP through an extension activity.

  • Explore Phylogenetic Trees or Dichotomous Keys — In the Tree of Life Activity students attempt to classify a few selected organisms into groups and explore a real phylogenetic tree of life. In the Ant ID Activity students learn how to use dichotomous keys to identify ant species. Both activities can be found at

Thank you for participating in Ant Picnic

Ant Picnic downloads at a glance

K-1 Data Sheet
K-1 Activity Sheet
K-5 Data Sheet
K-5 Activity Sheet
6-12 Data Sheet
6-12 Activity Sheet
Experiment in progress Sign
Ant Picnic Overview

About the science

  • We want to learn more about what ants eat in different environments: in your backyard, on your school’s playground, at the park. How fast do they come to sugar, how fast do they come to a cookie you drop or how fast do they come to all these food sources around us?

  • Ants are looking to have a balanced diet just like us. Their food preferences at different times of the year and in different places around the world tell us what is missing in their environment.

  • The results you collect will be incorporated into the biggest study of global patterns in preferred food resources and activity within a single group of organisms.

  • The effect of ant resource preferences are felt every time you go on a picnic or let your sandwich lie around for too long. In some places the ants arrive quickly to eat some of your leftovers, in other places they don’t.

  • Ants prefer different kinds of foods in different places and we want to know what environmental variables govern this resource preference.

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 the preferences for different kinds of food. (Photo credit ©

We have big predictions about what this should look like globally. We think that in the tropics, ants get to all the food faster than anywhere else. We think that in the desert the ants are very quick to find water. But we don’t actually know this for certain 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. (Photo credit © Natural History Museum of Denmark)

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 ©

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 ©

About the Scientist

Magda SorgerDr. Magdalena Sorger is an adjunct researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. She’s an evolutionary ecologist interested in the diversity, distribution, and behavior of ants and other insects. More on her website

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Other Ant Activities

Other Resources

Ant ID Keys
Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants
Myrmex Comic
Discover ANTS Website

Ants and citizen science

Project Kenan Fellows

Pictured (from left to right): Dr. Magdalena Sorger, Michelle Hafey, Paige Derouin, Dr. DeAnna Beasley and Maggie McKinley.

About the SciArt

buzz_hoot_roar 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 AtteberryCaitlin Atteberry is a graphic designer based in Raleigh, NC. Find Caitlin’s other work conveniently at

Follow Caitlin