Sweet Treat: How Do Ants React to Artificial and Natural Sugars?
Purpose or Problem
If an organism is attracted to a food source that is not nutritional and changes its diet from eating the type of food it needs to a food that is not nutritional, its health may be put at risk. For example, people sometimes throw stale pieces of white bread out in their yard for birds to eat. But, white bread does not have the nutrition birds need, and they may fill their bellies with a less-than-"good" food.
Almost everyone enjoys eating sweet foods. Although sugar is the most commonly used sweetener, it has been associated with health problems, including tooth decay, obesity, and hyperactivity in children. People with health problems related to sugar could be diabetic or they might be trying to lose weight, and they're looking for sugar substitutes to use in their foods.
Today, two popular artificial sweeteners are sold in grocery stores, namely saccharin and aspartame. Neither of these sweeteners has any nutritional value, whereas natural sugar is a carbohydrate that provides energy for your body. Artificial sweeteners are not used by the body and pass through unchanged.
The natural sugar found on your kitchen table is called sucrose, and its chemical symbol is C12H12O11.
Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and saccharin is 500 times sweeter. Will ants be attracted to these useless food sources because they are sweeter? Or, will nature prevail and their instinct be able to detect that the false sugars are nutritionally empty?
Hypothesize that the instinct in ants is intelligent enough that when offered natural sugar (which has nutritional value) and artificial sweeteners (which have no nutritional value), the ants will take the natural sugar, even though the artificial sweeteners taste hundreds of times sweeter.
- Table sugar
- Brown sugar
- Saccharin artificial sweetener
- Aspartame artificial sweetener
- One-fourth teaspoon measuring spoon
- Magnetic compass
- Anthill with active ants
- Wooden ice-pop sticks or tongue depressors
- Pen or felt tip marker
- Three days of time
- Stiff piece of cardboard
Locate an active anthill in an area where you can safely make observations from a distance of several feet. The terrain around the anthill should be fairly consistent. Do not use an anthill that is bordered on one side by grass and on the other side by a sidewalk. Be sure grass or soil surrounds the hill out to several feet.
Observe the anthill for one day to learn when the ants are most active: early morning, late morning, afternoon, early evening, and so forth.
Once you discover an active time for the ants, set up four piles of sugar and sugar substitutes as explained in the following, just prior to that time on the next day.
Using a magnetic compass, locate North, East, West, and South directions, with the anthill at the center. With a pen or felt tip marker, write NORTH, EAST, WEST, and SOUTH on each of four wooden ice-pop sticks or tongue depressors. With a ruler and zero at the center of the anthill (be careful not to touch or disturb the anthill), place the stick marked NORTH six inches from the center and to the north of the anthill. Push the stick into the ground, so it stands vertically as a marker.
Similarly, measure and push into the ground direction-identifying sticks six inches to the east, south, and west of the mound.
Cut four small squares (about 2 or 3 inches square) out of a piece of stiff cardboard or oak tag. Lay one square in front of each of the ice-pop sticks.
On the piece of cardboard in front of the North stick, use a level ¼ teaspoon of sugar to make a small pile of table sugar.
In front of the East stick, make a pile of brown sugar on the cardboard, again using a level ¼ teaspoon of brown sugar.
Similarly, place saccharin and aspartame piles at the South and West markers.
The piles are placed on pieces of cardboard, so at the end of the day, they can be removed.
Observe the ants as closely as possible, but do not get so close as to affect their behavior.
Are the ants attracted to any of the piles? If so, which ones?
On the third day, place the pieces of cardboard with the piles by the marker sticks, but this time rotate them, so the sugar is east of the anthill, the brown sugar is located to the south, and so on. Observe the ants' behavior. Are they still attracted to the same piles, even though the piles are in a different place?
If they are, then we can be assured that the location of the piles was not a factor in determining which pile the ants were attracted to, thus eliminating the variables of terrain (uphill, downhill, easier path to navigate, and so forth), the position of the Sun, and the location from the hill (north, east, and so forth).
Write down the results of your experiment. Document all observations and data collected.
Come to a conclusion as to whether or not your hypothesis was correct.
- Move the piles of sugars five or six feet from the anthill opening. Does this project then yield a different result?
- How do ants behave when offered other natural sweet substances? Honey and maple syrup, for example, are often used as a substitute for sugar in baking and other food preparations.
- If the ants eat the nonnutritious sweeteners, how does it affect other organisms that eat the ants?
- Large marking pens have a very strong smell. Will the marker odor cause a change in behavior of the ants?
Warning is hereby given that not all Project Ideas are appropriate for all individuals or in all circumstances. Implementation of any Science Project Idea should be undertaken only in appropriate settings and with appropriate parental or other supervision. Reading and following the safety precautions of all materials used in a project is the sole responsibility of each individual. For further information, consult your state’s handbook of Science Safety.