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Experimenting with Ant Food: Do Ants Have Favorite Flavors?

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Updated on Aug 30, 2012

Some people love salty potato chips, others love super sour candy. Some of us load jalapeño peppers on our food, while others prefer no spice at all. We know that people have favorite flavors, but what about other animals? In this experiment, you'll test for taste in a very small animal: the ant.

Ants are attracted to sugar, but most sugary foods contain other flavors as well. When ants can choose between different flavors in their ant food, which will they choose? Let's find out!

Problem:

Do ants like plain sugar, salty sugar, spicy sugar or sour sugar best?

Materials:

  • 1 clear, plastic 2-liter soda bottle
  • 1 small soda bottle
  • Black construction paper (enough to cover an area that is 8 inches x 14 inches)
  • Clear tape
  • Sharp scissors
  • About 2 quarts of dirt mixed with sand
  • A large spoon
  • Measuring spoons
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Powdered lemonade mix
  • 5 small sealable baggies
  • 4 bottle caps, each a different color
  • Notebook
  • Pencil

Procedure

  1. Before you begin, smell and taste each of your flavors. Which ones do you like? Which do you not like? Think about ants: Have you seen them in the kitchen before? If so, which foods were they in?
  2. After considering the questions in Step 1, make a guess—called a hypothesis—about which flavor the ants will like best. Write your hypothesis in your notebook.
  3. With the help of an adult, carefully cut around the 2-liter soda bottle, about 4 inches from the top. Keep the lid of the bottle screwed on, because you'll add the ants through this hole later.
  4. Place the small soda bottle inside the 2-liter bottle. Hold it in the center of the larger bottle while spooning the dirt-sand mixture all around it, filling the larger bottle with dirt. The dirt mixture should be moist, but not muddy. (The small soda bottle will keep the ants tunnels closer to the clear sides, where they are visible.)
  5. Cut the black construction paper 8 inches high and 14 inches long.
  6. Tape the paper around the bottle, making a cylinder that fits snugly around the bottle. Don't tape it to the bottle; you'll remove it to view the ant tunnels. Keep the paper on when you aren't watching the ants.
  7. Label your four small baggies: Salty, Spicy, Sour, and Sugar.
  8. Add 1 tablespoon sugar to each baggie.
  9. Add 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper to the Spicy baggie, 1 tablespoon salt to the Salty baggie, 1 tablespoon powdered lemonade mix to the Sour baggie, and 1 tablespoon plain sugar to the Sugar baggie.
  10. Pick a different colored bottle cap for each flavor; write the pairings in your notebook.
  11. Add 1/4 tablespoon of each flavor to its designated bottle cap.
  12. Place the bottle caps around the edges of the dirt in your ant farm.
  13. Place the top part of the bottle back on and tape it securely in place.
  14. With the help of an adult, find an anthill in your yard or a nearby park. Avoid any reddish-colored ants; they sting!
  15. Use the spoon to gather about twenty ants, along with some dirt from the anthill. Place them in the remaining baggie, and close it securely.
  16. When you are ready to add the ants to your ant farm, open the screw-top of the bottle and pour the ants and dirt through the opening. Be careful not to spill the flavored sugars in the bottle caps!
  17. Place the paper tube around the bottle, and set the ant farm in a shady spot. Your ants will need a day to settle in and start building tunnels before you check on them.
  18. Over the next week, check your ants daily by removing the black paper tube. Note any tunnels and any activity that you see.
  19. Compare the amounts of flavored sugar in each of the bottle caps. Which flavors have the ants avoided? Which have they eaten the most of?

Results:

Make a chart that lists the different flavors along the top, and counts the days of the experiment along the side. Every day, put a star on the chart under the most popular ant food flavor. When you need to add more food, open the bottle to spoon a little more into the bottle caps. If the dirt begins to look dry, add some drips of water. After seven days, just return the ants where you found them!

Questions to think about:

  1. Did one flavor seem to be a clear favorite? Why might the ants like this one best?
  2. Which flavor did the ants like the least? Why do you think they avoided this flavor?
  3. Where might the ants find these flavors in the natural world?
  4. If you had ants in your house, how could you keep them out? (Think about what you have learned from this experiment!)

Why?

You probably found that the ants loved the plain sugar the best, and disliked the salt. Sugar is a high-energy food often found in plant juices, and ants use their amazing sense of smell to find it. Salt, spices, and citric acid have smells that ants avoid, because too much of these things can be harmful.

After any experiment, scientists think about how they could improve their next project. Here are some questions to help you better understand the ant flavor test, and help you think about new experiments you might want to try.

  1. Why did we mix the different flavors with sugar? Why didn't we just give the ants pure salt, pure red pepper, and pure lemonade mix?
  2. Why was it important to keep plain sugar as one of the flavor choices?
  3. Why do you think the ant farm needed the dark paper? How would the ant farm be different if the dark paper did not cover the bottle?
  4. If you wanted to test what kind of drinks ants like best, what would you use for the liquids?
  5. What else could you test with your ant farm? How would you test these things?
  6. Scientists often make little mistakes—called errors—during experiments. These errors can make a difference in the results. What were the errors in your experiment? How could you fix them?

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