II.C.1 Part Three--Ant Communication

During this project, students will observe how ants recruit other ants to resources, such as a dead grasshopper, or, in this case, tuna fish. Because your students may need a lot of experience observing, you may want to give them two opportunities to do this part of the activity. The first time, have students just observe and follow it with an informal class discussion. The second time, students can do a more formal investigation.

Materials needed:
Each team of 2 students needs:

  • Student Data Sheet #2
  • Pencil
  • Clipboard
  • Hand lens or magnifying glass
  • Small cup with bait (Tuna fish works best. A 1cm chunk, about the size of a pea, will be plenty.)
  • Ruler (metric)
  • Digital watch or stopwatch

Teacher will need:

  • A small bag to collect the empty bait cups
  • Soda straws for ant experiments (to distribute to teams who may need them)
Instructions for the teacher:
  1. You will need a dry, warm day (70EF or above) and approximately 20-30 minutes to complete this activity.

  2. Divide the class into teams of two.

  3. Distribute and review Student Data Sheet #2.

  4. Give each team a cup of bait.

  5. Students will work within the area established for Part Two, #3 of this activity. Instruct the teams to set up their bait a short distance (0.5-1.0 meter) from an ant nest. Students should watch how the ants aggregate around a food source and transport it back to the nest. (Ants lay down scent trails between the food and the nest entrance to help other ants find the food. Scent trails are deposited by a gland at the tip of the abdomen, so an ant returning from a bait can often be seen "dragging its tail." The scent trails are picked up by the antennae.)

  6. The students will observe what happens and complete Student Data Sheet #2, questions #1-7.

  7. Teams should then plan their own experiments as instructed on the data sheet. Students should not kill ants during the procedure. The experiments can be very simple, such as drawing a finger across the trail in the sand. All experiments should:
    1. Have a hypothesis
    2. Record the experimental procedure
    3. Report on the experiment

    Some simple experiments with ant trails include:

    • interrupting the trail in a variety of ways
    • removing the bait
    • changing the bait
    • moving the bait to another place
    • altering the scent trail by getting the ants to walk across a piece of paper or a bit of leaf, then turning it around, etc.
  8. When all teams have completed the data sheets, return to the classroom for a quick review. The principle themes that should come out of this discussion are:
    1. The ants that return to the nest while laying down the trail return more or less directly, they do not wander around like an ant that is out looking for food.
    2. The scent trail is a simple and versatile communication system.
    3. Working as a team, the ants are much more efficient.

    The experimental method approach utilized by students in #7 on the data sheet, is still widely used in science, especially in the early stages of a research program. To be considered scientifically valid, however, the method must be repeated over and over again. Even if the experiment is only completed a few times, it can be useful as an indicator. The important point for the students to learn (aside from interesting ant behavior) is that it is necessary to carefully describe what was done, so the experiment could easily be repeated.

IIC1-Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4
Student data sheet #1    Student data sheet #2    Class data sheet
Unit II. SAND-DWELLING ANIMALS
A. Ant Lions:    II.A.1
B. Scrub Burrowing Wolf Spiders:    II.B.1
C. Ants:     II.C.1   
D. Glossary    E. Questions for Student Evaluation