SYEFEST

Schoolyards present a wealth of opportunities for exploring ecological concepts, and the Cary Institute has long been a pioneer in helping teachers develop authentic and worthwhile investigations for students. The Schoolyard Ecology for Elementary School Teachers (SYEFEST) project created a number protocols and lessons, most of them inquiry-based, for outdoor study.

Ant Cafeteria

Topic(s): 
Nutrients & Energy
Associated Lesson Plan: 
Guiding Questions
What foods do ants prefer and why might this be so?
Overview

Determine food preferences for ants by designing an experiment where ants choose from several types of food.

Time
2 Class periods
Setting
Classroom
Materials
  • One sheet of plain poster paper, cut into rectangular strips about 1" x 6" long. You will need one paper strip per group of students.
  • One data sheet/student group and one clipboard/group (optional, but much easier!).
  • Assorted food items (5 different kinds) in a dispensing container, plus spoons, swabs, eyedroppers - whatever is needed to dispense your food items into small samples. You may want to ask your students to suggest food items to test on the day before the experiment. Good possibilities to start might include honey or a sugar solution, bird seed, vegetable oil or animal fat shortening, tuna packed in oil, crackers or cookies, etc.
  • Magnifying lenses - 1/group (optional).
Type of Organism
Invertebrates
Procedure
  1. Assign groups of students and have each group prepare the paper strip "ant cafeteria trays" by cutting to size (or pre-cut the strips and distribute), then have the students draw 5 evenly-spaced circles of about 1/2" diameter lengthwise along the "tray."
  2. Draw a sample cafeteria tray on a class chart to show how the food items will be arranged (one food item/circle). You may choose to leave one circle empty or including only tap water as a "control."
  3. Ask each group to predict which food item will be preferred by the ants and WHY they think so. Compile the different group's predictions on a class chart. Discuss HOW "preference" for a particular food item will be measured.
  4. In the schoolyard, help your student groups locate a sufficient number of ant colonies that each group can observe a different colony. Ask your teams to observe the ant colonies for a few minutes while you distribute the food items onto the cafeteria trays. USE ONLY A VERY SMALL AMOUNT OF EACH FOOD ITEM - ABOUT THE AREA EQUIVALENT OF YOUR PINKY FINGERNAIL. Then have the students place the tray lengthwise alongside the entrance to the ant colony, about 2 inches away. Caution the students against disturbing the colony itself or they may find that the ants spend all of their time repairing the damage rather than looking for food!
  5. Specify a time period for food preference observations (at least 30 minutes). It may take the ants 10-20 minutes to discover the new food source!
  6. At the end of the investigation, each group should tally their results and report to the class. Display the compiled "actual results" alongside the initial predictions. Did the ants behave as predicted? Why or why not? Can the students propose reasons (nutritional or otherwise) for food preferences of the ants? Ask the students to generate new spin-off questions and proposals for answering those questions!

Follow-up:

  • Do ant food preferences differ for different species of ants? Do ant food preferences differ with time of day, weather conditions, or season? If many kinds of food were tested, can you begin to define the characteristics of foods that are attractive to your ants (e.g. sweet foods, salty foods, oily foods)?
  • Challenge your students to write a recipe for their own mixture of Ant Superfood (one that is more preferred than any other tested food type) and provide a rationale for their proposed recipes....then, hold an Ant Superfood Contest!
  • References:

    For additional activities with ant colonies, refer to "Ants", prepared by OBIS, and published by Delta Education, 5 Hudson Park Drive, Hudson, New Hampshire 03051. (603) 889-8899.

    For related activities, see "Ant Detective" and "An Ant's Amazing World", pp. 38-39, 42, and 44 in: Braus, J. (ed.) 1988. Incredible Insects. National Wildlife Federation. 1400 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036-2266.

    Contributor:

    Gail VanGenderen
    Hope College, 1994
    Holland, Michigan


     

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