A Summer Project with Ants

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A Neat Summer Project on Ant Behavior
 
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This project is proposed because almost all young scientists will have access to ants during the summer. Not only is the project important because it will introduce you to designing an experiment and trouble-shooting unexpected problems that arise, but it will also start you on the road to collecting data in both note form and in photographs and making graphs. But this website does not like "make work" projects. There must be an overriding significance to the work. Anyone can go out and count all the grains of sand that will fit in a bottle, but so what? Who cares? This is a project that get you thinking about ants as living creatures with their own likes and dislikes. On the more useful side of things, remember that ants are often a problem raiding kitchens in homes and otherwise being where they shouldn't be. To prevent such intrusions, more knowledge is needed about the fundamentals of ant activity. Once you do this project, it will open the door to designing your own experiments on what might measures might be taken to repel ants or otherwise control them. So at the end of this experiment see if you can come up with some ideas about preventing ant invasions into homes.

Wonder! Hopefully, this project will also cause you to wonder about the value of ants in the environment. Do they do anything useful? Do you ever see them visiting flowers? Do you ever see them attacking and dragging back noxious insects to their colony? Do you think that ants might be good for keeping some aspects of the environment clean? Wonder about these things, and then see if you can make any observations that support your ideas. Now let's get started with first things first!

Starting materials


Methods

This experiment will be divided into two sections. In general, what you will be doing first is determining which sugar concentration the ants prefer, and in the second section you will determine how hard the ants will work to get that favorite concentration before they will resort to feeding at a less favored concentration. You will photograph your ants as they feed, and you will also make graphs from the data you collect. (Teachers love graphs, and the photographs will make it very easy to explain what you did.)

SECTION ONE
StepDirections and Diagram, if any
1Cut out squares from the index cards such that they are about an inch wider than are the bottle caps. Glue the caps to the squares. (These are to act as high contrast backgrounds for when you do your photography.)
2Scout out your neighborhood for an anthill that is isolated from others. If you have a choice, choose one that has a huge number of smallish ants. The vast numbers will help your statistics. But remember that you have to photograph your work so don't have ants that are extremely small.
3You are now going to make up a series of sugar solutions that are of different concentrations. Here is how. Line up 8 disposable plastic drinking cups and number them from 0 to 7. Next, to 1/4 cup of water that is room temperature, dissolve as much table sugar into it as possible. This will take a little time. Powdered sugar dissolves faster than granulated. Take out 1/8 cup and pour the remainder into cup #7. Then pour the 1/8 cup into the 1/4 cup and add water to fill. Mix well. Then take out 1/8 cup and dump the remainder into cup #6. Pour the 1/8 cup into the 1/4 cup, add water, mix and so on and on until you have some very dilute sugar in cup #1. Then add plain water to cup #0 (which has zero sugar in it, right?). You now have a series of plastic cups containing sugar such that any given cup has half the concentration as the next cup of higher number, and twice as much concentration as the cup one number lower. This can be stated very succinctly: you have a two-fold serial dilution series. Use that wording in your report!

4 You might like to stick your finger into each of them and taste each one. Which one is YOUR favorite? Record that!
5Put your eight cups into a basket or box along with the 8 bottle caps and take them out to your anthill.
6Near your "experimental field site" pour a little of the contents of each cup to almost FILL its corresponding cap. Then place the caps evenly about a foot away from the mouth of the anthill in a circle. Mark sure that the ants can easily climb up onto the bits of index cards.
7Put aluminum foil over the drinking cups and place them into a refrigerator so that you can use the remainder of the solutions in the next experiment.
8Each hour, take a look. At first you may see the ants randomly exploring, but later you might see that most head for just one cap - the preferred sweetness. (Is it the same as what you chose?) Take some photographs of this scene. If you have proper focus, you should easily get the cap numbers AND lots of dark ants against the white background. Make sure you write down in your record book what you saw. Draw some pictures in case your photographs don't come out right.
9CLEAN UP! Rinse out the caps. Do this outdoors with a garden hose unless the rest of your family doesn't mind if the kitchen gets sticky all over.
 
SECTION TWO
10Select both the ants' favorite sugar concentration, and one that rather few ants liked. (Here you have a choice: do you choose one that is higher or lower than the favorite? Ah-ha! You have the opportunity of branching into two experiments!
11Start again but this time only use the two caps - unless you are very brilliant and can think of a valid way to use three caps - the favorite and another higher and another lower. Fill the caps almost full and place them at equal distances from the mouth of the anthill. You should soon find that the "favorite" is still the "favorite." Take photos; draw pictures. Count ONLY the ants on the square and on the cap. If the favorite is no longer the favorite, you may have to go back to step one!
12Once you have found that the favorite remains the favorite, then move it further away - perhaps twice as far from the hill's mouth as the other cap. Once the ants have discovered it and the "action" has leveled out, you should count the ants at the caps. As shown here, 6 of the 11 countable ants are at the preferred cap. Thus the "preference index," PI, equals 6/11 = 0.55. (Note: a neat thing about using an "index" is that it does not have any units. A car goes 35 mph (mph is the unit), but an index is just a number with no name behind it.)
13You will eventually see the ants again streaming back and forth to the favorite cap. You might see that a higher proportion of ants are visiting the less favorite as the distance of the favorite increases. So make some rough counts of how many ants are feeding at each cap at any given time. What proportion are feeding at the favorite cap? From this you might derive a preference index! Take photos; draw pictures.
14Move it so that it is now three times as far from the mouth as is the less favorite one. Take photos; draw pictures. In this diagram, the "preferred" cap is now too far away for the effort, so the ants have condescended to going to a closer, but less preferred, cap, which has a PI = 0.5.
15Keep moving the favorite cap further and further away until the ants give up and go instead to the other less favorite cap. All the while, take photos and draw pictures.
16Now comes the hard part. Of course ants know nothing about inches or centimeters. But they might have some idea of their own body length, so measure some of the ants from pincers to end of abdomen. Then convert all your measurements of caps to mouth to "ant body lengths!" A millimeter ruler might be good for doing this. But how do you get an ant to stand still? "Sorry, little guy, I am going to drop you into some nail polish remover, and then you will be dead still. Then I can take a tweezers and lift you out, let you dry off, and set you on the ruler."
17Make a graph of the preference index versus the distance (in ant body lengths) of the favorite and versus the proportional distance of the favorite to the less favorite.
18Properly label your graphs and your photographs, and include them in your report. When school begins in the fall, you will already have your project done. Whooopppieeeee!
19Tell this website what your results were. This is important because others might have used different types of ants. Wouldn't it be interesting to find out that all ants do or do not have the same preferences? Whichever the answer, all these reports can be condensed into one wonderful report worthy of being presented at a meeting of a scientific society - WITH your names on it for an official authorship of a real science paper. (Remember, doing real science is more important than science fair. But you can kill two birds with one stone - do both!)


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