Picnic Redux: Citizen Scientists Invite Ants to Lunch

Scientists need your help to find out what ants in your neighborhood like to eat.

Would you ask an ant to join you for lunch? A team of researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh calls on citizen scientists around the world to flip the picnic concept – they want *us* to feed the ants. By counting ants, recording their meal preferences, and sending in data, you can help Dr. Magdalena Sorger and her colleagues better understand what foods ants have access to around the world. This citizen science project, called Ant Picnic, could spark new studies into ant behavior, natural resources, and the impact of global factors like climate change.

“Not only does [Ant Picnic] engage the public with scientific exploration, it will collect very valuable data on what resources are limiting — at least for ants — in different habitats and geographic regions,” Dr. Andrew V. Suarez says of the project. He leads ant research at the Suarez Lab of the University of Illinois.

Ant Picnic data are incorporated into the largest research project of its kind – the biggest study of global patterns in preferred resources and activity within a single group of organisms.

Ant picnic illustration. Credit: artist Caitlin Atteberry

How Does an Ant Picnic Work?

First, participants prepare six specific types of food — including a cookie and cotton balls soaked in either sugar or salt water — for their ant guests. After being left outside for at least an hour, participants record and photograph the number of ants that chose each type of food. Bagging and/or freezing the ants are options for making the counting process easier, but letting the ants die is not required.

Sorger recognizes that some young scientists may worry about the prospect of ant deaths.She says because ants are so small, it is difficult to see identifying traits, like the number of hairs on their bodies, when they’re alive. So, the loss of ant life is sometimes part of how scientists study them, and this helps them to protect ants and their habitats in the long run.

For those who want to take their participation further, extensions to the project include comparing ant responses on green versus paved sites or testing additional food types in a separate location.  The project also includes a robust curriculum that gives students and others a chance to analyze ant data themselves and address their own research questions.

Ant picnic in progress. Credit: Rob Nelson, untamedscience.com

Why Ants?

Sorger, who is a postdoctoral researcher at both the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the lab headed up by Rob Dunn at N.C. State,  says she loves ants for many reasons, including their wide range of adaptations. They have “so many different shapes, forms and behaviors and each has its specific purpose, some we already know about, [while] others remain to be studied,” she explains. She also appreciates the ways in which their culture is similar to ours. Did you know, she says, that ants divide labor, farm, and live in “complex homes with temperature and airflow control?”

The Ant Picnic project follows up on another citizen science initiative the lab has run since 2011, which involved collecting ants to figure out where different species live. A decade ago there were approximately 12,500 described species of ants, there are now close to 15,000, and the current estimate is that there are probably about 20,000 total. According to Sorger, there is much left to learn about what ants do and why.

What Might We Learn?

Sorger said she and her team “expect ants to choose the food type that is least common [or] abundant in their environment.” This expectation comes from the premise that animals seek the foods they need to survive; preference for one food over another may indicate a greater need for that type of food. By gathering data on hundreds of thousands of ants around the world, they aim to discover what is absent from the ants’ diverse habitats. This information can identify areas for further research into the ants’ food and survival in specific regions.

“What ants eat at different times of the year and in different places around the world tells us what might be missing in their environment and how climate change could impact ant populations,” the project SciStarter page explains. Some studies have already shown that climate change can affect ants’ well-being, activities, and interactions; it has been shown to impact both foraging behavior and community stability.

Suarez points out that citizen scientists are essential to the Rob Dunn Lab’s success; “ecological work at regional [or] continental scales is nearly impossible without extensive public engagement,” he says. Also, he suspects, “people of all ages will be excited to see what lives in their backyards.”

If you are ready to learn more about ants and host some for lunch, Sorger would like to say thank you for having an Ant Picnic of your own:

Categories: Citizen Science, Insects

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About the Author

Julia Travers

Julia Travers

Julia Travers writes about science, tech, art and creative responses to adversity. Her work can be found with NPR, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. Find her on Twitter @traversjul.