Dear Ant Ask Team,
I am a fifth grader at Cherry Hill Elementary in Utah. I need an ant expert to answer some questions about ants for a school project. If you have time, will you be able to answer the following questions?
How do ants detect food, even if it's far away?
How do ants smell and how far can they?
What do ants like to eat?
Do the ants' antennae help them detect food?
What are the differences between ants with different jobs in a colony in reference to finding food?
Thanks for your help,
These are some very interesting questions! Although the answers vary depending on which of the more than 12,000 described species of ant we're talking about, here are some general answers to get you started:
1) Most often ants use the power of social cooperation to find food that's far away. Because they cannot "smell" the food in large distances away from the nest, they send "patroller" ants out of the nest to find food and then tell the rest of the colony where it is. As more and more ants find the source of food, they leave pheromone trails (see Iain Couzin's website for a really cool video of this) behind, which other ants can easily detect and follow to the food. Pretty cool!
2) Of course, it depends on factors like wind, or what they're smelling, but one study found that 6 cm was the maximum distance a harvester ant could respond to an alarm pheromone in still air. For Weaver ants (here's a cool article about their social behavior), that distance was more like 10 cm.
Here is a previous post with a more detailed response about how ants use chemicals called "pheromones" to communicate.
3) This is a tough one! Ants eat a wide variety of food, and have a number of interesting ways of getting it. For most ants, the most digestible food is probably sugar water, and so this is often what they are fed in a lab. In fact, leafcutter ants like this sugar water so much, that they actually use a specific fungi to digest leafs in the forest for them, and then eat the sugar water that the fungus produces! Just like miniature farmers.
4) Yes. The antennae help the ants follow trails of pheromones to get to food, as well as help the ants distinguish the food once they get there.
5) The Gordon Lab does a lot of work on the jobs of ants and how they change over time. Here is an interesting video that might give you a better idea of this:
I hope these answers help you with your Science project!
Max Winston & the AntAsk Team