What are the taste preferences of ants and how can we design a project to test them? (Tiffany)

Hi, my name is Tiffany and I would appreciate it if you could answer a few questions for me. A friend and I are doing a project on the taste preferences of ants, and I would like to ask you a few questions regarding these little insects.

My first question is: I found online that ants cannot see the color red. I am trying to hypothesize what sorts of food ants will gravitate towards the most often. Would their inability to see red have any affect on which food they will pick? Do they operate mainly by smell?

My 2nd question is in regards to what attracts ants. Do they like their substances more natural (sugar) or do they prefer something a little more chemical (high fructose corn syrup)? Is there any flavor you know of that is their favorite?

Also, what is your degree in and where did you study? How long have you been working in this field?

Our idea is to buy an ant farm, (and some ants) and, throughout the course of a week, put in tiny portions of different foods (varying in saltiness, sweetness, etc.), record their prefernces, and base our inferences off of these observations. Do you have any suggestions that would help this project become more scientific or more efficiently conducted? Does this idea sound reasonable?

Dear Tiffany,

Thanks for contacting us at AntAsk! It sounds like you are designing an interesting project and you have some great ideas to evaluate the food preference of ants.

We have a detailed post on the senses of ants here and you are correct, ants navigate mainly through the sense of smell. If a food item emits a smell, ants will be able to recognize it from the distance. However, if a food item does not emit a smell (like regular household sugar), ants will touch it with their antennae, where the chemoreceptors are located, to smell or taste it.

To answer your second question: it depends a bit on the ant species. We have written a post on how to bait argentine ants here. My guess would be that ants prefer sucrose over high fructose corn syrup. But this would definitely be a nice question to test in an experiment. You could offer both, sugar solution and high fructose corn syrup simultaneously to your ants and then count the ants that attend the different solutions after 5 min and after 10 min. Ants are usually attracted to sugary solutions (adult workers often cannot swallow other than liquid food, so you should desolve the sugar in water). What researchers often find is that the ants like the sugar solutions the more sugar it contains. So you could offer sugar solutions at different concentrations (e.g., just water (= 0% to serve as control), 10%, 20%, and 30%) to the ants and see what they like best. The research group around Professor Mike Kaspari has found that ants really like salt. So you could try offering salt at different concentrations (e.g., just water (= 0% to serve as control), 0.1%, 0.5%, and 1%) to ants and see what they prefer. You could set-up your experiment in a way that you offer 4 concentrations of either sugar or salt solution simultaneously to your ants and then count the ants that attend the different solutions after 5 min and after 10 min. In one of my papers, I studied the preference of acacia-ants for different sugar solutions. You can find the paper here if you want to read on how I conducted my experiments.

To answer your third question: We are a group of myrmecologists (people that study ants) that was originally based in lab of Corrie Moreau located at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. You can find our CVs on this website (www.moreaulab.org). One of us, Jesse, is now a Ph.D. student in the lab of Mike Kaspari.

Good luck with your experiments and let us know if you have any additional questions!

Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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