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Ants drinking from colorful droplets

Exploration and Observation: A Rainbow of Ants

This week’s guest post is by author and ecologist (and all-around nice person) Heather Hawke. Thank you, Heather! Here we go:

Halloween is soon upon us and few books are creepy and crawly as The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand. Mrs. Cavendish’s roaches are shiver-worthy with too many legs even for bugs! But here is a project to examine insects with, as our heroine Victoria would say, the proper number of legs.

by Mohamed Babu/Solent News/Rex F/AP Images

Dr. Mohamed Babu, India, took this stunning picture. See more here

***CAUTION*** Many ant species sting like bees (particularly fire ants).  Other stinging insects may also visit. Exercise care while observing.


Very sweet sugar water
Food dye (red, blue, yellow, green)
Wax paper
Eyedropper (or chopstick if you don’t have one)

Pour sugar water into four small containers. Add a few drops of food dye to each one.

When the day warms up, place a piece of wax paper outside in a shady location where you have seen ants. Weigh the corners of the wax paper down so it doesn’t blow away. With an eyedropper, put 10 drops of the red sugar water on one corner of the paper. Do the same for the other three colors.

Now you can do different things.

1.      Just watch! Come back in a couple of hours and count how many ants are feeding from each color. Which colors do they prefer? You can research “ant vision” to learn more. Can you see the dye in the ants’ bodies? Are any other kinds of insects such as butterflies or bees coming to visit? If so, are they attracted to the same colors as the ants or different ones?
2.      Make it an experiment! Try to observe when the first ants arrive and then count the ants at each color every 15 minutes. Make a bar graph or two (x-axis: time or color, y-axis: # ants). Do the ants change their color preferences over time? If so, why do you think? Are there more ants at some times than others? Why could that be? If you can’t get enough of bugs, research “ant communication.”
3.      For scientists in training! You can really ramp up the experiment by performing it in different places. If you get away from where people live, you are likely to find ants native to your area. Try to identify your ants using a local taxonomic key.

For those who are fascinated by waving antennae and clicking mandibles, here are some related concepts:

  1.      Physics and biology. What wavelengths can insects see? Here’s one link
  2.      Invasive species and preserving native species. Around human dwellings, you likely observed Argentinean, fire ants or some other non-native ant species. Where have your own ants gone? Here’s one guide to ant species.
  3.      What do you get if you feed M&Ms to honeybees?

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