Drawing Circles Around Ants
IntroductionHave you ever had ants ruin your picnic? Commercial ant repellents can keep them away, but who wants to spray poison near their food? In this activity, you can investigate the effectiveness of some less toxic solutions that you may have around your home. Armed with your discoveries, you may be able to keep your next picnic from turning into an ant buffet!
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
BackgroundAll animals sense chemical signals in their environments. Some animals use these signals to communicate. One animal famous for chemical communication is the ant. When you see a line of ants, it is because they are following an invisible chemical trail. This type of chemical signal is positive—it is called an attractant because it is meant to attract others. But signals can also be negative, warning other ants to stay away. This type of signal is called a repellent.
Sometimes repellents can come in handy. We don't like ants to get into our homes, so if we apply a negative chemical signal around their foundations, the signal will tell the ants to keep out. Chemical companies will sometimes try to copy a negative signal to sell as an insect repellent. But sometimes these chemicals can have side effects or be poisonous to pets or small children. Luckily, there may be less toxic remedies around your home.
Extra: Once you find some potential repellents, you can figure out which ones work best. Try this activity again, but now time how long the ant remains trapped in the circle. Which repellents repel the ants for the longest amount of time?
Extra: You can also time how long the ant stays trapped in the circle to experiment with different concentrations of repellents. How diluted can your solutions be and still act as effective ant repellents?
Extra: Try a similar activity to this one but only test dry or powdered substances. You won't need a tablecloth for this; rather for a hard, dry substance like chalk you can draw the circle on a sidewalk. For a powder, like baking soda, sugar or salt, just sprinkle it in a circle around the ant. Can you find some powdered or solid substances that work as ant repellents?
Observations and ResultsDid some solutions keep the ants trapped in the circle, whereas the ants quickly walked over circles made of other solutions? Did the baking soda, detergent and Tabasco sauce clearly repel the ants, although the water did not?
Ants rely on chemical signals to navigate toward food, their nest and other places, and we can use negative signals, or repellents, to discourage ants from going somewhere. Baking soda; vinegar; lemon juice; some detergents (and cleaning products); Tabasco sauce (and other spicy substances, such as red chili pepper, black pepper and cayenne pepper) usually repel ants to varying degrees, and you may have seen them trapped in these circles. Many other common household solutions can also repel ants, including cinnamon, mint, salt, cloves, garlic, onions and bay leaves. Many ants are attracted to sugar, so you may have seen ants stop and spend some time on the circle made up of the sugar water—they may have been enjoying a snack! The ants should have quickly crossed the circles made of water, but if thick lines were made using the water or other solutions—or if the ants were thirsty—this could cause them to hesitate before exiting the circles.
More to Explore
Integrated Pest Management Manual from the National Park Service
Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
Science Buddies |
Biology, chemistry, chemical signals, entomology, repellents
Explore Our Science Videos
DIY Toy Sailboat
Make A Tissue Paper Parachute - STEM Activity
Stretchy Balloons! Fun STEM Activity