How Do Ants Find Food — Alicia’s student essay

How Do Ants Find Food?

Ants, although harboring miniature bodies, utilize a complex foraging system which allows them to locate food efficiently even when placed within harsh environments. They rely on a system of path networks, as well as auditory, visual, and olfactory stimulation to detect their meals. Often, these tiny creatures seem extremely resilient and adaptive, as proven by their timely manner of foraging, studied extensively by researchers. 

However, they can sometimes become known as pests to humans due to entering man-made structures in search of food, their advanced food location abilities providing them with an easier way of obtaining food sources from humans than other creatures, causing them to range from being a nuisance to being able to begin a large infestation.

According to the source “Desert Ants Locate Food by Combining High Sensitivity to Food Odors with Extensive Crosswind Runs” written by Cornelia Buehlmann, Paul Graham, Bill S. Hansson, and Markus Knaden, ants are able to be placed within almost any environment and quickly discover food sources. 

An experiment was run, as described in the article, that tracked ants occupying a test field, with dead crickets laid about 4 minutes away from the ants’ position. The article indicates the results of this attempt to study ants’ foraging behavior: “We observed that they approached a given food item only after passing it downwind and encountering the odor plume emanating from the dead insect.”

This conclusion would reinforce the concept of ants relying primarily on olfactory stimuli received from chemicals present within dead creatures to locate food items. These compounds elicit reactions from ants which detect acids labeled necromones, which would usually “provoke the removal of the corpses of dead nest mates.”

ant workers

Therefore, by anticipating events already know to them, these ants are able to associate the smells with the corpses of insects, which oftentimes function as a tasty snack to the ants.

Not only do olfactory sensors allow these little insects to locate food, ants also possess an arguably even more advanced method, involving paths that they are able to map out and then follow to the desired destination (food). Referencing the previously cited article, ” (ants) will follow a CO2 plume to a nest only when the path integrator indicates that they are close to home. This is crucial, as homing ants will pass neighboring nests that smell like home but must not be diverted to these foreign nests.”

This passage explains that researchers have discovered that the path system functions together with the olfactory system, enabling ants to ignore diversions that their olfactory senses may have dragged up and pinpoint the exact location of interest, leading to a faster and more efficient gathering process. These paths also structure an ant’s journey in other ways, such as assisting in communication with other ants. 

As conveyed within the piece, “Forager activation and food availability in harvester ants” by Robert J. Schafer, Susan Holmes, and Deborah M.Gordon, “the first ants to leave the nest each morning…choose the day’s foraging directions.” This occurrence, another form of mapping paths, bestows information upon other ants which increases hive productivity, as then these ants know exactly where the day’s harvest is located, and can plan accordingly to maximize profit.

All in all, these ants possess a very effective and layered means of foraging, which can allow them to thrive in any area when it comes to gathering sustenance. These forms of food gathering are quite vital for humans to know as they may heavily factor into pest control due to ants’ prevalence in places where humans do not desire their presence. It is much easier for these creatures, compared to other similar insects, to infiltrate man-made structures, as their sense of smell is incredibly well-developed as well as their communications and navigation arrangements. However, by understanding these structures, hopefully humans can realize a more efficient way to better coexist with ants, so that both parties are able to exist without causing trouble for the other.

Author: Alicia McGowan

ASU College of Integrative Science and Arts


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