Field Science Challenge #7 Arthropod Appetites

A huge variety of hungry creatures are feasting on the different foods found in your neighborhood! Watch closely and you will observe how plants provide food and shelter to vertebrate animals like birds and deer as well as invertebrate arthropods like ants and aphids.  At the same time, plants try to survive and reproduce. The relationships between producers, consumers and their environment are of interest to RMBL scientists like Dr. Kailen Mooney of the University of California, Irvine.  Dr. Mooney and members of his team are currently studying the impacts of arthropod herbivory on plants within the context of a changing climate.  One of the most accessible (and quite fascinating) arthropods to observe are ants!  

Recorded Lab Chat with Dr. Kailen Mooney

What We’d Like to Find Out: What types of insects are present in your neighborhood?  Which ant species are present?  Do certain types of foods attract more insects?  Do certain types of food attract certain types of ants?  

What You’ll Need:  

  • 2 food products of your choice – one sweet (eg jam or honey) and one with protein (eg tuna or chicken meat) 
  • Paper plates or similar sized pieces of cardboard or paperboard 
  • A measuring tablespoon 
  • A field notebook and a pencil 

What To Do:  

  1. You are going to build at least 3 sets of ant bait stations to place in a variety of locations near where you live to see the types and numbers of insects that show up to investigate and eat the bait.   
  2. Create each station by making a base to hold the food using a paper plate or pieces of cardboard/paperboard that are all cut into similar sizes; anywhere between 15cm x 15cm up to 30cm x 30cm are reasonable sizes, just be sure you use the same size of base for every station.   
  3. Spoon one packed tablespoon of your sweet food source into the center of 3 different plates/boards and a packed tablespoon of your protein food source into the center of 3 different plates/boards.  
  4. Choose aarea where you will place your pairs of bait stations and then spread the pairs out in the area so that there are two choices of bait (one sweet and one protein) being offered side by side at each location (and they all look the same).   
  5. Label each pair with a letter (A, B, C and protein or sweet) so that you can record in your field notebook how many insects are present.  In addition, describe the type and behavior of insects you find at each station each time you check the stations.  Be sure to record the time and weather observations too!   
  6. Decide on a schedule to check your bait stations over the course of the day.  For example, you could check the stations every hour or just once in the morning, once in the middle of the day, and once in the evening.  You may notice some interesting patterns depending on time of day and the weather.   
  7. You can set up the bait stations for just a dayyou can put them out overnight, or you can put them out for multiple days. Refill the bait if it has been removed so that you can continue to successfully attract insects. 
  8. We expect that at some point, ants will visit your bait station.  Catch an ant and try using the ant key (posted above) to figure out which type of ants you are observing.

Please Remember (Research Rules & Ethics): Set your bait out for a limited period of time and remove the bait stations when you are finished observing insects.  Return any insects from the bait stations back to the environment so that they can continue to go about their lives.  Make sure the area is clean of any food debris so that you do not intentionally feed wildlife beyond the insects you are observing (it is especially important in bear country to not leave out food that might attract a bear to your home).     

What Happened? Tell Us About It!  We’d like to know what you observed. Did the sweet or protein bait attract more insects?  Were you able to identify any ants?  Did you do observations for more than one day?  Did you change the set up of your stations to see if it made a difference on what you were seeing?  

So What? Next Steps: Continue watching for insects in your area by looking closely at plants and seeing which types of insects live on and around the plants.  Who is on the ground? Who is on the stem or leaves? Who is on the flower? What are they doing?  Hopefully, the more you explore, the more questions you’ll have.  That is how new research gets started at RMBL – observations lead to questions and the cycle continues.