Naturalist’s Notebook: Ant Experiment with a Surprise Result!

In the last post of Naturalist’s Notebook, I mentioned an ant experiment I’d done which involved giving food to ants to see what would happen.

Experiments are funny. Sometimes you have a theory about what will happen and then you get a completely surprising outcome. 

It all began when I was sitting at my hawk lookout at Soddy Mountain, hoping to count migrating Broad-Winged Hawks as they sailed past. I was in between hawks and decided to have a snack. Spicy wheat crackers with tomato and basil seasoning. They are quite tasty! 

I accidentally dropped one on the ground. This is how many of my food experiments with ants begin. 

I could have left the cracker where it fell and waited to see what happened, but I had another idea. About 10 feet behind where I was sitting, there was a very large red fire ant mound. I have a rule about fire ants, especially ones that live close-by. If I don’t bother them, they won’t bother me.

Did you know that ants are closely related to bees and wasps? You probably know what bees or wasps can do if you bother them. They sting! They all belong to the insect order Hymenoptera. Guess what angry fire ants do to protect themselves or their home? They sting!

You should always be careful never to step on a fire ant mound because hundreds of these tiny ants come swarming out of their damaged city, and they are all ready to sting. Their stings really hurt and burn like fire for a long time afterward, so they are well-named.

Now, back to the food experiment: I decided to pick the cracker up and toss it onto the top of the fire ants’ home. I included a photo, and if you look closely you can see the cracker on the top right side. 

What I believed would happen is that several hundred mad, little fire ants would come running when a strange object crashed down on their mound. 

What happened? Nothing. Not one single fire ant came out to investigate.

This caused me to come up with a theory to explain why they didn’t attack. I guess the cracker was so light that it didn’t trigger the alarm. This makes sense, as it wouldn’t be a good idea for the ants to “go on the warpath” every time a leaf landed on the mound.

I was a bit disappointed, since I was looking forward to a show. However, I went back to what I was doing and decided to come back later to see if any fire ant scouts had found the treat.

When I checked again after a few minutes, there was a much bigger surprise. An American Bird Grasshopper, one of our largest and longest local grasshoppers, was sitting calmly on the fire ant mound nibbling on the cracker! As the old saying goes, “I didn’t see that coming.” I quickly took a photo to document this strange behavior.

Suddenly, my curiosity about fire ant behavior had taken a turn, and now I was thinking about this grasshopper that was many times larger than the tiny ants. To be scientific, I measured a cracker, and a side was 1 1/4 inches. You can compare to get an idea of the grasshopper’s length, which was at least 2 inches.

It was doubly surprising because it just sat there and ate while I took my pictures. They are named Bird Grasshoppers because they do one thing really well…besides eating, they are great flyers. I usually fail to get a photo because it is often very hard to approach one. They usually fly away, sometimes far away, before you ever get close to them.

I remember attending a program about birds that land on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico during their migration south in the fall. Many would get tired and land on these platforms out in the middle of the ocean. 

The program presenter made a comment about another discovery that I found very interesting. They found a number of American Bird Grasshoppers that had flown all the way from the gulf coast, sometimes almost 50 miles over open ocean, and landed on the oil platforms.

You never know where an experiment will take you. The grasshopper didn’t eat the whole cracker. I wonder what will happen to it. Stay tuned for a future entry in the Naturalist’s Notebook.

Mr. Bill

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