Snippet Lesson Plan: Complex and Cooperative Ant Behaviors

Subject: Science/Biology (Insects — Ants)

Ages: 5 – 12; Elementary and Middle School Levels

Length: Film Clips: 12 minutes; Lesson: 30 minutes.

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Students will learn that ants employ complex cooperative behaviors and will retain striking images of these behaviors.


It is important for students to understand the complexity and cooperativeness of behaviors that have developed in the insect world. Seeing these behaviors in action will help students understand and remember these concepts.


This is a series of three clips showing ants:

  • protecting aphids and collecting their honeydew;
  • sharing water and dragging large pieces of plant material to an underground storehouse; and
  • fixing their nest after a storm.


1. Review the film clip and to make sure it is suitable for the class. Review the Lesson Plan and decide how to present it to the class, making any necessary modifications.


2. Retrieve from the Internet the additional film segments and photographs recommended below. Determine which are appropriate for the classes which will see the snippet.


1. Introduction to Segment #1: Tell students that aphids are small insects that eat plants and emit a sweet sticky substance called honeydew. Some species of ants use honeydew for food. Ants will tend the aphids, stroke them to encourage the aphids to emit honeydew, take aphids into their nests during cold weather, transport aphids or their eggs to food plants, and transfer aphids to new feeding sites. Chemicals on the feet of the ants tranquilize and subdue the aphids. Ants store excess honeydew in a separate stomach and regurgitate it for other ants when needed. Ladybugs eat aphids and many gardeners buy ladybugs to release into their gardens to kill aphids. This sequence contains an example of a predatory relationship and a symbiotic relationship.


Start at the beginning of DVD Scene 2 and play it until the beginning of the segment on ladybugs mating.


Closing for Segment #1: Ask students to identify the predatory and symbiotic relationships. This can be in a quickwrite or through class discussion. Diagram the flow of benefits on the board. Then ask students to describe what the activity engaged in by the ant would be called if it was performed in by a human being. Good responses will include: farming, ranching, herding, or nurturing.


2. Introduction to Segment #2: Tell students that ants can lift five times their weight and drag an object 25 times their weight. Ants have two sets of jaws, one for holding things that they carry and one for chewing. Ask students to look carefully at what the ants are doing in the second half of the segment and to ask themselves why the ants are doing this.


Start the segment at the beginning of DVD Scene 5 and play it for about 4 minutes, until the segment on wasps begins.


Closing for Segment #2: Solicit students’ opinions about how the ants will use the plant material they are collecting. Tell them that the leaves and plant material will be cut up by the ants and used in a fungus garden. The ants will eat the fungus. These ants are acting like farmers.


3. Introduction Segment #3: Tell students that this segment shows what occurs in an ant colony after a large rain storm.


Start Segment #3 about a minute after the beginning of DVD Scene 8 (after the earthworm) and play it for about 2.5 minutes until the scene shifts to butterflies.


Closing to Segment #3: Tell students some interesting facts about ants from the Supplemental Materials section below.


The following information about ants may be interesting to students.

There are 8800 known species of ants. Most species are located in the tropics. Ants are found in all parts of the world except for the polar regions and places with extremely high altitudes. Ants are such a successful species because their collective mastery of social organization allows flexibility in their approaches to survival.

Ants contribute to the population control of their prey, recycle plant material, aerate the soil, and disperse seeds. Ants are “decomposers”, i.e., they help the environment recycle matter from dead plants and animals. While different species of ants have different food preferences, ants as a species are omnivores, i.e., they will eat both plants and animals.

Some ants are farmers. Ants living in the southeastern United States and in tropical Central and South America cultivate a fungus in their nests. To feed the fungus, the ants cut sections of leaves and take them to the nest. As shown in the video, some ants keep herds of aphids. (For another photograph and more facts about the complex interaction of ants and aphids, see Herding Aphids: How ‘Farmer’ Ants Keep Control Of Their Food from Science Daily.) Some species of ants keep scale insects and lycaenid butterfly larvae as domesticated animals. Red harvester ants (central United States and Mexico) frequent fields of grass, harvesting and storing the grass seeds.

Some ants engage in slavery. The Amazon ant carries out forays against other ants and returns to the home nest with some of the unconsumed brood of the other ants. These are raised as slaves performing excavation, brood tending, and other work of the Amazon colony. Another species of ant has a queen that permits herself to be dragged into the nest of another type of ant, then she kills the queen of the nest. The host colony then cares for and hatches the eggs of the new queen.

Ants have four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. What are commonly referred to as “ant eggs” are really the pupae. There are two types of ants in any nest: reproductive and nonreproductive. The queen and males constitute the reproductive class of ants. The non-reproductive ants include the female worker ants.

Army and driver ants make nests that consist of the clustered bodies of millions of workers hanging from the underside of a raised log or other surface. Enclosed in this mass are the queen and the brood.

If a line of ants taking food to its nest and returning for more is interrupted by placing an obstacle that breaks up the line, the ants will find the shortest way around the obstacle and reestablish the line of march. See How Ants Find the Shortest Route Around an Obstacle.

Each day, colonies of army ants in the Amazon or driver ants in Africa organize a swarm raid. These raids have fronts that reach more than 45 ft in width. Advancing at a rate of about 12 inches a minute, these ants capture, tear apart, and carry back to their temporary nests any prey that cannot escape. Their food consists primarily of other insects or spiders. At times, nestling birds, cornered snakes, or other small vertebrates are killed by stinging.

The biomass of the ants in the Amazon forest is estimated to be four times the biomass of all the vertebrate animals combined. Biomass means the total amount of living matter.

Ants do not have lungs, but rather tiny tubes that carry air to all portions of their bodies.

This Snippet Guide was written by James Frieden. It was published on April 27, 2009.

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