Ant wars!

Three pavement ants touch antennae to determine if they are nestmates. Photo courtesy Michael Greene.

The activities are as follows:

The ants crawling into and out of cracks along sidewalks are called pavement ants. They live in groups called colonies, which are made up of a few queens and many worker ants. A colony lives together inside a nest, a physical structure. Worker ants use their antennae to touch the bodies of other ants. Certain chemicals tell them if the ant is from their colony or a different colony. Nestmates are ants from the same colony, and non-nestmates are ants from other colonies. 

Neighboring colonies often compete for food, leading to tension. If an ant finds a non-nestmate, it organizes a large war against the nearby colony. This results in huge sidewalk battles that can include thousands of ants fighting for up to 12 hours! These ant wars often involve worker ants grabbing body parts of non-nestmate ants. 

Andrew, Jazmine, John, Mike, and Ken all work together to study the social and chemical cues that drive behaviors in animals. They were curious to learn more about the triggers that lead to colony wars. Worker ants don’t have a leader, so the scientists wanted to know how large wars are organized. The team started by reading lots of research articles and learned that there are several factors that may affect an ant’s decision to fight. These include the odor of other ants they meet, the size of the ant’s colony, and the season. The team also knew from their own experiments that if an ant meets a fellow nestmate before meeting a non-nestmate, it was more likely to fight.

A colony war involving thousands of pavement ants. Photo credit: Michael Greene.

All of this information helped the team realize that interactions with nestmates were an important part of the decisions that start ant wars with non-nestmakes. To build on this, they wanted to know whether the decision to fight was affected by ant density, which is the number of ants within an area. They thought that at higher densities the ants would be more likely to interact, leading to more fights with non-nestmates. If more wars are observed at higher ant densities, increased interactions with nestmates might be part of the story.

To answer their question, the team collected ants from different colonies in Denver, Colorado for two separate experiments. They brought them back to the lab to set up trials in a plastic tank arena.

Experiment 1: For the first set of behavioral trials, the researchers varied the number of ants in the tank, ranging from 2 to 20 ants. The size of the tank remained constant, and there were always equal numbers of nestmates and non-nestmates. This means the ratio of nestmates to non-nestmates was always 1:1, but the density varied by how many ants were included in the experiment. They performed 18 trials for each density treatment in their experiment.

At the start of every trial, ants from each colony were in separate areas so that they could interact with nestmates first. Earlier work had shown that when ants in each area interact, they touch antennae to another ant’s body. These interactions create a brain state that makes an ant more likely to fight an ant from another colony. Then the scientists removed a barrier revealing the ants from the other colony. They watched the ants for 3 minutes. During that time they recorded the number of ants that were fighting. This way they could compare how likely the ants were to fight at different densities. They predicted there would would be more fighting at higher ant densities.

Experiment 2: The scientists also wanted to measure the effect of density on the interaction rates between just nestmates. This experiment allowed the scientists to understand how the rate of interactions affected levels of neurochemicals in brains, creating the brain state that increased the likelihood that an ant would be aggressive. For these trials, they placed different densities of nestmate ants in a tank. They randomly picked an ant during each trial and counted the number of times it contacted a nestmate ant. Different groups of ants were used in each trial and each experiment. They observed the number of interactions at different densities and expected nestmate ants to have more interactions at higher densities.

Featured scientists: Andrew Bubak, Jazmine Yaeger, John Swallow, and Michael J. Greene from the University of Colorado-Denver; Kenneth Renner from the University of South Dakota. Written by: Gabrielle Welsh

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

A news article about the research:

David vs. Goliath

Stalk-eyed flies have their eyes at the end of long stalks on the sides of their head. These stalks are used by males when fighting for resources.

The activities are as follows:

Animals in nature often compete for limited resources, like food, territory, and mates. To compete for these resources, they use aggressive behaviors to battle with others of the same species. Aggressive behaviors are meant to overpower and defeat an opponent. The outcome of a battle depends on many different factors. In insects, one important factor is body size. Larger individuals are usually more aggressive and often win more battles. Chemicals in the brain can also influence who wins a fight. One chemical, called serotonin, can cause insects to have more aggressive behaviors. It is found in the brains of all animals, including humans.

Andrew had always been curious about what makes an animal decide to use aggressive behaviors in battle, or when to end one. He worked with researchers Nathan, Michael, Ken, and John to study the role that chemicals in the brain have on behaviors. The team was interested in how brain chemicals, like serotonin, affect aggression. They have been studying an insect species called stalk-eyed flies. These flies have eyes on the ends of long eyestalks that protrude from their heads. Male stalk-eyed flies use these eyestalks when battling each other. In a previous experiment, they found that serotonin can cause these flies to have more aggressive behaviors. They also knew that flies with shorter eyestalks usually lose fights to larger flies. 

This made them curious about whether extra serotonin could make flies with shorter eyestalks act more aggressive and help them win fights against flies with longer eyestalks. The team of researchers discussed what they knew from past research and predicted that if they gave serotonin to short eyestalk flies, it might help them win fights against long eyestalk flies. They thought this made sense because they already knew that serotonin make flies more aggressive, and more aggressive behaviors could help the shorter flies win more fights. 

The fighting arena where stalk-eyed flies battle. The camera is set up to help the scientists observe both the high intensity behaviors and retreats.

The team designed a lab study to look into this question about the importance of eyestalk length and serotonin for battles in stalk-eyed flies. First, the researchers raised male stalk-eyed flies in the lab. They made sure the flies were around the same age and were raised in a similar lab environment from the time they were born. Then, they measured the eyestalk length for each fly and divided them into two groups. One group had flies with longer eyestalks (Goliaths) and one group had flies with shorter eyestalks (Davids). They took the group of Davids with shorter eyestalks and fed half of them food with a dose of serotonin. This became the treatment group. They fed the other half of the Davids group food, but without serotonin. This was the control group. The treatment group and control group each had 20 flies.

To prepare the flies for battle, all flies were all starved for 12 hours before the competition to increase their motivation to fight over food. The researchers paired each David with a Goliath in a fighting arena. They observed the flies and recorded aggressive behaviors shown by each opponent. The researchers labeled any behavior where the fighting flies touch each other as a “high intensity behavior”. They labeled any behavior where the flies backed away as a “retreat”. Flies that retreated less than their opponent were declared the winners.

Featured scientists: Andrew Bubak, Nathan Rieger, and John Swallow from the University of Colorado, Denver; Michael Watt and Kenneth Renner from the University of South Dakota. Written by: Gabrielle Welsh.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.3

To bee or not to bee aggressive

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) collecting nectar to bring back to the hive. Photo by Andreas Trepte.

The activities are as follows:

Honey bees are highly social creatures that live in large colonies of about 40,000 individuals and one queen. Every member of the hive works together to benefit the colony. Some of the tasks adult bees perform include making honey, nursing young, foraging for food, building honey comb structures, and defending the colony.

From spring through fall, the main task is turning nectar from plants to honey. The honey is stored and eaten over the winter, so it is vital for the colony’s survival. Because honey is an energy-rich food source, hives are targets for break-ins from animals, like bears, skunks, and humans that want to steal the honey. Bees even have to fight off bees from other colonies that try to steal honey. Research shows that colonies adjust their defenses to match threats found in their environment. Hives in high risk areas respond by becoming more aggressive, and hives that do not face a lot of threats are able to lower their aggression. This flexibility makes sure they do not waste energy on unnecessary behaviors.

Clare is a scientist studying the behavior of social animals. There is an interesting pattern seen in other social animals, including humans, that Clare wanted to test in honey bees. In these species, the social environment experienced when an individual is young can have lasting effects on their behavior later in life. This may be because this is the time that the brain is developing. She thought this would likely be the case with honey bees for two reasons. First, bees can use social information to help coordinate group defense. Second, young bees rely completely on adult bees to bring them food and incubate them, so there are a lot of social interactions when they are young. After reading the literature and speaking with other honey bee experts, Clare found out that no one had ever tested this before!

Honey bee larva (top) and an emerging adult (bottom).

Clare chose to look at aggression level as a behavioral trait of individual bees within a colony. She predicted that young honey bees raised in an aggressive colony would be more aggressive as adults, compared to honey bees raised in a less aggressive colony. To test her predictions, Clare used 500 honey bee eggs from 18 different queens. To get these 500 eggs she collected three times in the summer, for two years. Each time she collected, she went to two different locations. Collecting from so many different queens helped Clare make sure her study included eggs with a large genetic diversity.

To test her questions, she used these eggs to set up an experiment. Eggs from each of the 18 queens were split into two groups. Each group was put into one of two types of foster colonies – high aggression and low aggression. Clare determined whether each foster colony was considered high or low aggression using a test. Because half of each queen’s eggs went into a low aggression foster colony, and the other half in a high aggression foster colony, this represents the experimental treatment.

Clare left the foster colonies alone and waited for the bees to develop in the hives. Eggs hatch and turn into larvae. These larvae mature into pupae and then into adults. Just before the young bees emerged from their pupal stage to adulthood, Clare removed them from the foster colonies and brought them into the lab. This way the bees would spend their whole adult life in the lab together, sharing a common environment.

After a week in the lab, Clare tested the aggressiveness of each individual bee. Her test measured aggressive behaviors used by a bee to defend against a rival bee from another colony. Clare observed and counted a range of behaviors including attempts to sting the rival and bites to the rival’s wings and legs. She used these values to calculate an offspring aggression score for each bee.

To select high and low aggression foster colonies to be used in her experiment, Clare first had to identify which colonies were aggressive and which were not. To do this, she put a small amount of a chemical that makes bees aggressive on a piece of paper at the front of the colony entrance. The top two photos show two colony entrances before the chemical. The bottom two photos show the same two colonies 60 seconds after the chemical. The more bees that come out, the more aggressive the colony. You can see from these images that the colony on the right is much more aggressive than the colony on the left. Clare counted the number of bees and used this value to calculate the colony’s aggression score.

Featured scientist: Clare C. Rittschof from the University of Kentucky

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2