Resources Details

Social Behavior of Ants

This is a lesson on ants that teaches students about social interactions within the insect world and how colonies of social insects work together toward a common goal. Students set up an experiment to observe and record the cooperative food-gathering behaviors of ants, then share those observations both verbally and in their journals. A legend from the Nez Perce people illustrates how territorial animals also can fight over food with everyone losing in the end.

Key Concepts

Life Science, Insects, Social Behaviors


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2 - 50 minute classtimes




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Life Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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More Info for this Extended Lesson Plan


The Nez Perce tribe has lived for many generations in the mountains and prairies of what is now northern Idaho and eastern Washington State. They traditionally worked together to catch salmon and other fish in the Snake, Columbia and Clearwater rivers, collect berries and roots wherever they traveled, and hunt large and small animals for food. When they acquired horses, the Nez Perce people also rode into present-day Montana to hunt bison.

Insects are in the kingdom Animalia and in the phylum Arthropoda, that is, the animals with jointed legs and external skeletons. Class Insecta contains an unknown number of insect types, but scientists know that there are more kinds of insects than all other kinds of animals put together. All adult insects have three pair of legs and three principal body segments or parts -- head, thorax, and abdomen. As they grow and mature during their respective life cycles, insects change physical form in a process called metamorphosis. Insects are highly successful animals because, as a group, they have adaptations that allow them to live in every type of environment. They can live above ground, underground, in the water; they can fly, carve tunnels in wood and dirt, and swim. Many insects affect human societies, either through beneficial ways like bees making honey or through destructive ways like termites destroying houses or beetles eating crops.

Found in many types of environments, ants are a very common example of insects. Although many insects live solitary lives for the most part, some of the most interesting insects are those called the "social insects": the termites, ants, wasps, and bees. They live in very large colonies with labor divided among different types of workers that build homes, gather food, and defend the colony. In a sense, these colonies each function as a single well-coordinated organism.


The purpose of this activity is to give students an understanding of social behavior among animals, in this case, ant colonies. Students will conduct an experiment outdoors with different types of foods placed near an ant colony, to observe and record cooperative behaviors among the insects. They also will learn that American Indian cultures incorporate beliefs about animal societies interacting with each other, including stories about territorial fights over food.


Shane Doyle
Cultural Consultant -CrowCultural Consultant

My name is Shane Doyle, and I live and teach on the Crow reservation. As an enrolled member of the Crow tribe, I grew up in the town of Crow Agency. I attended Montana State University in Bozeman, and returned home after college to teach 5th grade the Lodge Grass Public School. I'm just finishing my fourth, and most successful, year of teaching. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy science, and I'm looking forward to working with other teachers at the NTEN course!


  • Colony - several individuals of the same species living together.
  • Territorial - behavior of defending terratory from intruders.

Learner Outcomes

  • Observe the food-gathering behaviors and preferences of ant colonies.
  • Realize that ants, as social insects, work together for the good of their colony.
  • Understand that native cultures use legends about animals like insects to teach lessons about human society.

Content Standards

  • Science as Inquiry Content Standard A: Abilities to do scientific inquiry
  • Life Science Content Standard C: The characteristics of organisms
  • Life Science Content Standard C: Life cycles of organisms
  • Life Science Content Standard C: Organisms and environments


  • Poster paper for class chart of ant behaviors
  • Poster paper for outdoor ant-food experiment
  • Ant food – crackers, sugar or honey, sunflower seeds, banana slices and/or apple cubes
  • Journals and pencils

Lesson Procedures

  • Read the Nez Perce legend about ant and wasp behaviors and then ask students to discuss the story, including an emphasis on choosing to compete or cooperate when gathering food:

    Long ago the ants and the yellow jacket wasps lived together on a hill about ten miles above a place called Tse-me-na-kem (near present-day Lewiston, Idaho), close to the beautiful Clearwater River. The two families of insects were quite friendly, although sometimes they would start arguing back and forth, which is not that uncommon among friends and families.

    The chief of the Yellow Jacket tribe and the chief of the Ant tribe were envious of each other, but still they got along fine most of the time. Then something bad happened. Chief Yellow Jacket was sitting on top of his favorite rock, eating his favorite food of dried salmon, which was something he did every day. Along came Chief Ant, who got very angry when he saw Chief Yellow Jacket calmly eating his pile of dried salmon, even though Chief Ant had plenty of dried salmon of his own and there were many other rocks on which to sit.

    "Hey there, you Yellow Jacket," Chief Ant shouted. "What are you doing on that rock? I have just as much right to be on that rock, and you cannot eat there without asking me first."

    Chief Yellow Jacket looked up in surprise, and answered, "Ant, why are you shouting? I have always eaten my dinner on this rock."

    "That makes no difference at all," yelled Ant. "Why didn't you ask me about eating there?"

    By this time, Chief Yellow Jacket had become very angry as well. He rattled his wings and snapped his legs. He shouted back, "It is none of your business, you little runt!"

    "Do not call me a runt!" said Ant. "Nobody can insult me that way."

    Then Ant climbed up the side of the rock and he and Yellow Jacket began to fight all over the top of that rock. With their upper legs wrapped around each other, the two of them reared up on their hind legs, biting and poking.

    Suddenly a loud voice boomed, "Here now, Ant and Yellow Jacket, stop that fighting." It was Coyote, who happened to be passing on the other side of the river. He yelled at the two fighters again, "I order you to stop fighting. There is plenty of room and plenty of food for all of us, so why be foolish and fight like this?"

    This time Ant and Yellow Jacket heard Coyote but neither of them would stop. Coyote warned them a third time, telling them that he would turn both of them into stone if they did not quit fighting. But again they ignored the warning. So Coyote used his powers and just as Ant and Yellow Jacket were bent over each other in an arch, Coyote turned them to stone as an example to the Human Beings who passed by the rock. To this day, the two stone fighters remain for all to see, locked in each other's arms on top of the big rock, a symbol of how greed and envy can destroy a friendship.
  • Construct a chart on poster board, to be completed by the class after doing the following outdoor ant-food experiment (e.g., a grid with types of food along one axis and time-of-observation along the other axis).
  • Students take their science journals and go outside to find an anthill:
    • Lay poster board on the ground with one end close to the anthill.
    • Secure the paper with rocks.
    • Arrange small piles of the foods at the end of the paper opposite the anthill (crumble the crackers into pieces of various sizes).
    • Ask students to hypothesize what the ants will do with the various foods, the different-sized pieces, and so forth.
    • om a distance, watch the ants find and transport the food to their anthill, and record observations in the journals. Students should record information including time, number of ants by each food type, behavior of ants to other ants, etc.
    • Return later, e.g., after one hour, and again observe/record the ants gathering food for their colony.
  • As a class project, complete the food-gathering chart begun at the start of this experiment. This may involve comments on food preferences, ants working together to move larger pieces of food, etc. Students can refer to their notes in their own individual science journals.
  • With the entire class, have students describe and discuss what they learned about ant behavior, with focus on how the ants work together as a community, unlike many insects and other animals. Why do the ants carry the food to the anthill rather than sit and eat all the food on the poster board? Did students notice the ants communicating with each other by rubbing antennae?


  • Individual ants often cooperate and work together for the welfare of their community, whether gathering food or protecting the colony from harm, which is why they are considered “social insects.”


  • Journal entries
  • Participation in class/group discussions
  • Class completion of poster board chart


  • Observe other ant colonies or different insects to see whether they show the same type of food-gathering behaviors.
  • Have you seen ants in your house or in your yard? What were they doing? Have you moved a rock to find ants underneath, carrying their white egg cases to safety?
  • What do ants have in common with other insects? (three main body parts and six legs)
  • Are there different types of ants in different parts of the world? (Internet/book sources)


  • Ant Behavior -
  • Ant Social Behavior -
  • Ant Colonies -
  • Dictionary -