How Making a Picnic for Ants Can Help Us Understand This Crucial Species

In its 4.5 billion year history, our planet has experienced five mass extinctions. Many scientists believe we are on the verge of a sixth mass extinction, and this one is on us. Humans are to blame.

Planet at Risk

The consequences of our actions too often go unseen. The impacts caused by driving a car or manufacturing our everyday products are often invisible to the human eye. However, everything on our planet is interconnected. The flap of a butterfly’s wings is enough to slightly alter a wind pattern, which could initiate a chain of events that lead to a tornado. Each action we take can have detrimental effects on the organisms that make up the backbone of our ecosystem. This raises the question: what can we do to help? Ant Picnic, a citizen science project, shows us that to help understand a big issue, we must start small.

Starting Small

Ants may be small, but they are essential to the health of our ecosystem. Ants pollinate our crops, regulate soil and even play a role in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Beyond that, ants provide an important early warning system for scientists and land managers to understand environmental health. Ants act as Bioindicators, meaning they show signs of environmental damage that is invisible to the human eye. Essentially, if ants aren’t doing well, the rest of our ecosystem isn’t far behind.

Ants at Risk

Ants provide us with real-time data on one of the planet’s most concerning issues. Climate change is an increasingly alarming threat to this essential species. Rising temperatures are forcing ants to migrate to colder temperatures, increasing competition with the existing species for the key resources. Ants are vital to the health of many ecosystems. Without these little creatures, many ecosystems will slowly deteriorate, potentially leading to the subsequent extinction of hundreds of species. So, what can we do to prevent the extinction of such an essential species? And what can you, an everyday person, do to help understand this problem?

The Answer: Ant Picnic!

Scientists need our help! Collecting data on the numerous species of ants is tedious and most scientists are often restricted to very specific testing locations. “One student, family or school at a time, we are seeing ever more than we knew before,” says Rob Dunn, a professor of Ecology at NC State University and a founder of the Ant Picnic project. “We don’t have the big picture yet, but we have glimpses. We still need more observations to see enough to make it all make sense.”

An image the author of this post, Carter Day, took after completing the experiment. Looking closely at the ants on each index card demonstrates how different species prefer different nutrients.

How it Works

Ant Picnic gives everyday people the resources to impact science in a big way. The process is free, easy and fun! All you have to do is gather together some simple cooking items and mix them each with water. You leave the solutions outside for one hour and when you come back you are greeted by hundreds of these amazing creatures! You can record your data by counting the number of ants you find on each index card and entering your numbers into a database.

Get started with Ant Picnic today.

About the Author

Carter Day: “I am currently a sophomore majoring in environmental engineering at North Carolina State University. I conduct research through my university looking at how changes in the environment affect the coastal ecosystem. I am also interning with a local firm, Hazen and Sawyer, where I work with a team to find solutions to evolving drinking water challenges. In my free time I love to find new ways, such as citizen science, to help make my community a better place.”

Behind the Scenes!

Carter wrote this blog post with the help of her instructor, Chelsea Krieg.

Professor Krieg is an English department instructor at NC State University. She engages in interdisciplinary communication and collaboration by integrating citizen science into her writing courses. Carter Day was a student in her first-year writing course.

“Citizen science is a valuable way to engage students with local and global science initiatives from their homes and/or classrooms. In my first-year writing course, we use hands-on citizen science experiences and scholarly research to encourage others to participate in citizen science initiatives across the globe. Through this, students become part of the answer to important research questions, and they see how writing plays an active role in sharing those answers.”

Categories: Ecology & Environment

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About the Author

SciStarter Team

SciStarter Team

SciStarter connects you to thousands of searchable citizen science projects in need of your help. Use the Project Finder ( to find a project to match your location, interests, and age level. Your free SciStarter account will help you earn credit for participating in projects across apps and websites (use the advanced search option at to find Affiliate projects eligible for credit in your dashboard). Together, we can move the world forward!