Dear Matt Alice: How far can an ant go on one fuel-up? No, really. I need to know because my son is convinced that ants eat on the way to the job. But I say they only eat once they find a food source, like the jelly on that loose jar lid in my cupboard. Anyway, the scout ant would seem to me to have a half-fuel-up range. So how does the ant know when he/she/it has reached the halfway point? Do ants keep a supply of food ready for the return scouts? What if the food is, say, 75 percent of a fuel-up away from the nest? Does the scout ant go the extra distance and risk running on empty which is to say, certain death? — Obsessed, San Diego
Over the years I’ve done a lot of ant-watching on behalf of the bewildered, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen any food gatherers kickin’ back for a snack break or playing Tetris on the job or grabbing a toke in the parking lot. Maybe your son’s found a new race of slacker ants, but I doubt it.
Basic ant facts: They establish colonies near likely food sources. A scout ant only has to wander around until he encounters food, probably within a few dozen yards of home, rarely more than 150. Then he heads back, dragging his belly to leave a scent trail. He rounds up pals, and they follow the trail back. They chow down at home. Scout ants and food gatherers have low energy requirements. The colony’s big eaters are the ones dedicated to reproduction; and they don’t leave home much.
But, okay, say you’ve got some maverick gourmet scout ant with a yen one day for New Orleans jambalaya or Maryland crab. Maybe he’d make it using energy stored in a structure called a fat body. Most insects have them. (We’d call it cellulite.) Couldn’t find figures for plodding ants; but in the lab, scientists got about 100 kilometers on the wing from a fly before it croaked. Locusts migrate hundreds of miles over water. Never underestimate a bug.