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Food collection is a critical component of an individual’s life, and for eusocial insects, the colony that individual foragers support and maintain. Changes to the distribution and composition of food types in the environment are expected influence diet selection if the economics of foraging are altered. For seed-harvesting ants, the abundance and composition of seed types available on the ground typically shows a high degree of spatial and temporal variability, and not all types of seed are equally valued by foragers. We evaluated the response of Owyhee harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex salinus) to reductions in the availability of Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda) seeds, a preferred food type, while leaving the availability of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) seeds, a less favored food type, unmanipulated. At control colonies (N = 8), cheatgrass seeds comprised 3.9±1.6% of total seed intake, while Sandberg bluegrass seeds accounted for the remainder of the diet. At colonies where bluegrass was trimmed to prevent new seeds from dropping within 12 m of the nest (N = 8), cheatgrass seed intake increased significantly to 8.2±1.4% of the diet. Despite the uptick in collection of cheatgrass seeds, bluegrass seed collection remained high and very similar between treatment and control colonies. Treatment colonies were significantly more likely than control colonies to have at least one trunk trail that extended beyond the 12 m foraging range of the colony, and ants returning along these trails carried bluegrass seeds but not cheatgrass seeds. These results suggest that when preferred seeds dropped in abundance near nests, the economics of foraging by harvester ants favored a small increase in acceptance of less preferred seeds as well as more distant forays to locate and collect preferred seeds.

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This is an author-produced, peer-reviewed version of this article. The final, definitive version of this document can be found online at Journal of Insect Behavior, published by Springer. Copyright restrictions may apply. The final publication is available at doi: 10.1007/s10905-018-9685-x

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