Large ant colonies invariably use effective scent trails to guide copious ant numbers to food sources. The success of mass recruitment hinges on the involvement of many colony members to lay powerful trails. However, many ant colonies start off as single queens. How do these same colonies forage efficiently when small, thereby overcoming the hurdles to grow large? In this paper, we study the case of combined group and mass recruitment displayed by some ant species. Using mathematical models, we explore to what extent early group recruitment may aid deployment of scent trails, making such trails available at much smaller colony sizes. We show that a competition between group and mass recruitment may cause oscillatory behaviour mediated by scent trails. This results in a further reduction of colony size to establish trails successfully. © 2013 Society for Mathematical Biology.