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Ant Farm Q&A:
What you need to know about gel & sand farms

Ant farms are a fascinating way to observe the behaviour and habits of ants in a controlled environment. However, while such have existed for many years, many questions and misconceptions exist.


This guide will cover the most common questions and provide the information you need to create a safe and healthy environment for your ants. In addition, we will discuss the difference between an ant farm and a formicarium and provide tips on choosing a suitable setup.


We will also address concerns about gel & sand tunnelling media or substrate and explain how to make them safe for your ants. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced ant keeper, this guide will provide you with the knowledge and resources to understand this controversial topic.

Blue gel ant farm close up of worker ant digging tunnels

What is the difference between an ant farm and a formicarium?

An ant farm is a small enclosed container designed as a temporary or short-term habitat for ants. At the same time, a formicarium is a more complex and permanent habitat for ants designed to mimic their natural habitat as closely as possible. Formicaria can be much larger than ant farms and may include chambers, tunnels, and nesting areas. Use a proper formicarium for long-term ant keeping, and avoid using gel farms.

In the modern era, two widely recognized styles of ant farms have gained popularity: the blue transparent gel style and the glass sandwich sand-filled toy. The latter was created by Milton Levine in the 1950s and has since become a classic. However, other styles and variations of such concepts also exist. To confuse matters, some people use the same term "ant farm" to refer to a proper formicarium and outworld setup.

Do I need a queen ant to have an ant farm or just any ants? The short answer is NO, as they are designed to observe and learn about ants in a short period and not to house a queen ant. These temporary learning toys need you to collect worker ants from your backyard or order them by mail. Worker ants can live for weeks or months without a queen. However, the queen ant is crucial to the survival of a colony because she is the only one responsible for laying all the eggs. If a queen were to die, no one would replace her, and the colony would eventually die as no new workers would be produced.


The real issue is, "Is it fair to separate or kidnap some workers from their colony and leave them to die while they constantly look for a way back home?" Of course not. So, if you want to maintain a long-term ant farm, it is best to have a queen ant to ensure the colony's survival in a proper ant-keeping setup.

Is the gel safe and healthy?

Gel ant farms are not a safe long-term option for ants. The gel material does not provide the necessary environment and proper moisture levels for the ants to survive. In addition, it can quickly become contaminated, further harming the ants. While it may seem like a unique way to observe ants, there are several reasons why many ant enthusiasts and experts are calling for gel ant farms to be banned and removed from the market.

One major issue is that the gel is not a sustainable food source for ants. It can only support a limited number of ants for a short period before becoming depleted, causing starvation or malnutrition. The gel can also be challenging to maintain, leading to unsanitary living conditions for the ants.

Ban on gel ant farms

What are the primary ingredients and additives used in the gel?

The gel is primarily made of agar, a substance commonly used in microbiology to grow bacteria and other microorganisms. Additives such as colouring agents, sugar, and fungicide may also be included to provide nutrients for the ants and prevent mould growth. But remember, the gel may not provide sufficient nutrients for the ants to survive long-term, as they require a more varied diet, including sugar, protein, and fats.

Can the gel habitat be made safe?

Another concern is that the gel can be stressful and harmful to the ants. The gel can trap and suffocate ants, and the texture can be unnatural and uncomfortable for them to move through. In some cases, ants have even been observed trying to escape, causing injury or death.

As an alternative, many ant enthusiasts and experts recommend using natural substrates, which provide a more natural habitat for ants and are easier to maintain. However, researching and choosing a safe and appropriate habitat for your ants is essential if you're interested in keeping them as pets.

close up of air bubble inside ant farm gel

To make a gel ant farm safe for ants, you must remove the gel entirely and replace it with a sand/loam mixture. Additionally, it is necessary to provide a source of moisture, food, and ventilation. This can be done by placing a small water dispenser or a cotton ball soaked in water in the habitat, providing carbohydrates and protein, removing the lid, adding an escape barrier, and placing the habitat in a well-ventilated area (or adding ventilation holes to the lid). It is also essential to keep the habitat clean to prevent the buildup of bacteria and other harmful substances. However, it is essential to remember that this habitat type is still not ideal for long-term ant keeping.

Please read below on how two make sand ant farms safe to understand better what substrate to use. 

If gel is unsafe, why is it being sold?

It is reasonable to question why gel ant farms are still sold in the market if they are deemed unsafe for ants. Ant farms have been a popular temporary educational tool and fascinating pet for decades, and for a good reason. They continue to be sold because they are highly profitable for those who benefit from their sales.


Additionally, the aesthetic appeal and the fascinating tunnel-digging behaviours of ants observed through the transparent gel and fancy LED lighting can attract consumers. However, it is essential to prioritize the welfare and safety of the ants above our curiosity and entertainment when considering purchasing one.

What was the purpose behind developing the gel?

NASA developed the gel to solve the problem of creating a habitat for ants that could withstand the G-forces during take-off and re-entry and the shaking caused by these movements. The gel material served as a tunnelling medium for the ants and a nutrient source, allowing for the observation of tunnel architecture in 3-D. In addition, the gel was clear, unlike traditional soil-based habitats, which limited the visibility of tunnel development. The development of the gel allowed for the study of ant behaviour in a unique, self-contained environment. It was used in a NASA Space Shuttle experiment in 2003 to study animal life in space and test how ants tunnel in microgravity.

green gel ant farm closeup of ant digging

Are sand farms safe for ants?

Sand ant farms can be safe for ants if correctly set up and maintained. However, a few potential risks associated with sand ant farms can make them unsafe for ants if not appropriately managed. One issue with sand ant farms is that the sand used as the substrate can quickly become too dry as it does not absorb moisture like other materials. If compacted too much or using heavy coarse grains, it can be difficult for the ants to tunnel and build their nests. This can lead to a lack of ventilation, moisture, and nutrients, harming the ants' health.


More typically, if the sand is not compacted enough or if the ants dig too close to the surface, there is a risk of the chambers collapsing, which can disrupt their nests and cause them stress or harm. Sand, when dry, is prone to collapsing and flowing freely. Have you seen how sand flows so nicely inside an hourglass timer? 

Another challenge has to do with the hydration mechanisms or lack of them; If water is applied to the top layer of sand, it can erode the substrate as it travels downward due to gravity. Water softens the sand and causes tunnels to collapse as it moves throughout the substrate. Therefore, it is preferable to use an evaporation mechanism or hydrate from the bottom layer, allowing water to move upward against gravity. Another alternative is to add a fibrous or porous water-absorbent material that can be hydrated directly.


Another potential issue with sand ant farms is the risk of mould or bacterial growth. If the sand becomes too moist or food or waste is left to mix with it for too long, it can lead to harmful mould or bacteria that can infect the ants and make them sick.

How can a sand habitat be made safe?

To ensure that a setup originally intended for sand is safe for your ants, you must substitute the pure sand for a high-quality substrate. In addition, it must be clean, well-compacted, capable of absorbing and retaining water and free of contaminants. One of the best options is to use a soil mixture such as loam instead of plain sand, which contains sand, silt, and clay. Adding perlite or vermiculite to the mix is also recommended, as it can help retain humidity. Furthermore, adding coconut fibre provides better structural integrity and helps prevent tunnel collapses. Finally, as mentioned in the previous question, adding absorbent materials that can be hydrated directly is helpful. 

The habitat should also be maintained at the proper moisture level and regularly cleaned to prevent waste and harmful substances buildup. Finally, if a chamber collapse does occur, immediate action should be taken to ensure the safety of the ants.


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Please browse our catalogue at the Ant Shop now and take your first step towards creating your thriving ant colony.

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