What do I need to keep ants as pets?
Let's talk about the basic needs and the steps needed to become an ant keeper; the good news is that caring for pet ants and starting an ant colony in a simple setup is easy; this practice is also called ant farming, from the popular ant farm concept.
**Keep in mind that this is a very summarized version of the ant-keeping requirements in the hobby; some species of ants will have different or more specific needs. Therefore it is an excellent practice to research information on your pet ants and read the detailed care sheets of the species you desire to keep.
What do I need to be an ant keeper?
Ants are some of the most impressive and intelligent bugs on Earth. They have many survival adaptations, from having flat faces (like the Cephalotes genus) to stealing other ants' babies (like the Polyergus genus). Ants are excellent pets; we can appreciate their coordinated efforts and great feeding responses; they, like all pets, deserve good care and housing.
The bare-bone needed basics are:
Importance: Essential for starting a colony, as the queen is the sole egg layer and pivotal in establishing the colony's population and structure.
Selection: For beginners in ant-keeping, opt for an easy-to-care-for species. Common choices include Lasius, Camponotus, Crematogaster and Tetramorium.
Colony Size: if choosing a colony size, consider that larger colonies (above 25 workers) establish faster and are more resilient, while smaller colonies (5-20 workers) offer a more gradual and educational growth experience.
Initial Setup: Begin with a test tube setup, which is simple and reliable.
First Formicarium: To simulate natural nest progression, transition to a small formicarium when the colony reaches 50 or more workers.
Size: Upgrade to a formicarium that is double or, at most, triple the size of the current nesting area once the colony occupies at least 75% of it. Overly spacious environments can impede growth and development.
Foraging Area (Outworld):
Purpose: Allows ants to forage, dispose of waste, and hydrate.
Safety: Use a secure lid and escape barriers to prevent escapes.
Escape Barriers: Apply baby powder, Fluon, Vaseline, mineral oil, or commercial ant barriers around the enclosure's perimeter to thwart escapes.
Warmth: Utilize heating mats, heat lamps, or cables for brood development and colony activity.
Cold: Provide a refrigerator or a cold area for diapause periods (approximately 6 Celsius).
Ventilation and Humidity:
Airflow: Ensure sufficient ventilation to prevent mold and support oxygen exchange.
Moisture: Use a water source or humidifier to maintain the humidity level suitable for your ant species.
Food and Water:
Diet: A balanced diet includes proteins, lipids, sugars, and water.
Species-Specific Needs: Adhere to dietary guidelines specific to your ant species.
Tools: Include cotton for water reservoirs in test tube setups and for blocking vinyl tube entrances, tweezers for placing food, dishes for feeding, liquid feeders for water or sugar solutions, a small brush for cleaning, and vinyl tubing to connect different areas of the habitat.
Knowledge: Understand your ant species' specific needs, behaviours, and characteristics. Consult care guides and care sheets.
Networking: Engage in ant-keeping forums or local groups for advice, support, and resource exchange.
Regulations: Verify local laws regarding the keeping of exotic species; some may necessitate permits.
With over 12,000 known ant species, each with its unique care requirements, it's crucial to familiarize yourself with the specific needs of the species you plan to keep.
How do I get a Queen ant?:
The best way to start a colony is to capture a newly mated queen right in your surrounding areas during a nuptial flight, a crucial reproductive event where virgin queens and male ants take to the skies to mate. The species found in your local area are usually ideal for beginners; we encourage you to hunt and catch queen ants as it is an exciting activity. If you acquire too many, send them over to us. However, buying a queen ant is much easier if you want to start faster or get a specific species.
Here is the catch, queen ants are usually very hidden in their nests deep underground and protected by their workers; it's best to leave them in peace, and we do not encourage digging a colony out. So if they are hiding, how can we possibly get one?
When ant colonies are mature, they produce alates (ants with wings), female alates are destined to be queens (gynes), and males are usually called drones. During a nuptial flight, queens and drones from multiple colonies and the same species fly out of their nests, gather up high above ground and mate in mid-air. Often multiple drones mate with a queen and deposit a variety of genetic material that will be used for the rest of the queen's life to produce eggs.
After mating, the drones usually die soon after. The queens instead come to the ground; they often eat their wings (which serve as food reserves and are not needed anymore); after that, they start walking around looking for an area where they believe the proper conditions exist to start building their founding chamber (a nest to start laying eggs).
We catch queen ants in the short window between the nuptial flight and them hiding away in their founding chambers.
When captured, queen ants are immediately housed separately in a test tube setup and provided the needed care based on their foundation method (read below).
It's important to note that in some regions, keeping certain ant species is illegal due to the risk of introducing invasive species or spreading diseases. Always check and adhere to local laws and guidelines regarding wildlife capture and ownership
When you obtain ants, they often come from queens or colonies captured in the wild, making it essential to mimic their natural habitat when housing them. In nature, ants create complex tunnel systems with various chambers, but they only develop additional chambers as needed based on the colony's growth. A test tube setup is an ideal starting point as it simulates a single small chamber, providing a cozy environment for young queens or small colonies in their founding stages. The setup includes a glass test tube filled halfway to two-thirds with water, sealed with a cotton ball, which also provides the necessary humidity. Colonies can reside in this setup for several months, with another cotton ball closing the tube's end for aeration while allowing easy access for feeding and maintenance.
As the colony expands, transitioning to a formicarium—a vivarium or enclosed space mimicking their natural multi-chambered habitats—becomes essential. Typically utilized once the colony outgrows the test tube, formicaria offer more space with various chambers and divisions. These artificial nests have separate sections; however, it's crucial to introduce them progressively, aligning with the colony's natural expansion tendency. Providing too much space too early can be detrimental, hence the test tube setup's prudence for initial housing. Specialized smaller formicaria or enhanced test tube setups with inserts and other accessories can serve as intermediate steps before transitioning to larger formicaria.
Ants need two essential nutrients, carbohydrates and proteins, supplied with feeder insects for their protein and sugary fruits and liquids; other species may require seeds instead. These insects also require fresh water, as all living beings do. So if you have those nutrients and have a good feeding schedule (which you can look at in the description of the species you want to buy), your colony will thrive! Head over to the Food for Ants Guide to read more.
Suitable foods include insects like fruit flies, crickets, mealworms, and high-protein blends like fish flakes. Carbohydrates can be provided through sugary substances like honey, sugar water, and diluted fruit juices. A balanced diet of protein, fat, sugar, and water is crucial for the colony's health.
It's essential to avoid common mistakes such as over or under-feeding the ants, choosing a too big or too small formicarium, checking the queen ant too frequently, overestimating the pace of colony growth, moving the colony into a new nest too soon, or buying exotic ants without proper research. Also, waiting until the colony has at least 25-50 workers before offering them new housing can prevent some common housing issues.
Types of ant colony foundation:
A colony of ants begins with a fully matted Queen considered either fully-claustral, semi-claustral or a social parasite. Such a queen will lay her first eggs and develop them with slightly different strategies; such first workers are usually called "Nanitics" and often are smaller in size compared to the workers that a colony produces as they grow in numbers.
These terms define the process that the queen follows to begin her colony:
-Fully-claustral queen ant: this means the queen doesn't need food to produce its first workers for the first weeks/months. We do not require an outworld until the first workers emerge. The queen already has enough energy and resources to feed and care for their first eggs. All she needs is a tiny nest and peace; no vibration, no sudden light or movements and a steady temperature. The photo shows a lasius neoniger queen with a very empty gaster and her first worker about to receive their first meal.
Semi-claustral queen ant: means the queen needs to forage for food, specifically proteins more than carbohydrates, to raise the first generation of ants and thus require access to an outworld or foraging area and regular feeding. Usually, but not always, these species of ants cannot store long-term resources in their bodies; they often have skinnier bodies and smaller gasters than fully-claustral queens.
-Social parasite queen ants: are complex since many variations exist and determine how a queen will start her colony and behave. The most common type of social parasite is a temporary parasite. Queens will have their nuptial flights and break their wings like usual, but the difference is that they "steal" an already existing colony. The queen will infiltrate the host nest by copying the pheromones of a worker from a specific species they target. For example, lasius aphidicola targets lasius americanus and lasius neoniger. Once the parasitic queen ant is inside the nest, she kills the original queen with her sharp and big mandibles and takes her place; then, she will lay her eggs, and the workers will take care of them for her. The parasite queen's biological workers will slowly replace the host workers. However, some species will continue to have hosts (by kidnapping cocoons from host nests nearby) to make slave worker ants. Polyergus is a prime example; they target Formica species nests. Slave-making ants are not considered temporary parasites; they are permanent parasites.
How many queens can be together (Polygyny)?
We'll start with polygynous and monogynous. Polygynous means a colony can accept more than one egg-laying queen in the colony. Monogynous is the opposite, which means that monogynous species only get one egg-laying queen and will not tolerate any other queens.
You might also read the term olygyny (skip the p); it refers to a species that can start with multiple queens. Such will remain only if, after founding successfully, there are enough workers and space to keep the queens separate so they don't fight and kill each other; eventually, most colonies end up with one queen.
The term "Pleometrosis" refers to species of ants that can start a colony with multiple queens, but as soon as the first workers emerge, they will select the stronger queen and remove all else. It differs from olygyny in that queens won't survive even if kept apart. Often ant keepers use this method to get a solid start in their colonies as multiple queens laying eggs together often result in a much larger quantity of nanitics vs a single queen.