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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.

Camponotus Subbarbatus Queen Ant

What do I need to be an ant keeper?
 

Introduction:

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:

  • A queen ant. For proper ant-keeping, a queen ant is a must.

  • A nesting area, as small as possible; usually a test tube setup or an adequately sized formicarium (small is better). 

  • A foraging area. Also called an outworld, ants look for food, deposit waste and drink fluids here (large is long-term useful;).

  • Heat and cold sources, heat gradients help develop eggs and regulate colony activity; cold is needed for diapause periods.

  • Proper ventilation and humidity to avoid mould, provide oxygen exchange and proper conditions for development.

  • Food and water. 

Head to our "formicarium hydration guide"  and "food for ants guide"  for further resources. 

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. 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). 

Housing:

When you get ants from websites, they are usually raised from queens or colonies caught in the wild, so when housing the ants, it's better to try and replicate their natural environment. Most ants nest underground or under rocks, making complex tunnel systems, so the nest has to have divisions and different chambers since ants prefer tight spaces. It is better for young queens and colonies (with very few individuals) to offer a test tube setup consisting of a glass test tube with ½ to ⅗ of water sealed with a cotton ball. The colony will live in the test tube for some months; close the tube's end with another cotton ball, allowing it to be aerated.

Formicaria (ant nests or ant farms) are usually reserved for the stages that follow the initial founding of an ant colony, a formicarium usually provides too much space and that can be detrimental to their development. Ants feel safe in tight nesting areas and this explains why test tubes are so common, such provides a big enough water reservoir, cotton does a good job at transferring humidity, they are tight and cozy and the front cotton or dry cotton allows for ventilation. Alternatively, there are specialized smaller formicaria that can serve as founding chambers (founding formicarium), but we still prefer to fully enhance a test tube with inserts and other accessories. 

Diet:

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. The little buggers also need 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!

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.

lasius neoniger fully-claustral ant queen

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. 

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