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Ant Setup Guide

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THIS ARTICLE IS A WORK ON PROGRESS

Starter setups

Composition

A starter setup consists of a test tube setup in an outworld/foraging box or just an outworld filled with dirt/soil (naturalistic nest). It is the best option for a starting colony as most ants aren't ready to live in a large nest until they have around 100 (big ants) to 300 (small ants) workers.

When do you need a starter setup?

It's time to set up a foraging container if:

  • Your queen is semi-claustral
  • You don't want to risk food introduced to the test tube growing mold
  • You can't safely put food in the test tube without them escaping (typically 5-10 workers)

Claustral queens (queens that do not require food to raise their first workers) don't need any sort of setup beyond test tube with a water tank. For detailed instructions on how to create a test tube setup check out the test tube guide [INSERT LINK TO TEST TUBE ARTICLE].

A claustral queen even has enough reserves to feed her workers for a few weeks after they've been born. Those first workers usually start to actively search for food when they're around a week old, this is the point where a foraging container might be a good idea.

Ant colonies don't need to be moved out of their test tube setups early, however trying to feed them by putting food into their tube can often be problematic due to the risk of ants escaping or getting crushed, especially with small, fast ants like Lasius niger, Serviformica or Pheidole species. Unused food in a test tube may also spoil and cause mold growth – the high humidity inside a test tube can cause even honey to mold after a while.

Semi-claustral queens (queens that must eat to raise their first brood) need a foraging container right from the start. Putting food into the test tube during the founding process is a very bad idea – it will disturb the queen which often results in her eating the brood or even abandoning the tube.

How to set up a cheap and easy starter setup

  • Buy a cheap plastic box (minimum size around 20x10cm from the dollar store. If you have very small ants that require extra safety measures pick an airtight version, cut out a part of the lid and glue a very fine mesh (0.2mm mesh width or similar) into the hole (aquarium silicone works well as a glue for this).
  • Take your food container, line it with dry sand. This will prevent them from nesting in it. Some people prefer using plaster, sand-clay mixture or hydrostone since it keeps everything cleaner.
  • Mix baby powder and rubbing alcohol until you have a slurry. Using a cotton ball, run it along the top of the inside of the container. This is to prevent them escaping when you take the lid off. Let it dry with good ventilation because ethanol vapors are heavier than air and might harm your ants. You can also use Fluon (liquid PTFE/Teflon) instead which works better but is much more expensive.
  • For placing food, an upside down water bottle cap or a piece of tin foil works great. It's best to use flat caps for liquids so the ants can't fall off the cap's rim and drown in the liquid.
  • Cover the test tube up when not looking at the ants, a piece of folded paper or cardboard works just fine. Ants prefer their nest to be dark.
  • When water runs out in a test tube, just add another next to it. As the colony grows, keep adding test tubes.

Soil starter setup

Some queens, like Odontomachus trap jaw queens, are known to perform poorly in test tubes. For those queens just do the same as above but instead of using sand fill the container with soil to about half it's height. Remember that you will have to regularly spray the container with fresh water so the soil doesn't dry out. Humid conditions will also degrade the escape prevention barrier much faster, so you need to stay vigilant there (fortunately trap jaw ants are very big and can't really climb well on glass and plastic surfaces).

Decorations

Test tube starter setups shouldn't have a lot of decorative elements. Small ants may see stones and other large objects as an invitation to nest below those and abandon their test tube which can lead to all sorts of issues (mostly regarding humidity). For soil nests on the other hand stones are a great addition as it gives the ants a good place to dig their first chambers.

Pine tree needles, a small pile of sand or small pebbles are good building materials and many ants will use those to create a ramp at the front of their tube.

Climate control equipment

Small outworlds can overheat quickly, especially when the ants still live in a test tube. Heating mats should never cover the entire length of the setup but only a part of it so the ants can move to a cooler spot when it gets too hot. Tropical ants kept in temperate countries might require additional equipment, like a humidifier.

Escape prevention

Every ant setup needs some form of escape prevention, otherwise the ants would just walk out of the enclosure and explore your home. There are different types of barriers available and some work better on certain ants than others do. It's best do some research to find out which barrier is best for your species. A list of common escape barriers and how to apply them can be found in the escape prevention guide [INSERT LINK TO ESCAPE PREVENTION ARTICLE].

Small ant colonies usually don't really challenge your escape prevention measures but there are some species (like Lasius niger, Solenopsis species, Pheidole species) that are very good at finding and exploiting weaknesses in barriers so if you happen to keep this kind of ant you should stay extra vigilant.

Ant activity

Small starter colonies usually show little to no building activity. They may dig out a small chamber if the substrate supports digging activity but they are unlikely to cause any major changes to their environment.

Some feeding basics

  • Workers need constant access to sugar water to survive. Workers actually do not need protein to survive.
  • The recommended mix for sugar in water is 1:5 (sugar to water), with a tiny pinch of salt. A young colony won't need more than a drop or two at a time. You can use honey, honey water or diluted maple syrup (1:3) instead.
  • Protein is needed for the brood to grow. You can give this to them in the form of flies, spiders, crickets, worms, shrimp based fish food, dried blood worm fish food, crumbled tuna, crumbled scrambled eggs or any other number of options.
  • You want to give them the tiniest amount of protein you can at first, just to make sure they're taking it.
  • Likewise, if they don't have brood to feed, they probably won't forage for protein.
  • Putting liquids and food on tinfoil or small pieces of plastic to prevent them from spilling all over the place is a good way to keep the setup clean. If you happen to have relatively flat bottle caps or small dishes that's even better.

For a more information on how/what to feed your ants check out the food guide [INSERT LINK TO FOOD GUIDE].


Basic setups

A basic setup consists of an outworld/foraging box and an internal or external nest, the entire installation is called a formicarium. There is a wide variety of different formicaria designs. More details on those can be found in the formcaria guide [INSERT LINK TO FORMICARIA ARTICLE]. ! It is highly recommended to add a second small outworld (a cheap plastic box is fully sufficient) with a water test tube to a basic setup, connected to the first outworld with around 50cm to 1 meter of tubing. This is particularly true for ants that are of the curious or leggy type (Formica, Camponotus, Cataglyphis). The reason is that older worker of these ants will often try to forage further away from the nest and if they cannot do that develop a tendency of walking themselves to death by trying to distance from the nest until they die from exhaustion.

When is it time to move to a basic setup

Colonies with less than around 100 (big ants) to 300 (small ants) workers should not be moved into an external nest. They may struggle with humidity which can cause the brood to dry out and die and the ants are likely to turn unused chambers into waste deposits which in a moist nest are a breeding ground for mold and mites.

Other than that the choice is very much up to you. Usually a good point to attach a nest to your starter foraging box is when the colony is almost completely filling out the test tube, but then you can always just add more test tubes. Technically even huge ant colonies can live in test tubes, you just need a lot of them.

Tubs & tubes – the easiest external nest

The simplest method to create an external nest is to just put several test tubes into a small plastic or acrylic container, for example an iPhone box or one of the smaller IKEA Godmorgon boxes and use some tubing to connect it to some sort of foraging container/outworld. For more information on how to make a tubs & tubes nest check out the formicaria guide [INSERT LINK TO FORMICARIA ARTICLE].

Outworld size

The size of the outworld doesn't really matter, there is no “too big”. The ants just won't make much use of the space provided while the colony is still small.

  • If you don't want to invest too much a small outworld that's enough for a colony of a few hundred ants is sufficient at this point, in fact you can just keep using your starter setup box and attach an external nest to it. This works best for ants that grow very slowly like temperate region Camponotus (these species need around two years to grow to a hundred workers) and ants that are very willing to move (most Solenopsis species, Tetramorium, any semi-nomadic ant).
  • In case you want to plan ahead, have a fast-growing colony or just want something big to decorate and look neat a large outworld (60x30cm or even larger) isn't a bad choice. This works best for species that grow very fast like Solenopsis or Pheidole (so you don't have to add a new outworld after a just few months), species that don't really like to move and ants that create complex intricate nests (Ponerine weaver ants), but you can also do this with slow-growing Camponotus ants. As said before, there is no too big when it comes to outworlds.

Generally having larger outworlds also means you have to add additional parts to the setup less frequently and it's not at all bad to stay ahead of your ants growth here, as it will also reduce their drive to break out of the setup.

Substrate types

There are different substrate types available for formicaria outworlds and nests. Different species prefer different substrates so you should do some research before deciding which ones are best for you and your ants.

The most commonly used substrates are sand, sand-clay mixture/grout (becomes solid when dry) and coconut fiber (for arboreal tropical ants). For more information on formicaria substrates take a look at the formicaria guide [INSERT LINK TO FORMICARIA GUIDE].

Decorations

Typical decorations for basic setup outworlds are a few small stones, small pieces of wood and/or some artificial plants. Sand, stone pebbles, pine tree needles, wood bits and similar objects all make great building materials for the ants. In naturalistic soil setups you can also add real plants but be aware that those tend to grow a lot and may quickly become a problem for small containers.

Climate control equipment

Heating small setups should be done very carefully. Just like test tubes small outworlds can overheat quickly. Heating mats should never cover the entire length of an outworld or a nest but only a part of it so the ants can move to a cooler spot when it gets too hot. Heating only one side of a nest works best as this naturally creates a temperate gradient which allows the ants to store each stage of brood at it's preferred temperature (larvae and eggs like it cooler than pupae).

Tropical ants kept in temperate countries might require additional equipment, like a humidifier.

Ant activity

Small colonies of just a few hundred ants may show some building activity but nothing too spectacular. They may dig a few chambers if the substrate supports digging and some ants like Lasius niger may start to cover their most-used ant trails with dirt.

The workers are also likely to create a trash pile you will have to remove every other week. The amount of waste really depends on the species of ant you keep, ants that have cocooned pupae produce more waste as they throw away their cocoon hulls. Sometimes the ants may take a while to agree on a specific place for their waste and for the time being will stick it into any available gap (or even push it under test tubes and rocks which can be a bit annoying) but once a dedicated trash pile has been established they will throw everything onto it.

Certain ants (Messor species in particular) though can completely reshape small soil setups within a single night, so decorations for these ants really are kind of a wasted effort as they usually get buried or cut into pieces.

Feeding equipment

Although sugary liquids and food bits can be placed on a simple piece of tinfoil or plastic it's a good thing to have some small flat dishes and a liquid-feeder. This prevents sugary liquids and insect guts from sickering into the substrate and messing up the outworld, especially when there's more than just a few ants and your workers develop a habit of pulling around small objects (this is an issue mostly with harvester ants but even Lasius workers can exert amazing force when working as a team). You should avoid deep dishes with steep walls as the ants may fall into those and drown in the liquids.

You can find more information on food and feeding in the food guide [INSERT LINK TO FOOD GUIDE].


Large setups

Composition

For the purposes of this article all setups that consist of MORE than an external nest, a primary outworld or a primary outworld with integrated nest and secondary outworld are considered to be large.

When do you need a big setup?

There are ant species that never really need a big setup like Temnothorax acorn ants which can be kept pretty much indefinitely in one or two 40x30cm outworlds, however many ants grow to pretty huge colonies counting tens of thousands of workers, which obviously need more space than that.

It is hard to define an exact moment for the right time to expand your setup but generally when there's a carpet of ants constantly crawling all over the place it's probably a good idea to add another outworld and some more tubing – and if the nest looks full of ants and brood it's time to expand on that front.

Nests

Total size to nesting space ratio

When housing a large colony one of the most important things to consider is space efficiency. There are a lot of ant setups that may look fancy but are terribly inefficient, wasting half of their size on filler space that isn't available to the ants. You can get away with that while your colony is still small – for a huge colony with tens of thousands of workers this is an huge dealbreaker.

The same applies when you're making a nest by yourself – do not waste space by leaving huge portions of Ytong, plaster or firebrick in between the individual chambers, instead try to group them as closely together as possible (some weaker materials may need thicker walls to prevent them from crumbling away, that's okay) and arrange them as space-efficient as possible. Many ants, especially those of the genus Camponotus, love long tube-like chambers which allows for a very efficient design.

Obviously it's also a major advantage if the nest design allows to directly plug multiple individual nests together to form one big nest.

Going vertical

Most available ant nests are rather flat which means they use up a lot of space on a horizontal plane but completely omit the third dimension, like the space available above a table or between two shelves. They are basically two-dimensional which is very inefficient.

There are some vertical designs on the market but most of them come with their own issues. Vertical nests made of acrylic sheets are usually terrible at retaining moisture and large vertical 3D-printed nests often have a big side window which the ants might be able to lift or break by dropping sand and other debris in between the window and the main nest element (that's why it's best to glue the window into place even if the nest has screws holding it). Vertical glass farms on the other hand are usually extremely thin (3-5cm) but have a large foot (so they don't top over) which pretty much negates all the advantages of being a vertical design. You can also make your own vertical nest by stacking Ytong elements and surrounding them with large acrylic sheets.

Another method to achieve verticality is to just stack nests on top of each other. Some designs are easily stackable, others not so much. A micro-shelf (basically a u-shaped construct with rather short feet) may help here. The pinnacle of this approach would be some sort of ant cabinet with lots of interconnected nests on multiple shelves.

A “Tubs & Tubes” nest, basically a set of test tubes in a small box just big enough for all the tubes to fit into, is also a very efficient nesting design and one that can be stacked very well. Even stackable test tube racks can provide a decent vertical nest design, however it may turn out difficult to change individual tubes when they run dry - you basically have to stick your hand into the heart of an ant nest which, depending on the species, might not be such a great idea.

On an anecdotal note, E.A. Wilson even raised Oecephylla weaver ants in small test tube trees (test tubes mounted on a metal pylon via clamps), although this species shouldn't be kept by anyone (they are extremely hard to raise and if they do well, they will quickly grow to enormous colonies with ridiculously aggressive workers that have no problem killing and eating even smaller vertebrates like birds, mice and geckos; also they are escape artists with breakout skills rivaling army ants and will attack pets, children and even adults without hesitation).

Integrated nests

Outworlds offer a lot of vertical space that is often poorly used, if at all. An integrated nest, consisting of 3-4 large Ytong/firebrick/gyspsum/wooden blocks (with carved-in chambers) aligned along the sides of the outworld tank can offer the ants an enormous amount of nesting space, especially with larger tanks. These designs also look pretty impressive and are a good option for ants like Messor and larger Pheidole species which are known for their ability to chew through Ytong/gypsum/plaster/wood (so you do not want to house them in external nest made from these materials).

Substrate nesting

Another option is to simply allow the ants to nest in the outworld substrate. Depending on the substrate thickness this may grant the ants enough room to create their own tunnels and chambers for thousands of workers and brood. Naturalistic soil setups are the best substrate medium for this method but some ants (Messor species in particular) are very capable of carving chambers even into sand-clay substrate, grout and Ytong. The obvious disadvantage is that you cannot see the brood in these outworld chambers.

outworlds

Ant colonies that grow huge will inevitably require more room to forage, how much space exactly depends on their species. Northern Camponotus species for example are known to be very timid and “lazy” - as long as they can find enough food they will remain happy even with something like a 40x30cm outworld (it is still recommended to attach at least one additional outworld to prevent the issue of aging ants walking themselves to death though) but more is of course preferable.

More foraging space in a setup can be achieved in two ways: - Adding one or two large outworlds at a time. - Adding multiple smaller outworld containers at a time and connecting them via vinyl tubing or plastic tubes.

Unfortunately there is a particular lack of large outworlds on the market which is why many antkeepers use aquariums to house their ants although those aquariums often less than ideal and need to be slightly modified – for example you need to scrape off the upmost 5-10cm of silicone lining in the corners because most barriers (fluon, powder) do not work on silicone, also the sides of aquariums often aren't exactly the same height and while 1-2 millimeter of tolerance won't matter as long as you keep fish in there for smaller ants like Pheidole or Lasius species it's pretty much an open door to your living area. You can learn more about the pitfalls of making an ant setup from a converted aquarium in the DIY section [insert link to DIY outworld page).

Large outworlds offer a lot of space for the ants and can easily be filled with various items that further increase the available living space as will be described further down in this article. Their downside is mostly that they require a lot of space, have quite a significant weight and usually cannot be stacked (also moving them can prove to be quite a nightmare).


Smaller ant setups on the other hand are readily available and manufactured by a lot of antkeeping companies, but they're also fairly easy to make from various acrylic and plastic boxes like the famous ikea godmorgon box set. You can learn more about making an ant outworld from a plastic/acrylic containers in the DIY section [insert link to DIY outworld page).

Small outworlds fit well even into tight places, can easily be picked up and moved and generally are very easy to handle. Combined with some tubing they can offer the ants a lot of distance for walking around which will make adventurous ants like Lasius niger, Serviformica and Cataglyphis species very happy. As they're generally very lightweight they can be stacked although the feasibility of this may depend on the climbing skills of your ants.

The main downside of small outworlds obviously is their size – normally they don't have much space for tools and decorations, even placing a regular bird feeder can become an issue (mostly due to it's height). Feeding live food can turn out problematic as the ants and their prey stumble over each other turning the entire outworld into a mess of whirling bodies and there's a much higher chance that some of the feeder insects may end up fleeing into the tubing where they block the ants' traffic or even stumble into the nesting area to disturb the nurseries and killing some of the brood. Trash piles will have to be removed more often as well as larger colonies can quickly produce impressive amounts of garbage and having your ants walk across a field of debris to reach other parts of the setup probably isn't the healthiest thing in the long run.

Primary feeding outworld

It is generally a good idea to place any food that results in solid leftovers in the largest available outworld(s) as this makes cleaning work much easier. The ants will inevitably drag some items into other parts of the setup but large food bits are often processed near the place they were found. Creating a pit filled with fine sand further improves the usability of the outworld as most ants love to dump their garbage onto patches of sand where you can grab it with some pincers or a flat brush.

Water tubes

Test tube setups make great satellite nests and can take a lot of pressure off the main nest when the colony produces a high amount of brood within a short time span. They work best with ants that are polydomous (have multiple nests) by nature like Lasius and Camponotus. Generally every large setup should have some water test tubes as an emergency failsafe anyway so the ants don't die within a few days in case you forget or are physically unable to water your nests for some reason. Also test tubes and water feeders should be placed in several outworlds so the ants don't have to run through the entire setup to provide their fringe outposts with drinking water.

Decorations

Large colonies benefit a lot from items that can double up as resting spaces.

Great examples for this type of decorations are hollow logs (certain ants like Camponotus and Messor can also chew their own chambers into wood), shrimp tubes made from clay, hollow artificial stones like the ones that are often used for snakes, reptiles and roaches (make sure the caverns aren't too big because the ants will only use the surface of it, so if there's like a 2 liter cavern inside a stone most of the space is wasted) and artificial decorative trees (those often have a hollow base). For natural setups obviously plants look great and many ants like nesting between their roots.

Walkways

Big ant colonies – and even some adventurous species with smaller colony sizes like Formica fusca – also need a lot of space to move around. Worker ants are programmed to expand their colony's territory and forage for food further away from the nest when their colony grows bigger. This is particularly visible in many species of the genus Camponotus where the workers have an annoying tendency of “walking themselves to death” if there isn't sufficient space for them to travel around – it's the reason why the basic setups in this guide are defined as having a secondary outworld and at least a meter of tubing. That's pretty much the bare minimum I can recommend for Camponotus ants with more than 20 workers.

Smart use of tubing

Vinyl tubing is the most common material used to connect ant nests and outworlds. Some ants, like leafcutters and large ants with powerful mandibles such as Pheidole sinica will just shred through vinyl tubing – those ants need stiff tubing made from glass, hard plastics or acrylics, so the following tricks will not work with those. Other ants, especially Messor species, are able to chew through thin vinyl tubing but usually not through thicker versions like the ones with 4mm wall thickness, so the following methods may be harder to achieve with that type of tubing but should still be doable to some degree.

One of the easiest tricks with vinyl tubing is to just wrap it around the outworld two or three times before actually connecting it to the next container. You can make all sorts of other detours like spiraling it around some pylon instead of making it just run straight upwards which is also good for ants that aren't such great climbers. Whatever you do, you should always check on your ants and see how the new pathways perform – some ants, like many Tetramorium and Messor species, are rather bad climbers and won't be able to traverse steep inclines. Putting a cord into the tubing can help the ants as it gives them something to hold onto, although some ants may attack the cord and even try to pull it apart.

Another thing that's best avoided are 180° U-turns. Certain ants use light sources and optical flow for orientation, so they may become confused and disoriented by a sudden shift of their landmarks. There are documented cases of Messor barbarus having trouble with 180° turns in transparent vinyl tubing – many workers ended up dragging seeds into the corner again and again before they finally gave up entirely. A simple solution to this specific problem is to just wrap some foil or paper around one part of the tubing (either the part before or after the 180° turn) to block out the light. You can also put contrasting markers onto the tubing, scientific tests indicate that at least ants with good eyesight can recognize basic geometric forms and those that are using optical flow for orientation may recognize at least the presence of markers on the tubing.

Intermediate outworlds

Extremely long tubing can lead to issues with air flow. Usually nothing bad comes from it but if you want to be on the safe side putting small intermediate outworlds between the larger ones is a good way to improve airflow and still keep the setup escape-proof (just poking holes into the tubing may lead to fatal consequences with larger ants like Camponotus and Messor which could see this as an invitation to start chewing on the vinyl). These ventilation outworlds don't have to be big, just a few centimeters in length is sufficient as long as the lid has enough area for air exchange (air-tight boxes obviously won't work).

Feeding equipment

Small and large dishes are a worthwhile investment, especially for the primary feeding outworld. Large colonies eat a lot and unless you have a private roach farm you probably want to feed them stuff like wet cat food at some point. Pre-killed insects can be placed into those dishes as well so their body fluids don't spill onto the substrate.

Enamelled feeding dishes made from clay or ceramics may be more expensive than cheap plastic dishes but they can be re-used over and over for years, so you won't have to replace them every few months.

Larger setups should have several sugar AND water feeders spread across the outworlds. Parts of the colony far away from the main nest may struggle to get their water supply. Cheap bird feeders make great water feeders - you can put some cotton or aquarium gravel into the feeders basin so the ants can't drown in it (this is most useful for small ants which may have the issue of getting sucked up by the water's surface tension).

Climate control equipment

There's not much to say here except that if your ants require tools like a humidifier they of course need it in every outworld, not just in one.

Heating large colonies is fairly easy as the formicarium is so big that the ants can always evade to another part of the setup when one place gets too hot. Larger colonies may carry brood into water test tubes or even store it in the open in outworlds close to the nest when those places are rarely disturbed – this is particularly true for ants that have very dry-resistent brood like most Camponotus species. There's nothing to worry about it unless they clear the entire nest (if they do that then probably something is wrong with the nest).

Ant activity

Big colonies can unfold a lot of activity, especially in soil setups. The most extreme example are Messor harvester ants which have a tendency to completely turn their outworlds upside down by creating anthills and tunnels, moving or cutting up decorations, unrooting plants and even carving out substrate layers down to the glass/acrylic bottom. If you keep such a “creative” species you shouldn't bother with beautiful scenic decorations – the ants will destroy or bury them anyway. Just give them enough building materials and watch what happens, it's very entertaining to see them do their thing.

Escape prevention

Generally the larger an ant colony grows the more eager it is to expand it's territory. There are ants that are very timid and even when grown big aren't much of a problem to contain if given enough space to walk around but there are also ants that will relentlessly tackle your barriers and quickly exploit any weakness they can find or create – this is a particularly big issue with semi-nomadic species like Solenopsis geminata/invicta or Argentine ants which can completely evacuate their nest within hours and vanish forever but even rather “mundane” species like Lasius niger have a reputation for being annoyingly skilled escape artists.


Relocating your ants to a new setup

Relocating an ant colony to a new setup is always difficult but there are a few useful tricks to make it much easier.

When dealing with a stinging species wear gloves. Surgical gloves are enough to deal with smaller species like Solenopsis invicta, however Ponerine and Bull ants are likely to sting through those and should never be picked up by hand. Additionally bull ants and ponerines (and other "primitive" genera like Harpegnathos) use toxins that are fairly similar to their winged relatives, so if you're allergic to bees or wasps there's a chance you may react similar to these ants.

If there are ants left in an outworld once you've disconnected the nest you can place a test tube with a cover (so it's dark inside) in that outworld. After a while the ants will gather inside the dark moist tube and you can transfer the entire tube to the new outworld.

When your outworld bottom substrate is hard and there are no sand/dust particles on the surface you can use a respirator to suck up individual ants. DO NOT USE A RESPIRATOR ON FORMICINE ANTS – Formica and Camponotus workers can excrete huge amounts of formic acids which may seriously burn your throat. Slow-moving ants can simply be picked up with a small sheet of paper (this works well for ants that are too tiny to be picked up, like Solenopsis fugax).

Generally it is best to plan ahead and make your starting outworld expandable with some sort of tubing adapter so you don't have to manually move your ants into a new setup.