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Founding a Colony Guide

From Ant Keeping Wiki


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This is a guide to the founding stage and how to (hopefully) pass it successfully while avoiding common newbie mistakes.

Ant reproduction

Ant alates are – just like regular workers – raised from eggs that hatch to larvae and then pupate into their adult forms. While queens emerge from fertilized diploid eggs, any unfertilized haploid eggs will develop into males. Their sisters will tend to them, groom them and feed them until the time is right for those young queens and drones to found their own colonies.

There are a some ant species that can mate inside the nest and then just walk off with a large number of workers, basically starting with an instant small colony, completely skipping the founding stage. For most young queens founding their own colony however means that they have to go through the perils of a nuptial flight and the search for a good nesting spot first.

In fact the choice of her nesting spot is probably the single one most important choice an ant queen makes in her entire life. Only if the spot she chose retains enough moisture for the larvae to survive, provides enough nearby food sources for her colony to prosper and isn't already occupied by other older stronger ant colonies she has a chance to develop a successful colony of her own.

The founding stage

The time between leaving the nest and her first workers being born is the only time a young ant queen has to fend for herself. It is the most critical stage of her life and a lot of things can go wrong – she may be eaten by predators (including other ants), fall prey to diseases or parasites, drown in a lake or a swimming pool, die in an accident, be unable to find a proper nesting spot or run out of reserves before her first workers are born.

In antkeeping when a queen is caught or bought by her keeper she has already successfully avoided these dangers, however there is still a lot that can go wrong.

Claustral queens – it is really that easy

Claustral queens need little attention. You just put the queen into a test tube setup and put that tube to a calm, dark and warm place. Then you wait 4-6 weeks (some slow-growing species may take up to 3 months) and you have your first workers. It's really that easy. A detailed guide on how to make a test tube setup can be found here [INSTERT LINK TO TEST TUBE SETUP GUIDE].

If the tube the queen comes in a tube that is very low on water (or in some inadequate setup like a plastic box with a wet cotton ball) it is best to relocate her to a new tube immediately while she is still agitated anyway and doesn't have any brood yet. Relocating queens with eggs most of the time results in all the eggs getting lost (unless the queen carries the eggs into the new tube by herself).

Claustral ant queens do not need any food during their founding period. If you are worried and want to feed your queen anyway then do it immediately after you got her – just put a tiny drop of honey or sugar water on a piece of tinfoil and remove it after a day, if she didn't touch it she doesn't need it – and then leave her alone for at least 4 weeks. Every disturbance is counterproductive and may result in the queen eating her brood.

When the first workers have arrived you can just stick a plastic between the cotton and the glass tube, put the test tube into an outworld and provide food near the entrance. The workers will find it when they need it. A detailed guide on how to make a basic ant setup can be found here [INSTERT LINK TO ANT SETUPS GUIDE].

Semi-claustral queens – this could be a bit tricky

Semi-claustral queens are queens that need to scavenge or hunt for food during their founding period because they lack the resources to raise their first larvae into workers. Prominent semi-claustral ants are the genera Myrmica, Odontomachus (Trap-Jaw Ants) and Myrmecia (Australian Bull Ants).

The bare minimum setup for most semi-claustral queens is a test tube setup in a small outworld. This works well for Myrmica and Myrmecia, Odontomachus trapjaw ants however have a reputation for doing badly in test tubes and are better kept in some sort of dirt/soil or naturalistic setup which needs to be carefully moistened with a water sprayer every few days. A detailed guide on how to make a basic ant setup can be found here [INSTERT LINK TO ANT SETUPS GUIDE].

Finding the right food for semi-claustral queens may be a bit difficult sometimes, especially those that prefer live food (can turn out very picky). Myrmica queens usually take any small fly or fruit fly, Odontomachus queens on the other hand have very specific requirements for the exact size of their prey items, termites and young crickets seem to work best for them.

Once first workers arrive semi-claustral queens behave exactly like claustral queens. They soon will no longer leave the nest and focus entirely on laying eggs.

Social parasites – failure is always an option

Social parasite are ants which essentially skip their founding period by taking over another ant colony and, after killing the present queen, trick the host workers into raising their first workers. So to raise social parasite queen you need host workers – it doesn't have to be a full host colony, a dozen workers are usually enough (obviously those host workers should be from the same colony so they don't kill each other).

The workers are most likely to accept the parasite queen if they have been kept without a queen for several months, but then keeping a group of workers only for the purpose of raising a social parasite you may happen to find or not usually doesn't work out. It is a good use for a colony that has lost it's queen though, if there is a social parasite present for that species.

A social parasite founding isn't really a founding in the traditional sense as you don't have a queen building a colony from scratch but a small colony that does all the usual stuff like foraging and tending to the brood. Once first the parasitic workers are born they will gradually take over and replace the fading host workers.

The main thing to keep in mind is that although the social parasite queen seemingly starts her colony under the best possible conditions there is a lot that can go wrong – the queen may be attacked by the host workers, the host workers may ignore the queen or neglect her brood, sometimes the parasite brood even makes it to workers only to get cut apart by the host workers as soon as it emerges from it's cocoons. Success is never guaranteed in a parasitic founding and it's more something for experienced antkeepers that don't get immediately disheartened from eventual failure.

Leafcutters – two species for the price of one

Leafcutter ants come in both claustral (Atta species) and semi-claustral forms (Acromyrmex, Cyphomyrmex, Trachymyrmex, all other fungus-farming genera) which are known to forage and add leaves to their fungus garden before they get their first workers. Due to the smaller size of their gasters, they are not equipped to store enough fat to raise their first generation of workers without having to forage to feed their fungus garden.

The catch is that you basically have two species – the ant queen and the fungal pellet – with the fungus being the way more sensitive one. Fungi are considered the third realm in the evolutionary tree, they are separate from animals and plants yet much closer related to animals than to plants. The ants rely on the fungus; its nutritious fruit bodies are the only thing leafcutter ant brood can eat – if the fungus dies the colony will perish soon after.

The main issue with the fungus is moisture. The queen will live off her stored resources, feed the fungus with her excretions and her brood with infertile eggs. Leafcutter keepers usually cover the queen and her fungal pellet with a plastic cup and replace that cup with a slightly bigger one multiple times until the fungus garden is large enough to survive without a cover (or simply grows too large to put something over it).

Unless you actually catch a leafcutter queen during their nuptial flights you will ALWAYS get a small colony. The first thing you should do after receiving your colony is to check on their fungus. If it looks bad, order replacement immediately. If the fungus is dead that's no reason to panic though - adult leafcutter workers are not reliant on the fungus, they can sustain themselves by drinking sweet plant secretions from the leaves they cut. Some honey water or diluted maple syrup can keep a colony alive very well for a week until the replacement fungus has arrived. You can then just put the new fungus into their setup, the workers will take it and discard all the dead parts.

Leafcutter colonies need at least three containers – one for the fungus garden, one for the food and one for their garbage pile. Very small colonies can be fed in the same box where their fungus garden is until the garden takes up a large part of the container. Occasionally the workers refuse to travel to the trash container and will just throw their garbage into some corner of the fungus container, if that happens you should clean it out regularly as garbage in a moist container can quickly become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and mold. You can encourage them to throw their garbage into the right container by taking some of the removed trash and placing it where you want them to dump it. A detailed guide on how to make a basic leafcutter setup can be found here [INSTERT LINK TO LEAFCUTTER SETUPS GUIDE].

How and when to change a test tube

If the test tube your ants are in gets really really moldy (not every spec of mold is a problem, please read the next chapter before actually doing this) or dries out completely (dry cotton can still retain some water inside, see next chapter) you may have to change it.

There's different ways of doing this and some work better than others but the best method really is to let the ants move on their own.

All you need to give your ants the opportunity to move to a cleaner place is a fresh test tube setup and a piece of plastic straw (obviously it has to be big enough for the queen to fit through – for larger species this may require those huge party straws they use to drink Sangria from buckets, you should be able to find them at your local budget store).

Push the straw into the tube between the glass wall and the cotton plug on both tubes (it's best to do this with the tubes the ants are in first, so you don't have to deal with both a tube that is already attached to your construction AND a tube with ants inside – also if you have very skittish or aggressive ants it's best to put a tiny cotton plug into the straw as well, so the ants don't just run through the straw while you are still figuring out how to attach the other tube). You may have to take out the cotton plug and put it back in together with the straw if pushing it through doesn't work.

For smaller species you should also put this whole setup into an outworld of some kind as they may be able to walk out at the outside of the straw (between the cotton and the straw) and not just through the straw as they are supposed to do.

Some people also just tape two tubes together but I found the straw method a lot safer as it doesn't require sticky surfaces where the ants can get trapped and die. If the colony has no eggs nor brood you can also just hold the two tubes together and carefully shake them into the new one but I wouldn't advise that if the colony has any kind of brood (the eggs may get squished and they may opt to eat their larvae due to the massive disturbance).


Common newbie mistakes and how to avoid them

Every antkeeping adventure inevitably reaches a point where something goes wrong (or seems to go wrong) and the antkeeper needs to find a more or less creative way to fix the issue – preferably after carefully evaluating if it actually IS an issue for the ants or just looks like one their keeper. It is even worse if this already happens during the founding stage and most dishearting for new antkeepers trying to rear their very first colonies.

A lot of times however the antkeeper unfortunately is part of the problem, if not the sole cause for the issues the ants find themselves confronted with or due to panic and inexperience the fledgling antkeeper turns a minor problem the ants could deal with on their own into a huge life-threatening problem for the colony as a whole.

DON'T PANIC!

This is the most important rule for new antkeepers. Whatever happens, DO. NOT. PANIC.

Do NOT relocate your ants unless it is ABSOLUTELY necessary – ants are hardy animals that can deal with a lot of stuff, like mold, dirty water or minor amounts of condensation.

Inexperienced antkeepers often completely misjudge the severity of an issue and end up doing more harm than good to their ants while trying to “fix” an issue that isn't an issue at all. Before doing anything, take a deep breath, evaluate the problem, make sure it actually IS a problem for the ants, GET A PLAN and only then act.

Moving a colony because of tiny mold specs on the cotton

Specs of mold in a test tube usually don't bother the ants at all - in fact the entire cotton may turn black and the water may take some strange color but the colony can still live perfectly fine with it. If the mold is problematic for the ants they will avoid it and actively move themselves and their brood away from it. Watch how your ants react to the mold and if they start to huddle together at the opposite side of the tube it may be time to offer them a fresh test tube using the methods given above.

Panic because the test tube dries out

To make this clear from the start – just because your cotton looks dry doesn't mean it actually is dry. Even a cotton ball that looks completely dry can still retain a significant amount of water in it's core that is completely sufficient to provide a decent humidity level inside the test tube. If you notice your tube is about to run dry just offer the ants a new one and they will move once they have to – this may take a few weeks though.

In case your ants are of a very small species it's also not a bad idea to put the tube at a slight angle when it starts to run dry – sometimes the cotton plug in front of the water tank collapses when the water level in the tank goes very low and small ants might drown in the resulting flooding of the test tube.

Moving ants to a nest too early

One of the most common mistakes of new antkeepers is to move the ants into a nest when they are clearly not ready. There's a plethora of “founding nests” available on the market that encourage this behavior but it's really something you should NOT do.

There are some species that are known to do notoriously badly in test tubes: Myrmecocystus honey pot ants, Odontomachus trap jaw ants, Harpegnathos jumping ants and (obviously) Leafcutters. However, most common ant species can be kept perfectly fine in a test tube.

The main advantage of a test tube over a nest is that a test tube always has a decent humidity level and can last for months, so there is no way the ants dry out and die in a matter of days, or even weeks. A test tube does not need constant attention and you don't have to disturb the ants to provide them with water which usually results in constantly shifting humidity levels with huge spikes when you water the nest.

Most ants need a moist nest (there are a few exceptions, particularly in the genera Camponotus and Temnothorax), and if it gets too dry they may quickly die out. While large colonies are often capable of watering the nest on their own small colonies cannot do this and are completely dependent on environmental conditions – when they're put into a nest too early this often leads to all sorts of problems, from queens not laying eggs, to brood getting eaten, to workers being born crippled, to workers "unexplainably" dying to total colony collapse. The ants may also decide to use empty chambers as garbage dumps which can lead to mold growth and mite infestations.

A test tube really is the perfect nesting space for most ant species, always has decent humidity levels, doesn't require constant attention and if done properly (with a cotton plug and a plastic straw as entrance) lasts for anything between 6-12 months.

Lack of patience / too much disturbance

Antkeeping is a hobby that often requires a lot of patience, especially during the founding stage. While large ant colonies can raise an astonishing amount of brood their initial growth is often very slow, especially with larger ants like Camponotus, Myrmecia, Odontomachus, and the large South American Ponerine ant species. If you can't wait for around half to a year for your colony to unfold a decent level of activity, these may not be the ants for you.

There are ants that grow very fast and are extremely active, such as Pheidole, Lasius or Iridomyrmex species. They usually come with their own drawbacks, mostly in the way of how hard it is to keep them contained in the long run. If you're of the impatient kind, you may want to go for these ants.

Whatever species you choose though, you'll have to go through at least a month of founding process where there is next to no activity. During that time it is important to NOT disturb the queen too much – if she feels unsafe or threatened she may decide to eat her brood or not even start laying. Queens of the genus Messor are particularly sensitive to any disturbance and should best be left alone for at least 3 weeks.

Ants die in big sugar liquid drops

Ants are really small creatures and water has something called surface tension. It essentially means that water molecules will stay together and form some sort of skin at the outside of a water body. It is the reason why jumping into a pond of water from a high springboard really hurts and why water forms drops that stay in place when spilled on a surface instead of just becoming a really thin film that flows away instantly. It is also the reason you can swipe up water with a piece of tissue paper.

There are fluids without surface tension like Mercury, which is not only extremely toxic but also cannot be swiped up with tissue paper as it lacks the surface tension required to get caught inside the small cavities forming the tissue paper's structure – the liquid Mercury just falls through the tissue paper. It doesn't from drops either but instead just runs straight to the lowest possible point immediately, following gravity in an almost absolute way.

Water on the other hand does not only stay together, it's molecules from a border on it's surface that is so strong that small insects almost cannot pass it. This is why water sliders can seemingly walk on water – they are just too light to sink through the surface.

For ants this is a serious problem. If a drop of water or some sugary liquid is too large it is possible that the ant gets sucked onto or into the water drop like water into a tissue paper, cannot free itself and drowns. When feeding a queen the drop(s) of sugary liquids should not be larger than the queen's head, when feeding first workers they should be even smaller. For very small ants you can take a piece of cotton and soak it with sugary liquids or smear a very thin film of honey across a surface so the ants can lick it off.

If you find an ant lying in a drop of water or sugary liquid don't throw it away immediately though – it might not be dead. Ants can go into some sort of hibernation state and survive under water for hours. Carefully lift the ant with a q-tip or some pincers and put it on a piece of tissue paper – if the ant fell into some sticky sugary stuff drop some water on it with a pipette or a small spoon. Then place the ant on the tissue paper back in the outworld and wait for a few hours. If it's still there the next day it's dead but chances are it'll spring back to life after a few minutes.

Too much humidity and heating results in condensation and flooding

This is a problem similar to the sugar drop issue. High nest humidity in combination with a heat source can lead to a lot of water evaporation and (especially in combination with a relatively cold room) to a lot of condensation. Water drops forming on the ceiling of a nest can quickly become death traps for small ants, especially in glass tubes and acrylic nests with a flat surface where water drops falling from the lid can just sit there waiting for ants to run into them. In some cases condensation can be so extreme that the entire tube gets flooded.

When heating ants you should always have an eye on how much condensation you get and if needed turn down the heating (this will reduce water evaporation and subsequently reduce condensation). Applying a bottom layer of grout, gypsum, sand-clay mixture or any similar material can also help to absorb water drops falling from the lid.

Food leftovers in the tube

Do NOT leave food in a test tube for too long. If you want to feed your ants inside their tube (something I generally would recommend to not do) place the items on a piece of tinfoil or plastic so you can remove it after a few days. The humidity levels inside a test tube are a constant 70-80% of relative humidity which is enough to make everything mold after a few days, even honey (the honey will draw water from the air and slowly dilute to a point where bacteria and fungi can actually start growing on it).

Some species love to drag food into their test tube, there's really nothing you can do about that. If their test tube gets too moldy just offer them a new one and they will move if the mold really poses a problem for them. This is by the way another reason why it is bad to move a colony into a test too early – in larger colonies some workers are bound to clean up the nest at some point, small colonies often don't do that which can lead to a really really dirty nest that needs a complete makeover before the ants even had the numbers to make full use of it.

Too much heat

While it is relatively easy to provide a heat gradient in a nest by just heating one side or putting the heat mat only under around a third of the nest test tubes are a different thing. Generally I wouldn't advise to heat a test tube or a small founding nest unless it is absolutely necessary (like keeping a tropical species in a air-conditioned room).

Test tubes (even with a straw as entrance) and small founding formicaria are effectively closed spaces and heat can build up very quickly inside them – it's like leaving a dog in a car on a sunny summer day. You may have cooked your ants before you even know it (for the same reason you shouldn't keep test tubes with queens caught during an anting trip close to your body, your skin dissipates enough heat to cook the queen in her test tube within minutes).

If you have to heat ants in a test tube (or a small nests) it is better to put them into a small box together with a heating cable and make sure the cable doesn't touch the tube. That way the tube/nest can only go as warm as the air inside the box which usually prevents a massive accumulation of heat.

Forcing the ants to do what you want

Usually ants know what is best for them and given enough options will always choose the one that suits their needs best. Some species love to nest in vinyl tubing, possible reasons might be protection (small entrance areas can be protected effectively just by a few ants) and humidity (many ants water their nest by spitting drops of water onto the bottom and in the small enclosed space of a vinyl tube this works much better than in a large nest where the water dissipates immediately). If your ants choose to nest in the tubing or under a piece of decoration just let them do so. Do NOT force them to move to a different place. Force-moving them is a massive disturbance, brood often gets killed and workers injured, development may be stalled for weeks and the new home might actually be worse than the place the ants chose on their own. You can just offer them better options instead (temperature and humidity are often good incentives) and if they agree they will move to it sooner or later.

Lack of humidity

If your ants live in a test tube this isn't an issue at all. Test tubes have a constant relative humidity of around 70-80% even if opened (usually you want to size down the entrance by using some cotton and a straw – this doesn't increase humidity in the test tube by much but vastly reduces the loss of water in the tank due to decreased evaporation) and the ants can drink directly from the wet cotton.

When your ants are in a founding nest though you need to make sure they always have decent humidity levels and a drinking spot. Ytong and Acrylic nests can dry out very fast and some moisture-loving ants (like Argentines) can dry out and die within a single night.

Diapause ("Hibernation")

Diapause is a period of little to no development in insects that can be triggered by the change of seasons or by scarcity of food or other resources. The queens of some species will not start laying eggs until after they exit winter diapause. This applies mostly to northern hemisphere ants that fly between August and October, particularly from the genus Formica which enters diapause with no brood. When you catch a Serviformica queen in early September it is very unlikely that she is going to lay eggs before next year's March. There is nothing wrong with the queen, she's just running on a biological clock that is meant to save her life - her eggs take around 4-6 weeks to develop into workers which emerge from their cocoons with mostly empty stomachs - if she tried to found the same year in the wild her fledgling colony would just starve to death.

Another thing to consider about diapause is condensation. When you put a test tube or nest from a warm spot to a cold spot you will inevitably get condensation. The bigger the temperature difference, the more condensation you will get. Cooling down test tubes slowly is a good idea to prevent this issue.

Incorrect Species ID of your queen

This is mostly an issue with social parasites that require host workers from a different species - they are incapable of founding a colony on their own. Make sure your queen is not a social parasite! They are not always easy to identify, but as a general rule, socially parasitic queens will have a very large head compared to most claustral queens. Social parasite queens will not lay eggs without the presence of host brood or workers and will eventually die as they usually cannot care for themselves.

Cool room

Ants need warmth to develop and will only grow very slowly at temperatures below 20°C (except Prenolepis imparis, the “winter ant”, those are special). Temperate ants don't really need to be heated unless your room is heavily air-conditioned and permanently kept at low temperatures. Tropical and desert ants might need additional heating even of your room isn't air-conditioned.

Wrong substrate

Some substrates are poisonous for ants, specifically bird sand which often has pesticides mixed in to combat mites and other insects that think bird poo is a great food source. Some brands of playground sand have pesticides added as well. Also bird sand is extremely fine and can clog up the tracheae of big ants like Camponotus and Messor. Usually all products for reptiles and amphibians are safe for ants.

Different ants prefer different substrates. Formica fusca loves sandy areas while other ants might not be able to walk well on sand and instead prefer solid substrates like sand-clay mix, grout, soil or even naked glass.

No dark nest

While a dark nest is the most natural setup, certain ants can get used to light, especially those that are more adaptable and abundant. European “pavement ants," “garden ants,” and many invasive ant species are some examples of this.

There are ant species however that have adapted to nocturnal life or just really need a dark nest. Those ants when permanently exposed to light may dig into the cotton until their test tube floods, eat their brood, not lay eggs and generally develop poorly.

If in doubt, cover the nest. Folded paper sheets work great for test tubes and a large piece of cardboard is enough to cover a bigger nest.

Not all queens are going to make it

In antkeeping, failure is always an option. Even if you do everything right your queen can still die for no apparent reason – this happens even to experienced antkeepers.

While the loss of a queen is a big blow, don't let this get you discouraged from antkeeping altogether. If your colony is big enough (a few hundred workers) you can even try an adoption in the next year – ant workers of some species can have a surprisingly long lifespans, even Lasius niger workers can live for several years (up to 7 years in some occasions) and after being queenless for some months many ant colonies will happily accept a new queen. You could also use that colony for the founding of a social parasite queen if you happen to catch one.

BE PREPARED

Have your equipment ready BEFORE your ants arrive

This is a big thing. You don't want to end up with a box full of ants while lacking the tools to properly care for them. Stuff like tweezers and some pippettes or syringes can become very handy when trying to place small drops of sugary liquids or cleaning up leftover food bits. A small cup to catch escapees might be helpful as well. And remember that if you have a semi-claustral species you need food right form the start.

The escape barrier is one of the most important things in antkeeping - if you use a powder barrier it is definitely a good idea to practice how to apply it a few times, getting the right alcohol-powder-ratio and applying it properly is not as easy as it sounds and if you do it wrong your ants might be able to just casually walk out of your setup.

A list of basic antkeeping tools and how to use them can be found here [INSTERT LINK TO BASIC TOOLS GUIDE].

Know your ants (DO YOUR RESEARCH)

Every ant species is different – they prefer different humidity levels, different temperatures, different outworld substrate, different nesting environments, different foods. For every common pattern there is at least one ant species that does it in a different way, being it Temnothorax nylanderi nesting in small dry cavities like hollow acorns or Prenolepis imparis only foraging at temperatures that are generally unfavorable for other ants.

Having a good understanding of YOUR ants is the key to a successful founding. Go to forums, look up pages like AntWiki or Reddit's r/antkeeping community, chat with people and gather as much information as you can. There's a lot of stuff in antkeeping that is fairly obvious but there's also a lot of stuff that isn't.

A list of caresheets for a number of common species can be found here [INSTERT LINK TO CARESHEETS LIST].

Good luck and may your colonies grow and prosper ever forth!