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Getting Started Guide

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Why Keep Ants as Pets?

Ants are fascinating creatures. Out of all creatures on Earth they're the only ones with a society structure that rivals the complexity of human society. Ants work together as a team, stockpile resources, tend to cattle, wage wars, some even keep slaves or take over an entire foreign colony as a foundation for their own growth.

Ants can be found everywhere except for the polar regions - their emphasis on teamwork has made them the most successful arthropod and are one of the most dominant life forms on the planet.

Their adaptability makes ants perfect pets (with a few notable exceptions such as army ants) and most common species are modest and resilient which means they're pretty easy to care for. Ants show complex social behavior even in captivity and many species can be kept with minimal financial costs.

The Basics of Ant Keeping

Before diving deeper into actual ant keeping there are some important things about ants - and about keeping pets in general - that need to be considered, otherwise the entire endevour can go horribly wrong.

In General

Responsibility

Ants, like all pets, are living creatures you take responsibility for. You must feed them, provide favorable temperatures and humidity and give them enough space to live and roam - and in case you're going on a longer vacation you need to find someone to feed them.

Colonies can live for years or decades, outlasting most common pets like dogs or cats. While native colonies collected near your place can be set free when they grow to a size that isn't manageable anymore, exotic ants and even native ants from another part of the country do not have that luxury – intra-specific homogenization can be a danger to local ant populations, exotic ants on the other hand often don't survive the local climate and if they do they pose a grave danger to any time they manage to establish themselves in as an invasive species out competing or outright killing the native ant species.

If you decide to keep ants and manage to successfully raise a colony it is likely to stay with you for a long time, so doing some research before catching a queen is a must to avoid things like the ants growing to a colony size that is beyond what you are able to care for.

Patience

Many ant keepers, especially the younger ones, quickly get disappointed and bored by their ants. While some species outright explode to multiple thousands within a few months (and often quickly grow completely out of hand) others, especially the bigger ones like Camponotus carpenter ants or Myrmecia bull ants, often take up to two years to develop to a colony size where decent activity can be observed. Some Camponotus ants even combine the worst of both worlds – they grow super slow for 2 years and then after another year or two explode into the tens of thousands.

A common mistake that stems from a lack of patience is ant keepers moving their ants into large nests long before the ants are ready. This is bad for a multitude of reasons that will be explained in the Founding a Colony Guide and can even lead to a total colony wipe. Most ants can live perfectly well in a basic test tube setup placed within a small container for at least half a year, if not longer.

Therefore one of the things you definitely need for successfully keeping ants is a good amount of patience.

Even more important, if something bad happens DO NOT PANIC. It is common for inexperienced ant keepers to react to minor problems with overly extreme measures that usually do more harm than good, sometimes even killing off a perfectly fine colony. A spec of mold on the cotton part of a test tube setup for example usually isn't a threat to a young ant colony and forcefully rehousing them usually just makes things worse.

Diapause

In the antkeeping community, you will see this frequently being called "hibernation," but hibernation is specific to endothermic animals like birds and mammals, therefore making diapause the correct term for ants and all other invertebrates. This is a big point, so let's get it out of the way right away. If you live in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere or southern hemisphere, some or all of your native ants may be inactive throughout certain parts of the year, just like in reptiles and amphibians. This is not exclusive to North American and European ants; Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South America all have their own areas where the winter temperatures force ants to halt their activity and development until it warms up again. They must spend a few months in diapause at temperatures between 5 and 20°C (depends on the species and the area of origin) which means little to no activity, and thus nothing to observe. You may want to pay attention to the winter activity of your native ants to get an idea of the ideal number of weeks or months your local ants need to experience diapause. Diapause is an important part of an ant colony's life cycle and a lack of it can seriously mess up their internal clock leading to all sorts of weird behavior and will generally cause the colony to do poorly with smaller workers, smaller brood yield, less activity, less growth and possibly a queen's early death - so if you want to keep temperate ants, make sure you can provide a place for them to cool down and go through their yearly diapause. When temperatures finally warm for the first time in months, it is a significant trigger for the queen to begin laying. This period of inactivity may be boring, but it also has a few benefits like allowing you to properly clean their setup without the ants interfering – very helpful when you keep an aggressive or stinging species.

For a more detailed guide to diapause, click here.

Why Ants are Special Pets

Colony Growth and Space Requirements

While there are in fact ant species that do not grow beyond a few hundred workers and can be kept in a relatively small enclosure indefinitely (Temnothorax acorn ants for example) this is not the case for most ants. The typical ant colony will experience a massive growth over the course of it's lifetime that does not only massively increase it's food intake but also the territory it will occupy.

The two most common pet ants in Europe are Lasius niger and Messor barbarus.

  • Lasius niger is an extremely aggressive adventurous species that can grow to over a thousand workers within a year and reach a final colony size of around 50.000 workers. In the wild such a huge colony can pile up a dirt hill of half a meter in height and dominate and area that spans several dozen meters from their primary nest. They are even known to carry their brood to the roofs of 4-level buildings as the higher temperature there increases brood development speed. These ants obviously cannot be kept in a single 30x20cm outworld for more than a year and will require additional nesting areas, outworlds and tubing parts every year until they reached their full size.
  • Messor barbarus can control entire small hills and create mounds that look similar to a small Atta leafcutter nest with foraging trails extending for hundreds of meters. They are so effective at collecting seeds that they are considered a major agricultural pest in southern Europe, although new studies indicate that their digging activity that softens up the soil and their tendency to actively remove weed and other agricultural pest insects may compensate for most of the damage they deal to crops. The most massive colonies usually are olygogynous with multiple queens that live so far apart from each other that they never meet (in which case they would fight to the death) - the average adult colony size for a single-queen Messor barbarus colony seems to be at around 12-15.000 workers. This may sound much less than the 50.000 Lasius niger however Messor bararus workers are about two to four times the size of a Lasius niger worker so a colony of similar size requires a lot more space.

Generally it's a good idea to give ants a surplus of space and place food a bit further away from the nest entrance as the colony grows larger. It keeps the workers busy and prevents them from putting too much energy into unwanted activities. Ants that suffer from a lack of space and/or food will go to extreme lengths in an attempt to break out of their enclosure and expand their territory. Many species have some particularly nasty tricks up their gasters that can really catch you on the wrong foot so it's best to not encourage them to become creative on this matter.

Ant Food

Like all pets ants need to eat and drink. The larger a colony grows the more food it requires - this can easily increase by a thousandfold within a few years which is why experienced ant keepers often breed their feeder insects.

There are basically three types of consumables that ants need to survive: water, carbohydrates and protein.

Water

Most ants can store food in their social stomachs or as lipoproteins (basically fat) to survive for extended periods, so if you forget to feed them for a few days it is unlikely they will be harmed in any way. However most ants cannot survive without water for long and as such there should ALWAYS be a test tube with water in their outworld. This is especially important for ants that need a moist nest like Myrmica species – the water tube is essentially a backup nest that will ensure their survival if for some reason you forget to water their nest. When you go out on a longer trip and cannot look for your ants better add a second water tube, just to be sure. Some ants (like Messor species) also use water to moisten the substrate so they can build structures, these ants can consume extreme amounts of water very quickly so make sure to give them an extra load when their consumption increases.

Carbohydrates

Most ants pick up carbohydrates in the form of liquid sugars, like sugar water, honey, honey water, diluted maple syrup or other sweet liquids. Many ants will also happily consume fruits like apples, strawberries or passion fruit. They should have access to sweet liquids at all times.

There are some species that gather seeds and chew them into a paste called "ant bread". These ants are usually referred to as harvester ants (they are not a monophyletic group though) and will eat all sorts of seeds from grass seeds to sunflower seeds. They don't need sweet liquids but sometimes take them anyway, especially if the colony is still small and doesn't have larger workers to crack big seeds.

Protein

Protein is what ant larvae require to build their bodies – muscles, neurons, their exoskeletons. While adult ants usually need very little protein their larvae can't get enough of it. A lack of protein food will lead to a stop of brood development, smaller larvae will be fed to larger larvae so those can finish their development to workers but after that no new ants will be born and the colony will start to slowly dwindle in numbers as the existing workers die from old age.

Protein is usually consumed in the form of other arthropods like fruit flies, meat flies, green bottle flies, meal worms, crickets, locusts, roaches, small spiders and various other bugs. Some ants even eat cat or dog food and the occasional slice of ham but their main diet should still be dead insects. Generally the larger a colony is the larger the food items it can process – small colonies should only be fed with soft-skinned small (and dead) food items like fruit flies, flies, small spiders and fly larvae.

Most ants are scavengers that will happily take pre-killed or frozen food, some ants however (in particular ants of the genus Pheidole) are active predators and only really react to live food that still twitches at least. You shouldn't give live food to very small colonies though as ants might get injured or killed in the process and the ants generally rely on numbers to overwhelm living prey which obviously doesn't work if the entire colony only has twenty workers.

Harvester ants can theoretically survive without additional protein food if they are fed protein-rich plant material like nuts or almonds, but even they usually do better if given the occasional insect.

For a more detailed guide on ant food click here.

The obvious exception here are leafcutter ants which will get their very own food guide click here.

Escape Prevention

It is important to make sure your ants cannot just walk out of their setup and casually explore your house.

Every ant setup needs an escape barrier that ants are (supposedly) unable to cross. The most common escape preventions are either slip/powder barriers that cause the ants to simply fall off or sticky oil barriers the ants get stuck in if they try to traverse them. Having a lid also helps a lot when keeping larger ant species (lids don't work well as a barrier for very small species).

Not everything works for every ant species so you need to do some research to find the best escape prevention for your ants. Generally it is advised to combine multiple layers of escape prevention, like a lid in combination with a slide barrier - this is even more important for those special ants that could potentially nest within your house, like many of the very adaptive species of Pheidole, Monomorium and Tapinoma or known house ants like Lasius brunneus, Camponotus pennsylvanicus and Argentine ants.

The most popular barriers in ant keeping are Fluon (liquid PTFE/teflon) and baby powder mixed with rubbing alcohol.

For a more detailed guide on escape prevention click here [INSERT LINK WHEN SETUPS GUIDE IS DONE].

How To Get Into Ant Keeping

Finding a Queen Ant or Colony

Starting out with a single queen is often described as "experiencing ant keeping right from the beginning" however don't get fooled by this, most ant trading pages only allow for sales of ant colonies that actually have workers and they do so for good reasons.

First of all it is impossible to prove an ant queen is mated before she actually produces her first workers, unmated queens can only produce males because haploid eggs turn into males by default and males cannot care for themselves which means the colony is doomed. A good amount of queens also simply dies for unknown reasons before they get their first workers – this happens even to experienced ant keepers. The queens may be sick, infected with parasites or simply genetically defunct.

Generally a colony's chances of survival exponentially increases with the number of workers it has. More ants can store more food, raise more brood, modify and moisten the nest on their own and if a few ants die due to an accident it doesn't really matter that much.

Also there are three kinds of ant queens – fully claustral ones, semi-claustral ones and parasitic ones.

  • Fully claustral queens have enough resources to raise their first workers and should not be fed unless they look really slim. The queens of these species usually never forage (there are a few exceptions like Messor queens that may assist in foraging while their colony is still small).
  • Semi-claustral queens do not have the resources to raise their first workers and need to forage while raising their first batch of brood. These queens need to be fed with sugars and small dead insects during their founding stage.
  • Parasitic queens are incapable of caring for themselves or their brood and cannot found a colony on their own, they need workers of a host species which will raise their first batch of brood. In the wild these queens infiltrate a host colony and kill the local queen to take over the colony, however they often fail and get killed. Raising a parasitic colony is particularly difficult and often fails even when just host workers are provided (without a queen).

If you catch a queen you need to determine of which type she is which means you need to correctly identify it, a task that can prove difficult even for experienced antkeepers as some species look very similar. When buying a colony that already has workers you do not need to care for these details because after the founding stage all these types of ants behave exactly the same with the workers gathering food and raising the brood.

For a more detailed guide on how to catch a queen click here [INSERT LINK TO ANTING GUIDE WHEN IT'S DONE].

Good Beginner Species

There are a lot of ant species but not all of them are easy to keep. Some ants have very specific temperature/humidity requirements that are hard to recreate and maintain, some need special nest layouts, some have a very nasty sting, some just multiply at such an enormous rate that they will outgrow every setup very quickly and completely overwhelm inexperienced keepers.

Here is a short list of ant species suitable for beginners. Click on the ant species for a guide on how to keep them [COMING SOON].

North American species

  • Myrmica rubra (European fire ant)
  • Formica fusca (grey-black slave ant)
  • Veromessor pergandei (a harvester ant species)
  • Camponotus pennsylvanicus (a carpenter ant species)
  • Temnothorax sp (acorns ants)

Central European species

  • Lasius niger (black garden ant)
  • Lasius flavus (yellow meadow ant)
  • Formica fusca (grey-black slave ant)
  • Myrmica rubra (European fire ant)
  • Temnothorax sp (acorns ants)

Mediterranean species

  • Messor barbarus (a harvester ant species)
  • Camponotus barbaricus (a carpenter ant species)
  • Camponortus raufoglaucus feae (a North-African carpenter ant species)

Asian species

  • Camponotus nicobarensis (a Chinese Carpenter ant species)

Australian species

  • Iridomyrmex sp (rainbow ants, pavement ants, trash babies)

For a more detailed guide on how to find an ant species suitable for you click here [INSERT LINK WHEN FINDING YOUR ANT GUIDE IS DONE].

Starting an ant colony

A basic ant setup is really cheap – it consist of just a test tube setup and a small outworld container which can be as simple as a cheap plastic box. Contrary to popular belief a starting colony does not require a big nest, they can live perfectly fine in a test tube with water tank for at least half a year. Fully claustral queens do not even need an outworld until they get their first workers, semi-claustral queens however require a small foraging are where small amounts of food can be placed (it is not recommended to feed a semi-claustral queen in her test tube as this stresses the queen and may cause her to eat the brood or abandon the tube).

Furthermore a barrier is required that prevents the ants from escaping the outworld. Popular choices are Fluon, baby powder + rubbing alcohol or parafine – not all barriers work with every species though, so you need to do some research to find the best barrier for your species. Additional equipment like heating cables/mats, substrates (sand, sand-clay, soil) and decorations may be required depending on the species' preferences and needs.

! If you have ants that are very small or multiply extremely fast you should have a plan to resettle them when they start outgrowing their first setup, otherwise you may have to resettle every ant left in the old setup individually after relocating their tube – which can be a literal pain with aggressive stinging species like Solenopsis or Pogonomyrmex.

There are a few ants that don't do well in test tubes (Odontomachus trap jaw ants have a reputation in that regard and leafcutters require a special basic setup) but for the overwhelming majority of ant species a test tube setup is the best option.

For a more detailed guide on how to start an ant colony click here [INSERT LINK TO STARTING AN ANT COLONY GUIDE WHEN IT'S DONE].

Expanding your setup

At some point an ant colony will start to outgrow it's test tube and needs to relocate. It is very possible to keep even larger colonies in a nest made out of multiple test tubes but most ant keepers prefer to offer their ants a separate nest made of Ytong, acrylic or a 3D-printed one.

When choosing a nest you should keep in mind what humidity levels your ants require – Camponotus for example can be kept in very dry nests, some species to a point where you don't need to water the nest at all. Myrimca on the other hand are a type of ant that requires a very wet nest with high humidity to prevent brood and workers from drying out. Different ants prefer different nest types.

A large ant setup consists of a nesting area (or even multiple nesting areas) and multiple outworlds connected with vinyl tubing or plastic tubes. Large test tubes placed in outworlds work well as additional nesting space for species that like to create satellite nests (Camponotus ants, black crazy ants).

For a more detailed guide on larger ant setups click here [INSERT LINK TO SETUPS GUIDE WHEN IT'S DONE].

A Few More Important Things

Don't Disturb Your Ants

It is tempting to look at your ants every day or even multiple times per day, especially when you're new to ant keeping. This however may have a very negative effect on your ants – if they do not feel safe in their nest they may start eating their brood, stop laying eggs or even die early due to being constantly agitated. While your colony is still small try to limit disturbance to a minimum – you won't miss anything important if you look at your ants just once per week and the ants are likely to do much better when left alone for most of the time.

For more common ant keeping mistakes click here [COMING SOON].

Don't forget about humidity

This is a big thing for the ants but something we humans rarely think about. Adult ants are fairly resistant to dry conditions but the brood of many species needs a moist humid environment, if it is too dry they die or workers get born with defects that render them incapable of performing their tasks. Ants of the genus Myrmica are particularly picky about this with even the adult workers drying out quickly while most species from the genuses Camponotus and Temnothorax can be kept in dry nests as even their brood does fine at room humidity. In temperate regions room humidity will always fluctuate but usually not go below 30% or above 60% (it may go up to 90% during rainy weather though), if you're living in the tropics humidity obviously will be much much higher, probably between 70 and 95%. Extensive air conditioning can lower room humidity down to 20% where even dry-resistent ants start running into problems, so if your room has air-conditioning you need to take a close eye on your ants and regularly water their nests. This is also true for tropical species kept in temperate regions – these ants are used to much higher humidity than our climate can provide and may even require technical equipment like a humidifier.

For a more detailed guide on humidity click here click here.

Don't Feed the Same Thing All the Time

There may be some ant colonies that eat the same food for years and years, but the truth is – most ants won't. The majority of all ant species are opportunists, in the wild they eat a lot of different things and as such are programmed to maintain a diverse diet in order to prevent malnutrition. If you feed them with the same food all the time their appetite might decline or they may outright ignore it. Try feeding them a diverse diet with lots of different items and change the primary food frequently – you could feed crickets for a week, then flies for a week, then locusts for a week and then repeat the cycle. It likely works best if you mix in an occasional piece of ham, a shrimp (a small one is enough for a young colony) or a small piece of some salt-water fish – anything salty will do (ants need salt as well, they need it in liquid form though and as most ants will simply bury salt water giving them salty food is the best option here). Many ants also eat fruits, seeds, nuts and potatoes – just make sure they're not contaminated with pesticides.

For a more detailed guide on ant food click here.