Test Tube Setup Guide

From Ant Keeping Wiki


Test tube setups

Test tube setups have been used by ant keepers for decades to simulate the founding conditions of queens. Founding queens will usually nest in the ground where is it warm and damp - test tube setups mimic this to great effect.

Ants need certain humidity levels and constant conditions and while many species are fully capable of creating their favored nest conditions on their own when the colony is large smaller colonies that just got beyond the founding stage simply cannot do this. As a result young colonies that are put into a nest too early often seriously stall in their development or may even die off. Small colonies also often do not like to walk long distances and will create garbage dumps in unsused empty chambers which can quickly lead to mold growth, especially within moist nests.

For these reasons most ants should be kept in test tubes until they reach a reasonable size (50-80 workers for larger ants, several hundred workers for smaller ants). Note that this does not mean you cannot give them an outworld, in fact you should do so as feeding the ants inside the tube is not just extremely disturbing for them (and might lead to workers eating the brood) there's also a high risk of ants escaping, especially with small fast ants like Lasius or Pheidole species.

Identify your ant species!

Most queens do not need food while founding, but there are some that do – this is why it's so important to get a proper identification on any ant queen you caught. There are also so-called "social parasites" which rely on workers from another ant species and cannot raise their first brood on their own.

Once you have identified the species of your queen, you should figure out if she is fully-claustral or semi-claustral. If she's semi-claustral, you will also need a basic foraging container as described below.

! There are a few rare ants known for not doing well in test tubes such as Odondomachus trapjaw ants and Myrmecocystus honeypot ants. These ants require special care that cannot be covered in this articles – please look up the caresheet section or ask people who keep these species to get a better grasp of their needs.

Making a test tube setup

Materials needed (~$10):

  • Test tubes
  • Cotton balls
  • Water (tap water, bottled water in case your tap water isn't trustworthy or your house has old water pipes made from copper)

How to make a test tube setup

  • Fill a test tube 3/4ths the way with water
  • Taking a cotton ball, tear a chunk large enough to fit into the opening without trying too hard
  • Using the handle end of a spoon, quickly push the cotton down to the water so that it's damp, but not leaking
  • Persuade your queen into the test tube and plug it with another small torn piece of cotton.

Videos of this process:

  • How To Raise A Queen Ant by Ants Australia [INSERT VIDEO LINK]
  • Test Tube Setup (Ant-Keeping Tutorial/Guide) by RobJ's Ants [INSERT VIDEO LINK]

After you have her in a test tube setup, you want to leave her alone! Keep her in a dark, warm (not more than 85f) space that is free of vibrations. Making sure the nest is warm helps a lot of keepers, but for many species it isn't necessary. It's usually okay to check on her every other day or so, some species are very sensitive though and should be completely left alone for at least 3 weeks (Messor queens for example are very sensitive to vibrations and will quickly eat their brood).

That's about it! If your queen is fully claustral (does not require food during founding) this will last you 4 to 10 weeks, depending on your ant species.

Setting up a foraging container

Many colonies don't need to be moved out of isolated test tube setups, but they will need to be fed. If your queen is semi-claustral you will need at least a basic foraging container where she can look for food.

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)

Materials needed (~$15-20):

  • Sugar, salt, access to a stove
  • Dry sand
  • Appropriate food, depending on species.
  • A small-ish container with a lid
  • Water bottle caps
  • Baby powder and rubbing alcohol

How you set up a foraging container

  • Take your food container and line it with dry sand. This will prevent them from nesting in it. Some people prefer using plaster 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. Video for reference. This is to prevent ants from escaping when you take off the lid. Let it dry with good ventilation because ethanol vapors are heavier than air and can kill ants inside the box if not ventilated properly until dried up. The baby powder and rubbing alcohol mix works to prevent ants from climbing on the walls.
  • For placing food, an upside down water bottle cap or a piece of tin foil works great . Don't use caps with too steep inclines, ants may fall into the bottlecap and drown (beer bottle caps are perfect).
  • Cover them up when not looking at them.
  • When water runs out in a test tube, just add another next to it. As the colony grows, keep adding test tubes.

After you have a pretty good sized colony, take the time to explore all the amazing formicarium options available through stores, or make your own! Many ant keepers make the mistake of moving their colony to an large formicarium too early and they see worker die offs, so take your time. Good luck!

Additional information

Mold inside test of tubes

When you spot mold do not instantly force-move your ant colony. Most types of mold are not an issue for an ant colony at all, especially the bacterial mold that often grows inside test tubes – in fact the entire cotton can turn black and the water green or yellow and most ant colonies will simply not care at all. To help your ants you can provide them with sand which they often stick onto the wet cotton surface to suppress the mold growth. Also observe your ants' behavior – if the mold is an actual problem they will actively avoid the cotton and move the brood away from it. You can always offer them a second fresh test tube and they will move into it when they feel the need (just put it into the outworld next to the one they currently inhabit, if you want to make it easier for them you can connect both tubes with a drinking straw large enough for the queen to pass). When your tube gets flooded due to condesation or water leaking from the cotton just take a q-tip and remove the excess water. Ants can survive for hours under water and will often come back to life a few minutes after they dried up. Only move them to a new tube when the one they're in continues to leak water. Generally you should be careful when heating test tubes – not only can heat quickly accumulate inside a small tube and literally fry the ants inside – it may also lead to condensation at the tube's ceiling, sometimes to such an extreme amount that the tube gets flooded by the water dripping from the ceiling. Personally I would not recommend heating test tubes unless it is necessary, most ants from temperate regions will do perfectly fine without additional heating.

To learn more about condensation and how to avoid it check out the humidity guide [INSERT LINK TO HUMIDITY GUIDE].

Straw entrance

This is a modification for test tube setups which works well for both semi-claustral queens and small colonies.

Take a plastic straw and push it down between the front cotton plug and the tube's wall (you may have to take out the cotton and push it back in together with the straw for this too work). The straw MUST be large enough for the queen to pass. If something bad happens – like the tube flooding because workers have digged into the cotton – the queen must be able to get out. Also when the workers want to move to another place certain ant species have a habit of making the queen fit at whatever cost (yes, this means they will dissassemble the queen – sometimes ants aren't very clever).

A straw is also a great method to move a single queen or a small colony should the current tube become inhabitable (like when the tube dries out quicker than expected or mold growth gets really out of control).

Just use the method described above to connect the old tube with a fresh clean tube (it's best to do this with the fresh test tube first so the ants can't walk into the straw while you're figuring how to get that straw into the tube) - tadaa, you now have two tubes connected by a straw and the ants can move to the new tube whenever they want (it may take a few days or even weeks though). If your ants already have an outworld the connection straw will automatically become the new exit once you removed the old tube.

Resources and suggested readings

These types of formicariums have been tried and tested by experienced ant keepers. That said, everybody should take care of their colonies as well as they're able.. but not everybody can afford expensive nests. That's what this guide is for :)