Be a good owner.
Ants can be pets just as we keep fish in a tank or birds in a cage. What you need to remember is, ants were living on planet Earth many millions of years before cats, dogs or humans. Like you would hopefully give loving care for a pet cat, dog or tank of fish, so you need to think about the well being of ant species you may keep as pets.
This may sound a bit condescending, but consult a good book or an expert ant keeper about the subject of how best to keep ants as pets. Join a forum to ask questions about them, but do make sure it is a reputable and well established forum, as some so called "ant experts" may turn out to be a bunch of people who, although well meaning, are just a group of amateurs who really know nothing at all apart from what they themselves may have read in books. Although you don't need to have professional knowledge to keep a pet of any kind, it is advisable to read what a person with a good knowledge of the animal can offer you; and as I can proudly boast I have studied ants in the wild for the past 50 years, I too can still learn more about them from observing their habits, or from Entomologists (Myrmecologists) who study ants for a living and research ants more closely than you or I may.
Ants are as old as the dinosaurs, and as they are far older than we are on the evolutionary scale of things, they deserve to be respected. Only by knowing as much as we can about them, can we truly look after them and be responsible pet owners. Remember ants are wild animals and as such cannot be tamed, yet they will learn to repond to certain sounds and times such as when you feed them; but this does not mean they will sit on your hand like a pet mouse, for no matter how long you keep them they may still bite or sting, and they will escape at the slightest opportunity.
Like any animal kept in captivity, ants prefer a good home, plenty of food and a feeling of security. So do make sure you can cater for their needs by providing the best you can at all times, and get to know as much about the species or genera you wish to keep in your home, as it will pay off and reward you with some nice healthy pets in the long run!
A friend of mine made this video of his colony of Camponotus fulvopilosus which visitors will find interesting, as some ants need a lot of heat to be kept well in captivity.
How to keep ants.
Okay, let's assume you've read my Ant Hunting page, and you have learned a thing or two about how to collect ants from the wild? Or perhaps you have taken a shortcut and bought a colony from a reputable ant dealer? So just how do you go about keeping them alive and healthy?
Just the other day, my wife and I were in one of those shops that sell plastic food containers really cheap, like 4 pots with snap on lids for only £1. It is a simple matter to convert these into a nest type home by connecting them with small lengths of plastic airline such as that used in fish tanks. Or you can even use a fair sized container to house a queen and small colony, with or without soil or sand.
All you need to consider is, which species or genera of ants do I have; and what do they build their nests in, or from, out in the wild? Don't forget that tropical ants require a lot of warmth and humidity, especially if they're leaf cutters, or perhaps ants from a desert region such as are found in the arid parts of the USA. Buy the best you can; but don't skint yourself by spending a small fortune, as is it not always what you house ants in that counts, but where you keep the set up and how well you feed them that makes for a good colony!
Think before you act. Take time to make a plan of action before setting up any kind of ant farm, plaster set up or whatever. Keeping ants does not need to cost a lot, nor is it time consuming; but it always pays to consider what ants you wish to keep, where you are going to keep them, and in what. No matter what, you may lose ants and despair that you are totally at fault.
This is not always the case, as I have placed lots of food in an ant set up, only to find that they have declined what was offered and died off over a matter of months. A sad fact, but true! Although adult ants can survive for quite a long time on little or no food, but their larvae need to eat more to grow. Learn from any mistakes you may make; and you will make some, believe me. Keeping any pet is best when you have gained experience; and keeping ants is no more, or no less difficult than keeping fish, birds, snakes, dogs etc.
The main thing is, when keeping ants, do enjoy watching them and try to learn as much about them as you possibly can, as there are plenty of sites containing some really good information on the web. Use a reputable site to buy your ants and equipment from, and there is no reason why you shouldn't have hours of fun, plus some valuable opportunities to learn and study social insect behaviour very close up. Above all, give your ants a good home and good food, and they will reward you by having their colony numbers grow and prosper over a long period of time!
I was recently sent a question asking when should ants kept as pets be removed from hibernation?
Let us say that you are living in a country such as Britain for example, where it currently January and therefore the middle of our winter. Ask yourself one question, and that is "Can I find any ants foraging in my garden or in the wild?"
Of course, the logical answer is NO, I can't. So it is only common sense to say that it would be bad management policy to bring your own ants out from hibernation at this time, assuming of course that they belong to a genus/species which spend the winter months in a state of hibernation or dormancy.
Let's say that you are keeping good old Lasius niger for example, and that you live in the Midlands area of England. The average daytime temperature hovers around 5 degrees Celsius. Ants in your garden are still deep within their nest, and for the most part will be totally dormant. So it makes no sense whatsoever to bring your own Lasius niger into full activity yet, as doing this will only reduce the life expectancy of the queen and workers.
So my advice to anyone thinking about when to revive their own ants, if they live in a country where ants hibernate naturally and are keeping a species which does so is; DON'T DO IT UNTIL YOU SEE NATIVE ANTS ACTIVE, either in your own garden or in the wild. If you wish to consider bringing ants out of hibernation, then wait until at least you see Daffodils out in bloom in your local park or garden, which is normally from March onwards.
I sincerely hope that I have stressed the importance of allowing ants to follow their natural biorhythms, which means letting them hibernate for the same length of time as they would do under normal winter conditions, for the region in which they were collected from in the first place!
Need I say more? I don't think so, as I'm sure you all grasp my point on this significant area of ant keeping!
Some Ant Farms aren't good.
A Warning about Blue Gel Ant Farms
A young member of Ant Hill World forum recently placed an interesting list, stating some very good reasons why NOT to buy those Blue Gel Formicariums to keep ants in. My thanks go to 14 year old Matthew Marshall for providing this most enlightening list! This is what he has to say on the subject.
"Hi, I have had one of those ant farms. They are rubbish, and I would not recommend them to anyone. Here are some reasons why:-
1. They find it hard to dig.
2. It has a stupid lid which is stiff and airtight.
3. It says you don't need to feed them, but you do because the gel only feeds workers and not larvae.
4.The colony sits on the surface.
5. Few species can actually tunnel into it. E.g. Species of Harvester ants.
6. The ants dig for a day, then seem to give up.
7. When the ants die, they go mouldy in the gel.
8. The gel is too moist, so the ants get stuck in it.
9. The container is tiny.
10. The price is an unbelievable £20 - £25 for piece of rubbish, when you could buy 2 AntWorlds for the same price."
Mathew's advice is} "DON'T BUY THEM!!"
My own opinion is, these things are sold in silly gadget shops aimed at people who have no prior knowledge about ants. While they may have been of some use in outer space, they are about as useful here on Earth as keeping a goldfish in a small bowl. While the poor thing may survive for a short period of time, it has no quality of life. Fish kept in a large aquarium tank are much happier, and have a better and longer lifespan expectancy. So it is with ants; they react far better to plenty of room and more natural conditions in which to live.
Blue Gel containers such as AntWorks etc. should all be placed in a spaceship and blasted back to where they belong. They are a yuppy toy which should NEVER have been pushed onto the market, or an unsuspecting public.
My advice is, LEAVE THEM ON THE SHELF IN THE SHOPS; then perhaps the makers of these ant unfriendly, and user unfriendly ant farms, may just stop producing and selling them!
Which are the best ants to keep ?
A question that often arises on our Ant Hill World forum is, which is the best ant species or easiest to keep in captivity ?
Well this really depends on which country you are living in; and which species are available. It is also dependant on what the species nests in, in the wild; and what conditions you can supply in a captive environment ?
For me to say you can keep Leaf Cutter ants, when you only have a slim-line vertical AntWorld style set up; and have limited funds available, would be entirely wrong, as I'd be offering very bad advice indeed ! For such a set up as AntWorld (Uncle Milton's in the USA ), the best kind of ants would be Lasius, Myrmica or perhaps the smaller Formica's e.g. F. fusca. As already mentioned, it really depends on where you live and which ants you can obtain. My advice is, before you go spending a lot of money on buying ants or equipment, see what species you have locally to you.
See what the ants nest in, and if they are fairly safe to handle. Then you can decide what to house them in, what kind of care they need; and most important of all, which ants are best for you to keep if you are a novice ant keeper ? There is nothing more demoralizing than starting off a colony of exotic, expensive ants, only to lose the entire colony through inexperience !
Don't rush into the hobby of ant keeping with big ideas, as you will more than likely fail and possibly get put right off the idea. Instead, start small and learn from any mistakes you make; and believe me, you will make a few, as I did when I first started. Once you have successfully kept a local ant species, then you should be okay to progress onto a more difficult species later; assuming of course that your bank balance and countries laws will allow it ??
Feeding Ants kept in captivity.
Ants kept under artificial conditions,such as those kept in a home Formicarium or Ant Farm set up,cannot hunt for food as they do in the wild and so are reliant on their keeper to supply a food source. All food items placed in an artifial nest, if not eaten by the ants, will eventually decay within a few days.This happens especially with soft food such as fruit. This can cause problems,as mould or fungi will grow on the food,which leads to a very unhealthy nest environment. Do please put food items where they can easily be removed quickly if there are signs of them growing mould etc this way you will keep your ants happy,healthy and above all,thriving.
All ants love sweet foods i.e jam,honey and fruit. However,too much of a high sugar intake leads to ants dehydrating;so always make sure you provide good old H2O(water) as ants need to drink just like we do to survive. During the winter months your ants will eat very little,unless you have them in a heated room,when they will need a bit more food to sustain the colony. Once the weather warms up,especially if you have egg laying queens in your colony,your ants will need fresh food 2-3 times a week,more if you have a very large colony.Try not to put too much food in all at once,as uneaten food will only cause problems if it goes bad! Protein in the form of fresh insect prey is needed for egg laying,also for the feeding of growing larvae.You can buy mealworms or small crickets at pet stores. Caterpillars from the garden(if you have one?) go down well,as do freshly killed bluebottles and even wasps. I have even tried tiny bits of dog and cat food when other insect food has been scarce. My Myrmica ruginodis colony ate a bit of tinned tuna fish once,which I was very astonished by.
By all means,experiment with food items when feeding your captive ants. Just remember,remove all uneaten food after 48hours before it begins to decay; and never,I repeat,never give your ants anything which you are unsure about,as you don't want to end up poisoning your little pets. After all,you are responsible for their lives while they are in your care!!
Collecting ants from the wild.
Collecting ants to put into your "Ant Farm" can be quite a duanting project. First you need to find the ants you wish to keep. Try looking under stones or paving slabs in a garden (remember to ask permission before you go lifting up anything from the person who owns the garden first). When you are lucky enough to find an ant nest, you will require a several containers in which to collect the ants. Empty jam or coffee jars with screw on lids are useful, but clean them out thoroughly before use. Also try making a few very small air holes in the lid, not so large that a small ant can get out and escape, but enough to let a bit of air in. Formicine ants will often spray formic acid when alarmed and can actually gas themselves to death inside a small container. If you are going to collect ants of this kind, don't place too many ants inside and release the lid occasionally to let in more air; or add bits of activated charcoal or chalk to absorb the acid fumes.
The reason I use more than one collecting jar is, ants are very fast moving and will often run out of the jars as fast as you've put them in there. Also if you capture a queen(s), she (they) can be held temporarily seperated from the workers. In the case of Formica ants and related species who spray formic acid, I have known hours of hard work collecting queens and workers to go downhill, as the workers have sprayed so much acid inside the collecting jar it has killed the entire colony of perhaps 5 queens and 70 workers; and this is not what you want to happen at all, as not only has your day been ruined but you have 75 ants who would otherwise still be alive if only you'd left them alone, or taken more care with them!
A word of warning. No matter how carefully you collect ants, you will get the odd bite or sting, as this is inevitable. For this reason alone, I would not advise small children to pick up ants, as any painful experience they may suffer could put them off insects later in life, so only older children or adults should attempt to do this. Even I have to act with caution when collecting ants; and here the old adage of "Once bitten, twice shy" applies very well, and I have been handling ants for almost 50 years now, so I know just how painful an ant sting can be, and the same applies to ants which bite and then spray formic acid into the open wound too!!!
When you have gathered approx. 50-75 ants, you should then have sufficient for your needs. Take your captive ants home, preferably keeping them inside a dark place such as a rucksack. Once you get home, gently place the containers inside your fridge to cool the ants down, (Not the freezer, as this can freeze them to death) for 15-20 minutes. The ants will become slow and torpid (fall asleep), during which time you can safely transfer them into your Formicarium set up. Don't wait too long before you do this however, as the ants soon wake up and become active again once their body temperature warms up. They will take roughly 24 hours to settle down; but once they find their feet as it were they will begin to treat their new home as the nest they were born in and start to dig tunnels and forage for food, or they will adapt well to whatever type of nest you have made for them.
Ant Home Set Ups.
If you wish to keep ants, either as "pets" or for study (as in a school project), the first thing you will require for them is a suitable home to place them into. There are lots of things you can use, for example, a clean transparent glass or plastic jar, or a fish tank of a size which you will decide is best for the ants you're keeping in it. As long as the container provides enough space, and the addition of any air holes small enough to prevent the ants escaping (much easier said than done); and also so you can observe your ants going about their daily activities, then it should be fine! Worker ants like to forage, so your set up needs to allow for the ants to do a spot of hunting for their food.
It is possible to make your own type of "Ant Farm" by using lengths of wood or plastic which have 2 grooves cut into them, like the frame used in double glazing. As long as you can place the frame onto a sturdy base to prevent it from falling over; or you can use plaster and other materials such as aerated concrete blocks, better known as Ytong nests. Two panes of clear glass or plastic can be placed into the grooves and sealed. Use the silicone sealant that is used around baths or sold where you buy glass fish tanks, but do remember to let it set and dry out well, as this will allow any chemicals to disperse harmlessly into the air before you add any ants. Also make sure that you can safely access your ant home, so you can put food in etc.
Always try to cover your ants when not observing them to exclude light, as for most of their lives ants live in underground nests or places well away from daylight. This does not mean that they won't tolerate light; but they prefer to be in total darkness if possible, and queens rarely come out from their nests in the wild.
There are some very good Formicariums (Ant Farms) on sale nowadays. Check out one called ANT WORLD made by Interplay, and others which can be found either on the Internet or in local high street stores and shopping malls.
Make your own, or buy one ready made? The decision really is yours to make. As long as both yourself and your ants are happy with the final choice, and they thrive in the home you have provided for them, then you will have successfully catered for their needs.