Welcome to the world of ant keeping! So you have decided to start keeping ants as pets and, would like to know how. Here is the step by step guide to keeping ants in ant farms for beginners based on my experience as well as inputs from the gurus.
- How to Get My First Ant
- How to Start an Ant Colony
- Setting Up the Formicarium
- Easiest and Cheapest DIY Ant Farm
- Transferring the Colony to Ant Farm
- Caring for Ant Farm
- Caring for Your Ant Colony when You are Away from Home
- Recommended Supplies
How to Get My First Ant
There are 2 main ways to get your first ant: catching them by yourself, or buying them.
Buying vs Catching
Buying a starter ant colony is a preferred way of getting started. There is a wide variety of species to choose from. Catching wild queen requires some effort and luck. And, you may have limited choices in terms of species. Moreover, you might catch a virgin queen who does not lay eggs.
Catching a Queen Ant
Check the nuptial flight schedule of ants around your area. At night or morning, search for ant alates on the floor or walls where there are lighting. You can also find them on the street around lamp post.
Catching ants can be fun, but it can be challenging. First, you must understand the phenomenon called the nuptial flight. A matured ant colony produces alates which are the reproductive units with wings. One day, these alates will leave their nest to form their own kingdom.
The big day usually happens in the summer, on a warm and windless day after the rain. Thousands of male and female alates will leave their nests and form a swarm looking for alates from other nests. The male will then start to couple with the female in the nuptial flight. Sometimes several males may inseminate the same female.
After mating, the male will soon die, while the female will land on the ground and start searching for a place to establish her new kingdom. Some of them will become a new queen successfully, but many of them will die trying.
While it usually happens in summer, nuptial flights are species-dependent, and are triggered by a few local environmental cues such as humidity and temperature. That’s why you might have nuptial flight of a certain species in 1 state but not in another.
Check out Formiculture.com for the typical nuptial flight schedule in North America (and globally). You can plan you hunting based on that.
If you are staying in an apartment or condominium, pay attention to the wall and floor of your balcony, stairways, and corridors after rain. Alates are attracted to the lightings in the building and it is fairly easy to find them.
If the season is right, most likely you will be able to catch a lot of alates from there. You just need to walk around the public area in your apartment at night or on the next morning after a downpour.
If you are staying in a landed property, turn all your external lighting on, and check out your porch and lawn every hour. You can also install some temporary black light (beware of safety precautions) to attract the alates.
However, do keep in mind that it will attract all other flying insects too. You can also hunt for those alates in the street, where they are typically found on the pavement and even lamp posts.
When catching your queen, pay extra attention to make sure that it is an ant and not a termite. There are characteristics to look for: ants have elbowed antennae, slender waist, and 2 pairs of wings with unequal sizes; termites have thread-like antennae, waist as broad as the body, and have 2 pairs of wings with the same size.
Not all alates are winged though – some may drop their wings after mating. The female alates are stout and larger in size than the male. You need to catch as many alates as possible because some of them might turn out to be infertile. Make sure you keep each of them in separate vials.
Buying a Queen
If you are fortunate to find local stores selling ants colony, buy them. You will have access to a variety of known ant species. Make sure you are buying a fertile queen! Some seller may sell only the queen, some together with eggs and/or workers.
Some ant species are easier to take care than others. Since this is your first ant colony, choose those beginner-friendly ant species.
Be sure to get some information from the seller on the egg-laying time, feeding preference, behaviors, and tips that you need to know to take care of the species that you buy.
I strongly advise against buying an exotic species because they may cause serious harm to your local ecosystem if they break free from your nest!
How to Start an Ant Colony
Keep the queen ant in the dark and supply her with water. Food may or may not be required depending on the type of ant you are dealing with. Avoid disturbance as much as possible.
Depending on species, some may lay eggs in weeks while some may take up to 2 months. If the queen does not lay any egg in 6 weeks, it is safe to assume that they have not mated in the nuptial flight. You can release or euthanize them.
Do not check out the queen unnecessarily. When you need to check or handle the queen (feeding etc.), make sure you are gentle and prevent too much disturbance so that the queen does not feel stressed. Otherwise, she may not lay any eggs, or she may even kill all her broods. Ensure water is always available for the queen.
There are 2 types of ants which you might have, the fully-claustral and semi-claustral ants. In fully-claustral ants, the queen does not require any food. She hides in her newly dug chamber to lays her egg.
A fully-claustral queen is bulkier in size and has a fat abdomen because she needs to store enough energy to survive until the first batch of workers (called nanitics) comes out. Many common ants species are fully-claustral.
We commonly house the queen inside a test tube because it is cheap and easy. To prepare the test tube, fill half of the tube with water. Tuck in a cotton ball and push it to the middle of the test tube until it touches the water and becomes wet. The cotton ball should be big enough to keep the water in place.
Cover the opening with another cotton ball. Place the tube horizontally in an undisturbed dark place to make the queen feel secured.
When the queen has around 10 nanitics, you would want to start feeding them with protein food (eg. cricket leg and boiled yolk) at least once a week. To do that, put the food on a tiny aluminum foil or magazine paper and carefully place it into the test tube.
Do not leave any unconsumed in the tube overnight, or it may promote molds. If there is any food spillage onto the test tube call, carefully clean it with wet cotton.
Semi-claustral queens are smaller compared to fully-claustral queens. Although slightly bigger in size, they resemble their workers. In semi-claustral ant, the queen does require food, especially protein.
Prepare the test tube in the same manner as what you would do for a fully-claustral queen. However, instead of covering the test tube with a cotton, place the tube into another covered plastic container with a few small pieces of tissue paper.
Feed the semi-claustral queen with protein food such as a cricket leg/raw tuna/peanut butter twice a week. Remember to put the food onto a sauce plate so that you can easily remove it if it is not fully consumed after a day.
Similar to fully-claustral species, keep this setting in an undisturbed dark place. In any case, if you are not sure if your queen is semi- or fully-claustral, you can follow the semi-claustral setup.
Cleaning and Maintaining the Starter Colony
Sometimes, the cotton in the test tube may get moldy, or the water in the test tube gets dried up. If you are using a semi-claustral ant setting, simply insert another test tube with water into the container.
For a fully-claustral setup, first you need to prepare another set of test tubes with water. Remove the cotton in the old test tube and gently place both of the test tubes with their openings facing each other.
Use a tape to join both the test tubes. Then, wrap the new test tube with a cloth to keep it dark while you leave the old test tube under a bright environment.
Leave it there for a few hours, and you will see the ants slowly moving to the new test tube because it is darker there, which makes them feel safer.
Setting Up the Formicarium
The word formicarium derives from “formica” ( which means ants) and vivarium, which means place of living. It is also sometimes known as the ant farm.
A formicarium consists of 2 portions: the outworld or landscape, and the nest. The outworld or landscape is where the ants forage for food while the nest is where they live.
While ants do not really appreciate how beautiful the outworld is, it is satisfying to watch the ants in a decorated outworld. There are a lot of ideas on Pinterest that you can find on decorating the outworld.
Planting in the outworld can be challenging. Because plants need soils, you will inevitably introduce soils and water them. The ants may decide to nest in the damp soil instead of the nest that you have prepared, which makes observation of nest activity difficult.
Moreover, some ants have a tendency to destroy the plants to make it their nesting materials. If you plan to decorate the outworld with plants, try air plants as they do not require soil.
The most crucial element in keeping ants is escape prevention. Ants are constantly exploring their surrounding. They can easily find ways to escape the formicarium if no prevention measure is set in place.
Regardless of what sort of design you are planning for the outworld, you need to implement at least 2 escape prevention systems. In the event the first escape prevention is breached, there is at least a second one in place as a failsafe.
The most effective materials for this is teflon coating (affiliate link).
Simply apply a teflon coating on the inner wall of your outworld, at least 4 inches in width. This will serve as the first line of defense that makes the ants loose grip and fall as they walk past the teflon coating.
If your outworld has a ceiling where the escape point is located, apply teflon on the ceiling itself. Teflon works best in dry environments and it is effective for most ant species. You will need to reapply it every few months.
If you cannot source teflon in where you live, try using a vaseline. Vaseline generally works for larger ants but not small ants. Some ants may lay debris to pave an escape path on the vaseline while some can just walk over it.
Baby Powder and Alcohol
Another common barrier formulation is the mixing of baby powder and alcohol. To prepare this, add baby powder into the alcohol until it forms a thick slurry. Apply the slurry evenly onto the inner wall and let it dry.
The particles on the wall will detach from the wall when the ants walk over it, causing the ants to fall. You will need to reapply the coating every fortnight. Similar to teflon and vaseline, some ants are not affected by it. Moreover, the baby powder/alcohol coating gets degraded every time an ant walks over it.
Second Line of Escape Prevention
You will need a second line of escape prevention in case the first one fails. You can contain your outworld in a frame and apply teflon onto the inner walls of the frame.
Another method that you can use is to create a moat by putting the whole setup in the center of water. You can add some oil into the water so that it does not evaporate that fast. However, you need to change the water at least every fortnight because it may collect dust, which allows some ants to walk past the moat.
Some ants are capable of building an escape bridge by throwing debris into the water. You should not use a moat as your first line of escape prevention.
There are basically 2 types of nests setup – I call them the nest with privacy and the nest without privacy.
The privacy nests are basically anything that does not allow you to observe what’s happening in the nest.
Those are typically cheaper and relatively easier to DIY. It can be either a box or a jar filled with soil and sand. In this sort of setup, the ants will build their own tunnel and nest using whatever substrates provided. You have no control on the tunneling and you do not know what happens in the nest. Ants prefer this sort of setup as it is natural to them.
In contrast, a no privacy nest consists of a transparent vessel containing pre-designed tunnels and chambers. The tunnels and chambers can be built using different materials such as PLA plastic, acrylic, ytong, unsanded grout, plaster etc.
Here are the common materials for ant nests, and their respective pros and cons.
- PLA (polylactic acid) plastic
- Resist to mold
- Easy to clean
- Various designs available
- Highly customizable
- Require a 3D printer
- Best visibility
- Resist to mold
- Various designs available
- Easy to build
- Easy to clean
- Can be too slippery certain species
- More expensive
- Ytong (aka autoclaved aerated concrete):
- Resist to mold
- Good ventilation and water absorption
- Hard to clean
- Not easy to carve
- Can be difficult to source
- Unsanded grout
- Resist to mold
- Hold moisture for a long time
- Hard to clean
- Cheap and readily available
- Easy to prepare and carve
- Get moldy easily
- Hard to clean
- Least durable
Another trendy medium for the formicarium that you might hear of is the agar/gel-based medium. These gel formicaria are not designed for long term ant keeping. There are complaints that some gel has poor quality and that it poisons and kills the ants. Avoid using gel unless you just want to keep ants for a few weeks or months.
Regardless of the medium that you choose for the nest, make sure the nest is always covered in the dark when you are not observing the ants. This makes your pet ants feel more comfortable and grow better.
Easiest and Cheapest DIY Ant Farm
If you have a very limited budget, here is an ant farm build that you can refer to. It is the easiest and cheapest ant farm for beginners. You will need some test tubes, a recycled container, papers and 2 trays of different sizes.
First, we should build the nest. Take a non-transparent container with an opening at 1 side. The container should be around the size of 1-2 adult fists. Create a hole on 1 of the walls directly next to the opening. This will serve as an entrance for the ants. Then, prepare some cardboard papers and fold them zig-zag.
Fill up the container with those zig-zag papers and place the container at the center of a tray with the opening facing downward. The tray will serve as an outworld for the ants. You can put some decorations in your outworld if you want. Remember to apply a teflon coating onto the inner wall of the outworld, at least 4 inches in width.
Then, put the whole tray into a bigger tray fill with water. The outer tray will serve as a moat, which is the second line of defense to prevent the ants from escaping. The last thing you need to prepare is 2 test tubes, 1 with water and 1 with 10% syrup. Put a cotton ball tightly into each test tube and place them into the outworld.
While this setting is by far the cheapest setting I am aware of, it is very difficult to peek into the nest even if you are using a transparent container for the nest. You can still enjoy watching how the ants forage.
Transferring the Colony to Ant Farm
You can transfer your the queen ant out from the test tube into a formicarium once she has around 20 workers, or when the tube is too crowded (for big ant species).
To move your colony into the formicarium, simply place your test tube colony into the outworld. The colony will slowly move into the nest since it is darker inside.
If the ants refuse to go into the nest, try to keep your outworld bright, which will eventually force your ants to hide in the nest. Some formicaria have designs that allow you to easily transfer the ants. Keep the nest in the dark when transferring ants.
If your queen is not in the test tube (semi-claustral setup), place the container-containing the queen into the outworld. Flip the container gently so that the ants can easily leave the container. Obviously you need to remove the cover.
Be gentle when you are transferring your colony and try not to drop the ants to prevent unnecessary stress. If it is not possible to put your container into the outworld, prepare
Caring for Ant Farm
Great! You now have a small ant colony! What you need to do next is to make the colony survive and grow! There are a few elements that you need to take care of: food and water, humidity, temperature, and lighting.
Feeding the Ant Colony
Every creature needs food and water to survive, so do ants. There are two things that you need to keep in mind on ants feeding behaviors.
First, the workers can only consume liquid food, and they need the larvae to digest any solid food. Second, the workers need more sugar for energy, while the larvae and queen need more protein for growth and eggs-laying.
Hence, you need to make sure you provide both protein and sugar to your colony. Some of the good protein that you can feed your ants with include feeder insects, canned tuna, boiled egg yolk, pet food; for sugar, you can use 10% syrup or cut fruit. Water should be made available to the colony at any time.
If you are not sure how much you should feed to your ants, you can try different portions of food. Start with a lesser amount of food and slowly increase the amount the next day if you notice the food was finished up in the prior day.
Conversely, if there are leftovers, you can prepare a lesser amount of food for the next day. All leftovers should be disposed within the same day to prevent growth of mold. Check out this guide to learn how to feed the ants.
Humidity and Temperature
Different ant species have different preferences on temperature and humidity. You will need to do some research on the preference of your ant species. In general, workers are tolerant to low humidity but the larvae require a more humid environment.
A tropical species would require a higher humidity environment compared with a temperate species. To increase the humidity, you can spray the formicarium with water using a garden spray bottle. Some formicaria come with designs that allow you to keep the nest humid.
If you need to moderate the temperature of your nest using heat mats or heat cables, do that only at a portion of your nest. This allows the ants to make a choice according to their preference.
Most ants species prefer a dark and undisturbed nest. You can light your outworld 8 hours a day to mimic the natural daylight timing. Do monitor the temperature so that the ants are not baked by the heat from lighting.
Caring for Your Ant Colony when You are Away from Home
Ant keeping is a perfect hobby for those with a busy schedule. Even if you need to leave your home for a week or 2, you don’t have to ask someone to pet-sit your colony.
What you need to do is to make sure the colony has enough water and syrup. You will want to put in additional tubes of water and syrup to be safe. You also need to reapply the teflon coating and make sure your other escape prevention systems are intact.
Here’s a list of items that I recommend you to get for this hobby. Note that I get a small commission when you buy the items through the links in this page. This helps me to maintain the site without incurring additional costs to you.