Keeping Ants as pets hit the public eye, with the mass-marketed Uncle Milton's Ant Farm, achieving commercial success in the late 1950's.
Sadly much of the corporate represented side of the hobbyist's market has not moved on from this line of thought.
Before I get into what Ant Keeping is....
This is What, it isnt!
Gel ant farms, Ant World Ant Farms, Uncle Milton Ant Farms, or any of the various names or brands, they are now sold under.
None of these nests have been designed to care for the Ants they house, they will not bring you ultimately a cherished experience within the ant hobby, these nests have been designed to watch Ant workers dig some tunnels, until they die, the Gel farms, usually suffocate the workers, they liquify and drown them, or their waste builds up and it becomes a breeding ground for toxic mold.
The pressed sand & loam set ups are not any better, they suffer from tunnel collapses or again the Ants waste, ammonia, urea, uric acid, the sand becomes a breeding ground for toxic mold, the colony will die.
The welfare of the Ants has never been the goal of what I call Gimmick nests, these nests were designed with a mindset of, "Stick some Ants in, the kids enjoy some tunnels being dug for a few months and they die the kids will have moved on to other toys". its viewed as a toy, for the purpose of temporary entertainment. Not as caring for your pets, some species of Ant Queens, can live up to 30 years with colonies sizes in the thousands.
Hobbyist Ant Nests have been designed by keepers, who have the capability to create and experiment with materials, to create, nests that have been manufactured with the ants welfare, keeping in mind compromises for the enjoyment of the keeper.
Please do not support these corporate gimmick nests! if you have bought one, please return it, they need to be banned, our world has moved on from this archaic wasteful way of thinking.
We consider the impact of our choices on the world around us more, a conscious move to be more aware. These types of products do not represent the hobby of Ant keeping!
What is so great about, keeping Ants?
Across the globe nearly 14,000 species have been registered, an estimated further 20,000 possible species yet to be discovered, Ants have evolved so many different traits & adaptations to survive, once you scratch the surface you dive into an endless cavern of learning, Ants are such amazing, intricate, intelligent, creatures, some Ant colonies span across the European continent, the Argentine Ant holds a colony territory size spanning 3,700 miles, the facts surrounding these creatures and their evolutionary path, is endless.
They are quite simply one of the most interesting species on the planet, once you start keeping them it usually becomes a life time interest, the hobby is a rollercoaster of ups & downs, it takes patience, overcoming adversity & loss, commitment, achievements above all a curious mind, mastering the hobby, can bring you years of enjoyment & rewards from your colonies.
There is pretty much a species out there to suit everyone, everyone has different of objectives & enjoyment from the hobby, in this modern world for me, its my break from it all, my therapy, immersed in the world of Ants, learning so much, getting to know some incredible people through the community, its a Journey.
How to get started?
Traditionally to get started, each year most species of Ants have a nuptial flight, this is the mating flight of the virgin Queens & the male drones, these are called Alates, once mated the Queens will land, they chew off their wings, this is the best time to collect your Queens.
thanks to the modern world and the internet, these days you can order Ants, from reputable retailers or traders, getting them delivered to your door.
To find some retailers see the "Our Colony" section on the website.
I try to cater for links to suit people within the hobby world wide, mainly UK, EU, US & Canada.
What Ant species should I start with?
It's always best to start with a beginner species, that species may differ, depending on where in the world you are, in the UK the common species recommended is Lasius, either Niger or Flavus.
Those with more knowledge may start with Myrmica or Formica.
Across Europe, US & Canada, Camponotus, Lasius Neo Niger, etc.
Its really good to join the communities on social media, Facebook has lots of local groups for Ant keepers, some countries have strict laws surrounding the hobby, which effects the species you may be allowed to keep or even collect from the wild.
A beginner species is often a little slower growing, hardier, easy to manage and care for, giving you the experience you need to decide how you feel about the hobby, most people end up keeping more than one colony of Ants.
The Ant keeping hobby, is a slow, beautiful, enjoyable hobby, we tend and care for these social creatures, started from a single Queen, watching and helping them flourish into a colony of thousands or even millions of workers.
A Formicarium is the term used for an Ant nest, formicarium's come in many shapes, sizes & materials, some standard and others are specialised for the specific needs of a specific species of Ant.
Plaster / Gypsum
Lasius Niger the common black garden ant.
If you live in the UK then in some form or another you know Lasius Niger, the black garden ant, even if its just their nuptial flight which has been dubbed “Flying Ant Day”
The nuptial flight of this species is so large its tracked from space.
Check out these articles from Science alert in 2019 & the BBC in 2020.
This humble little ant is found across the world, some places its native, some places its become invasive, UK, Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Australasia.
Australasia makes up -
Whilst Ant Maps, throw many of its locations into question, one thing is for certain, Lasius are an incredibly well adaptable species, able to tolerate a huge variance in environmental factors, heat, humidity, mixed with being highly successful scavenger's & farmer's of aphids.
They make for great pets being very easy to care for and begin a journey into ant keeping.
Lasius Niger are monogyne, meaning they have a single Queen, the workers are monomorphic, all the same shape and roughly the same size. They do not have specialised workers for various roles like species that have polymorphism.
Large colonies in rare cases can grow to be 40,000 strong, on average they are between 4000 - 7000 workers in a colony.
Lasius hibernate between October - March.
Much of the success of this species is attributed to their ability to adapt & scavenge, many have quickly adapted to the rigors of urban living taking advantage of human trash, their diet should consist of carbohydrates & proteins in the form of sugars & insects.
They will also consume fruits (be aware of possible pesticides), cooked chicken & prawns I found to be a Favourite.
One of the most popular kept species across the UK & Europe.
Messor Barbarus the European harvester Ant.
Found across Southern Europe, North Africa stretching as far as Asia.
I currently keep a Red Headed & a Bi-Colour colony of Messor Barbarus.
Primary records indicate the species to be monogyne (a single Queen within the colony), however examples have been found of colonies being polygyne (multiple Queens within the colony) usually this data has been recorded in captivity, with two or more Queens, this is rare and out of the norm. Possibly in theory due to the stresses of a new environment, adaptive traits for survival. I personally have only ever kept this species with a single Queen.
Queens are between 14mm to 18mm they have a varied colour morph, most known is the Red headed, then Bi-Colour (red head and red thorax) least is all black, this is significant because the majors will often inherit the colours of the Queen.
The minor workers start from around 3mm all the way to the majors being up to 14mm.
This species has Minors, Media & Major workers, all the workers are female.
Queens are fully claustral founding, this means they do not need to hunt for food, they will remain in their claustral chamber until their first workers eclose (emerge from their pupae stage to a fully formed Ant), known as nanitics, these nanitics then have the job of finding vital food to feed a now starving Queen. This is when you should offer your colony some form of foraging area, so the workers can gather vital supplies, for a young colony its best practice to pre crush seeds.
Males only appear during a nuptial flight (mating flight) and have a short life they are all black, with wings, around 6mm - 8mm in size. Their only role in life is to inseminate a virgin Queen, so she can venture off and found a new colony to continue the life cycle and survival of the species.
Colony size can reach up to 10,000 members.
Messor Barbarus have the ability to hibernate but they hibernate selectively in response to the weather, in Southern Europe the species hibernates at 15°c, In north Africa, they do not hibernate as the weather does not reach their hibernation temperatures, studies conducted showed no pro's or con's to this species hibernating, Queens that hibernated laid more brood in a shorter time frame, Queens that did not hibernate laid smaller brood piles over a longer time frame, both colonies grew in equal measure, over the year they was studied.
I judge hibernation by colony response, if they stop foraging during the winter months, then allow them to hibernate, end of November - end of February, do not let the temperatures fall below 15°c.
If the colony does not hibernate, doesn't show any signs of slowing down, then carry on the summer guide lines for temperature range.
Their most interesting trait as the name suggests is harvesting seeds, they store these seeds in underground purpose built chambers known as granaries.
They chew up the seeds, to create a substance that is known as "Ant bread".
Due to this it is a necessity to provide the correct humidity levels within the nest.
You need a variation in nest humidity, with arid chambers for seed storage & humid chambers for brood development & what I dub to be bakery sites (where they make the ant bread), too much humidity in the whole nest and the seeds with germinate in the nest and cause chaos! to arid across the whole nest and they will struggle to care for the brood and create ant bread.
Brood & Bread Chambers -
Messor's need a varied diet of seeds, nuts, grains & insects, some will take carbohydrates in the form of sugars and other colonies wont, sugars are a hit and miss with the species.
Their Major workers double up as seed crushers and butchers for the colony, prior to their arrival its best to pre crush or chop up their prey. their primary diet is granivorous, seeds, nuts & grains.
Here is a list of seeds, nuts & grains, I have had success with feeding to my colonies.
Messor are prone to pests, Grain Mites, often seed fit for the pet trade can be infested, to try to avoid this I tend to use seeds fit for human consumption as they are of a higher quality, regularly cleaning any left over waste or discarded seeds, many seed mixes are available that contain these seeds that I have listed. Its important to feed a mix of these listed seed as each contains different nutrients important to the growth of the colony, Chia seed for instance is high in protein.
Other sources of protein;
Prior to feeding insects its best to dip them in boiling or just boiled water to sterilise the carcass incase it is carrying any unseen mites or parasites. allow to cool to room temperature or douse in cold water before feeding to the colony.
Due to their ability to chew, Ytong, Plaster, Gypsum & Wooden nests are not advised, unless they are encased within a tank, or have acrylic / 3D printed case.
Acrylic or glass nests are highly recommended to contain this species.
Natural set ups come with their own difficulties of managing the humidity and preventing stored seeds from germinating and becoming plants, disrupting the storage area and nest.
AntBoyUK has a specific nest designed for Messors.
This nest focuses on their sensitivity to light, having a black out cover & a red acrylic cover, hydrated chambers for brood and bred production and arid chambers for seed storage.
constructed from acrylic the Messors are unable to chew their way out, the nest is also raised to slip a heat cable underneath, I recommend using a pulse proportional thermostat alongside the heat cable to control the heat, the size 2 nest has two ports, you could slide a thermostat probe into one of the ports.
Messors are sensitive to light, noise & vibrations, these stresses can cause a colony to eat its brood, a defensive response to being nest raided, the brood is valuable protein.