How do you collect an entire ant colony? (Evan, Philadelphia, PA, USA)


Thank you very much for your efforts and the creation of your website. I am an ant "newbie". I have had ant farms in the past and have been very fascinated for a long time. However, I am disappointed by the fact that the ant farm experience ends when the ants die. I have been on the search to start an ant farm with "wild" ants including a queen. I live in PA towards Philly and have been unsuccessful finding a colony to start with... until today. I found a colony near my work. The ants are large (about a 1/4 inch) red and move rapidly. Not my ideal choice due to the potential stings. But this is the colony I would like to have. Do you have any advise on how to successfully move this hive and transition it into my tank.

Evan, Philadelphia, PA, USA


Hi Evan,
This is an excellent question. For your ant farm you really want to focus on obtaining the queen because, as you have seen with previous farms, workers are non-reproductive so your colony will end with the last worker. Queens on the other hand mate once and produce offspring for the rest of their lives, so you can maintain a colony for as long as she lives.

Collecting ants can require a permit but in your case a permit should not be necessary, if you are ever in doubt this post may help. Before you start collecting consider the following materials:
• Hand shovel
• Container
• Light oil/ Vaseline
• Featherweight forceps
Optional:
• Aspirator
• Pecan Sandies cookies

If you are serious about ant collecting I would highly suggest investing in an aspirator. They can be purchased here or make one using these instructions. Aspirators are great for catching those quick and little buggers.

Prior to your collection trip prepare a container to hold the ants. This could be a large Tupperware or coffee container, spread some light oil or Vaseline near the top of the container to make it difficult for the ants to climb up to the lid. If you feel it necessary, bring a second container to hold extra dirt for your farm. Although you said you have had an ant farm before, you may want to take a look at our How to make an ant farm post.

You can collect workers by picking them up individually with featherweight forceps, these are important because sturdier forceps may harm the ant. Unfortunately, this process can be slow and tedious especially since you say they are fast. This is where the aspirator would be handy, it makes collecting easier and faster. Baiting also makes collecting workers easier, crumbled up Pecan Sandies cookies tend to be the best as they contain many sugars and lipids the ants like. Sprinkle some outside the nest and check back after 15 minutes or so. The ants you catch can be placed into the oiled container, but be sure to seal it each time as the oil is not foolproof.

The next step is finding the queen. Depending on the size of the colony, this can be extremely difficult. You should first start by digging a circle around the mound, carefully moving the dirt off to the side or into your container, the loose soil will likely container workers. If you are dealing with a large, well established colony she may be hidden several meters underground. The queen is often near her brood, so when you begin to see larvae and pupae you are close! If you think you have been digging for too long with no luck, sift through your dirt pile a little and see if she's there.

Luckily for you, you have the opportunity to keep an eye on the colony whenever you go to work. If you have no luck finding the founding queen perhaps you are not too late for mating season. Check the mound periodically for ants with wings, they are most likely males or alate queens (queens who have not yet mated and still have their wings). They will be hanging around just inside the mound waiting for ideal weather conditions for their nuptial flight. After they have mated you can check within several meters around the nest for small holes with small piles of dirt next to them, these may contain new queens starting a colony and should be closer to the surface than an established colony. This may be your best bet to collect a queen because the chances of finding one in a large colony can be small.

Once you have started your farm, never add ants to it. Your colony will develop its own scent and not recognize new members and may attack them.

I hope this helps, happy hunting and keep us updated on your wild ant farm!

Sara Zufan & the AntAsk Team

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