Can I build a huge formicarium? (Eric, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA)

Dear AntAsk:
Recently I have been thinking about creating my own very large formicarium. I have drawn up some designs that would make my formicarium nearly 7 ft wide by 4 ft tall and roughly a 3/4 in deep between 2 pieces of glass. I'm wondering if I am merely setting myself up for failure if I go ahead and build this or if this could actually be successful? If this would work what recommendations would you make about keeping this setting moist? Also what would be the best species of ant for a situation like this? I would want a species that could burrow fairly deep.
Thank you for your time.

Dear Eric,
Thanks so much for your question!
The potentially cool thing about building such a large formicarium is that it is a closer approximation of the amount of vertical space in which some ant species build their nests. In many places the soil in which ants build their nests is not evenly moist, but has different temperatures and levels of moisture at different depths. Some of the ants that build very deep nests do so partially to give themselves a range of environmental options. Once the colony has matured and the nest has reached a large size, the ants can migrate vertically to find the "sweet spot" with the right conditions for storing their food, for example, or raising their young. Ants that live in large nests often have to adjust their positions within the nest depending on when the last rain was, and the time of day. For example, they might move their larvae close to the surface of the ground in the early morning, but then if it becomes too hot, they will move their larvae down lower. If you were to have large colony in a structure like the one you propose, you might not have to worry too much about keeping all of the substrate at the exact same temperature and moisture level, because the ants will have the freedom to find the best microenvironments to suit their different needs. Giving the ants options, by presenting them with a range of environmental conditions within the formicarium, will be the best way you can make them feel at home.

One researcher in particular, Dr. Walter Tschinkel, has studied ant nest architecture extensively. His website is really cool:
One of the things that he is able to study in the wild is which chambers the ants use for what (food storage, caring for larvae, trash, etc.). By building a large formicarium, perhaps you'll be able to make your own observations about how the ants use their space!

The one tricky thing is that you'll probably start out with a very small nest, or even a single queen, so you will need to maintain the correct conditions for the particular place within your large formicarium where the nest begins. This might be easier if you section off a small portion of the formicarium with a substance that can later be removed, or just chewed through by the ants. Rolled-up wax paper comes to mind.

A different approach would be to use the cool-looking blue gel sold in the pre-fabricated AntWorks formicaria. This substrate has gained some popularity in large formicaria meant for display, like those shown here. However, there are some anecdotal reports that the substrate does not allow ants to successfully raise their young, in part because, as we mentioned above, ants that build large nests are used to having options. The ants most likely to thrive in this gel might be ants found in environments that are very wet all the time, like tropical rain forests. Ants from dry and/or temperate regions are likely to find a uniformly moist substrate quite oppressive. Thus a giant blue gel formicarium might not be the best long-term approach to keeping an ant colony, but it is difficult to imagine a more eye-catching substrate!

Be in touch, and definitely send us pictures of the formicarium when it's completed!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

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