A multi-generational ant rearing project in Tennessee.



I have been building an ant farm with my nine year old grandson (Sam). I am 75 and retired (Dick). We live in Knoxville, TN and have a half acre terraced and partially wooded back yard that is about 1/3 in grass, 1/3 in English garden, with the remaining 1/3 in an upper level mixed hardwood shade garden. The Entomology Lab at UT (Univ. of Tennessee) has identified eight ants that are in different areas of our back yard. One of these is Camponotus americanus, which is a red, ground dwelling, carpenter ant of fairly large size. About ten days ago, Sam and I were looking under some of the large stepping stones in the shade garden and we found two active colonies under separate stones and one new queen with some "eggs" under a third stone. There were no other ants with her. We got the queen and the three eggs from under the third stone, and four of the workers from under one of the other stones.
I am a retired clinical psychologist and Episcopal priest, so I sang "God Save the Queen" over her, but I am not sure that did much good. Actually, she seems to be in pretty good shape. She stays under the little rocks and if you move one she goes under another one. She seems to be eating from the honey and water mixture and getting water from the test tube, but I cannot be sure. I keep all of that changed and fresh. I don't think the queen can live long without some "workers" to take care of her.

So, here are my questions:

1. What should I do to give the queen a chance to make it?

2. What would likely happen if I put the other four "guys" together with the queen to try to give her a chance to start a new colony?

3. Should I try to get the rest of the colony under the large stone the four "guys" came from, and if I do that successfully, should I put the "four" with them in the newly prepared ant farm?

4. If I do number 3 above, what do I then do with the queen, since I don't think I can introduce her to a large active colony that I can't be sure she came from.

As you can probably tell, I have bought all kinds of ant support stuff and read extensively on the web, as well as from the book Journey to the Ants, but at this point I feel in over by head and don't want this to end in disaster for the ants I have collected. I feel very responsible for them and wish now that I had not taken them from their places without being more prepared to take care of them. Also, I want this to be a positive learning experience for Sam. He has already learned a great deal, but is worried about the ants, as am I.

I appreciate any help you can give me.

Thanks, Dick Brown


Hello Dick (and Sam), and welcome to the Antblog! What a wonderful project for you two to work on! I hope you'll pardon my editing your message to save some space here.

Now to your observations and questions:

Regarding the species of ants. You might want to check up on the UT identification, by looking at the Camponotus species on the Missouri or Mississippi ants pages at Ant Web. The UT folks may have it right, but there are two closely related species that are commonly confused by non-experts. An all-red carpenter ant species is more likely to be Camponotus castaneus. C. americanus is more yellow or reddish brown and has a very dark, nearly black head.

1. The lone queen and brood you found is probably one that flew and mated earlier this summer, and is currently in the colony-founding stage of her life. Queens do this alone, and though it is a dangerous time of life for them, not nearly so much so as the earlier mating/dispersal flight, when birds, dragonflies and other flying and ground predators eat a lot (probably most) of those that leave their parent colonies to found new ones. Some ant keepers like to "boost" such queens with cocoons from an established colony of the same species, but if kept warm and properly hydrated (including a fairly humid nest chamber), she will likley raise her own workers in a few weeks, before winter. Feeding her honey, as you have been, plus giving her a tiny dead insect or spider (the little red-eyed flies found on rotting fruit are perfect) every few days will help nourish her through this period, especialy since she has probably expended much of her internal food stores while raising the brood that you mentioned was lost in the transfers. Singing "God save the Queen" to her probably can't hurt, also.

2. It is best simply to release the other workers you caught where they came from. They might fight with and injure the queen, since they are not her own workers.

3. It is highly unlikely you'll be able even to find the queen of the mature colony, so I think it better to watch your queen's "baby" colony grow, though this will be slower. As mentioned above, you can speed up the colony growth process by taking some pupae (in cocoons, tan-colored, about the size of the workers, with a small black dot at one end) from the established colony. Putting in eggs (tiny, ovoid) or larvae (narrower at one end, curved, segmented, and a bit hairy) would require your queen to feed them, further depleting her resources, so best to use only pupae. It is also best to start with a few pupae, say 10-20, rather than a larger number, and smaller pupae rather than larger ones.

4. As you have seen, I'm recommending keeping the young queen and her brood, which will adapt better to captivity, rather than attempting to capture a mature colony and force them to adapt, which is technically, and for the ants and possibly for you and Sam, psychologically more difficult.

One more thing. After Thanksgiving rolls around, your queen and her first workers will do best in the future if you rest them in a cool, dark place until spring. They can be warmed up and fed some honey water one day per month during this period, but should otherwise be kept cool (even refrigerator temperature, but not frozen) until late March or so.

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team

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