Results matching “captivity”

I found some ants in my back yard that had some eggs. So I gathered a pile of workers and eggs. I couldn't find a queen though. I've heard that when you catch eggs, and no queen, the workers will raise some of the eggs into queens. I was wondering if that was true, and what do I need to do to ensure a queen is hatched.
Thanks, "CatPlip"

Dear Cat:

A point which needs to be clarified regarding your interesting question is, 'What do you mean by eggs?' To most people, anything pale-colored that the ants carry around when their nest is disturbed is their "eggs". But ants are like butterflies, in that they develop from very tiny, true eggs into legless and helpless but voracious grubs (larvae). The larvae grow to many times the size of the original egg on the protein-rich diet provided to them by the adult ants. When full grown, the larvae cease to feed, and develop into pupae, the equivalent of the butterfly chrysalis. In some ants, the pupae are enclosed in a cocoon, but in most, the pupae are naked, as in this excellent image of ant development from the myrmecos website. Lastly, the pupae develop into adult ants, whether queen, worker, soldier or male.

Now to your question: There is still much we do not know about what determines whether a particular ant egg develops into a queen or worker. It is known that in some species, workers lacking a queen can raise eggs or very small larvae into winged queens. The problem then is that these queens are not mated, so they can only lay unfertilized eggs. There is the further complication that the winged, virgin queens may not even mate, even if males are present, and thus will not lay eggs at all, until they have completed the full cycle of leaving the parent nest for a mating flight, breaking off their wings, and establishing a small nest of their own. So in essence, the answer to your question is that you cannot count on the queenless workers and brood you have collected to raise a new queen. This is why those who keep captive ants prefer to either collect whole colonies with queen or even better, to collect young, newly mated queens that will rear their own first workers in captivity, if properly cared for. These seem to adjust better to captive conditions than do mature colonies

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team


A friend of mine got me an ant queen as I wanted to start a colony, but I don't know if she is fertilized. When I got her, a male was still with her in the little package, but then I put her in the gel ant farm and she's looking for a way to escape (in a calm way, though), she still hasn't shed her wings and she keeps picking her abdomen, is this a typical behavior? Shouldn't she be glad she found a safe place and start her nest? How do they act after insemination? When exactly do they shed their wings?
Can I determine if she's still a virgin by looking at her abdomen with a magnifying glass? If yes, how should this look like?

Teodora, Romania

Hi Teodora,

Thanks a lot for your question! Without dissecting and killing the ant, it is not possible to tell whether your ant queen is inseminated. Usually, ant queens shed their wings when they are inseminated and ready to lay eggs and start a new colony. Check out these posts on ant matings: here, here, and here. The reason for your ant to be not settling might indeed be that she is not inseminated or simply that it is not the right habitat for her. So you can only wait to see whether she makes it. I would try to get several queens and keep them in separate containers and observe whether one will actually start laying eggs. Alternatively, you could keep just a bunch of workers in your ant farm. However, these do not reproduce and once they die, you can replace them with new workers. Check out this post on how to make some containers without having to buy an entire ant farm.

Hope this helps!
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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

I dug up a pogo ants nest and I have about 10 queen and 10 kings but none of them are fertilized how do I get them to mate?


Dear Jarvis,

We are glad to hear you are interested in ants! Unfortunately it is very difficult (and impossible for many species) to get ants to mate in captivity. Most ant species need to go on a mating flight, where unmated queens and males (these are often called "sexuals") leave their nests to reproduce based on environmental queues. During these mating flights, the sexuals from all the nearby nests will congregate in a single location to find mates. Below is an image taken by Alex Wild showing one of these mating swarms.

Mating swarm.jpg

Ant mating swarm - Photo by Alex Wild (

For more tips on keeping ants and getting mated queens for your ant farm, see the following three posts here, here, and here.

Best of luck!
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Keeping live leafcutter ants (Felipe, Brazil)

Hi, I have an Atta sexdens Queen and I wanted to know how can I control her fungus to not overrun the space so early? I heard that this type of leafcutter-ant grows very very fast, and if there is anyway to retard this fast process..

Giving small quantities of plants would solve this problem? Or there is another way to do it? And here I sent some pictures of my colony :)

Thank You
Best Regards,


Dear Felipe,

To answer your question, we contacted Randy Morgan, who is an expert on keeping live ant colonies and Curator of Invertebrates, Reptiles and Amphibians at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, and here is what he had to say:

"Congratulations for successfully collecting a young leaf cutting ant (Atta sexdens) colony! Your little colony (containing a mated queen, perhaps 50-100 workers and small fungus garden) is now about one year old and so far has been growing relatively slowly. You are correct, established colonies can grow very quickly. Your colony is just entering the stage of rapid colony growth and in several years could contain 5-8 million workers and hundreds of melon-sized fungus gardens!

Obviously keeping a fully-grown colony in captivity would be next to impossible. Even so, many universities and insect zoos keep partially-grown colonies for research and/or public educational display, and these colonies are often hardy and long-lived. However, one year old colonies are relatively fragile since fewer workers are available to help maintain an optimal nest environment (100% RH; 25-27º C) for fungal growth. Environmental stress, especially even slightly lower atmospheric humidity, can lead to garden decline and eventual colony collapse. Thus, it would be ideal to grow your colony at least somewhat larger (i.e., minimally several thousand workers and two large fungus gardens) and to do so as quickly as possible. Experience has shown that it is better to keep small colonies growing rapidly and then culling excess workers and fungus from time to time, rather than limiting plant matter (the latter essentially starves the fungus and makes it less productive and poorer food for the ants). Before you drop excess fungus gardens with attendant workers into the freezer, break apart and sort through the gardens to ensure that the queen is not present!

Maintaining observation nests for Atta can provide an endless source of educational fun. To be successful long term, one should become knowledgeable about the ants' sophisticated social organization and intimate association with their fungus gardens and other resident micro-organisms. It can also be helpful to think of yourself as the "Assistant Fungus Gardener" with your primary job to do whatever is necessary to help the ants maintain a nest environment conducive to fungal growth. If the fungus thrives so will its ant colony.

Please find a document summarizing Atta biology and one husbandry system that has proven to be effective here: Leaf cutting ants-IECC 08.pdf. Of course other culturing techniques may also work as long as the needs of the fungus come first. Good luck, thanks for writing and please keep us posted on how your work with Atta is progressing.

Randy Morgan, Corrie Moreau & AskAnt Team

How to find an ant queen? (Austin, Arizona)

I want to make an ant farm from a small aquarium I bought, but I need an ant queen. I don't want to dig up an existing colony. Would having a queen overpopulate the colony? How would I find a queen after its mating flight? I live in Arizona and it's October. I've heard that you need to look for a small hole with a small pile of dirt by it. I haven't seen any. Will ants make a larvae turn into a queen if there is no queen present like bees do? What time is mating season for ants in Arizona? Should I wait until mating season starts? -Austin

Hi Austin!

Thanks for contacting us! Digging up a colony to find the queen can sometimes be very hard. Often, the queen is hidden very deep in the soil and you might not find her. It might be easier to wait until next season for a newly mated queen.

James Trager has shared his expertise on the times when to expect newly mated queens of some ant species that are encountered in Arizona and are fun to keep in a formicarium. Here is his advice:

"Pogonomyrmex and Myrmecocystus flights are tied to rains, either monsoon, or spring, depending on the species.

Higher altitude, forest species of Camponotus fly on the first really warm days of spring, typically in April, May. Lower altitude species of oak-conifer woodlands, mesquite scrubland and true desert mostly fly with the first monsoon rains.

Finally, Formica species fly in July, especially early in the month, except the really high altitude ones, which may wait till August."

Here you can find more information on the ants of Arizona.

A queen would not overpopulate a colony. It is usually a good idea to have a queen, so that your ant colony lives past two month. The workers often die after this short time period and a queen would always supply new workers. Some of the larvae will turn into new queens, but they need to mate before they can lay fertilized eggs. It is very hard and often impossible to have ants mate in captivity. So it is best to find a freshly mated queen. You should keep your eyes open for several winged ant queens and keep one individual each in a small container. If one starts laying eggs, you can carefully transfer her to the bigger aquarium.

Here , here , and here are some other posts that might be helpful for you.

Good luck with your ant farm!

James Trager, Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

Hi there!

I'm curious as to what you guys feed your captive Odontomachus colonies. I feed mine mealworms because they're readily available, but they'll only accept it if I put the mealworm directly in the nest or at the nest entrance. Also, is it required to feed them sugary foods?

Another question, have any of you had experience with keeping Camponotus in plaster nests? I've heard that they're able to chew through plaster, has that ever happen to your Camponotus colonies? Thanks!



Thanks so much for the question, Phira. Odontomachus (sometimes called trap-jaw ants) are one of the coolest ants around. One of the experts on this group, Dr. Andy Suarez from the University of Illinois, gives this advice:

"We find that trap jaw ants are most excited about termites but will live happily on crickets and mealworms. Because crickets and mealworms are often infested with mites (because of the high densities that they are reared in at pet stores), we freeze them for a week or two before feeding them to the ants. We also tend to cut them up so the ants can get a bit of hemolymph. In addition to insects for protein, we try to always give trap jaw ants some sugar water or honey water. It is easily provided by making a 20% solution and then soaking a cotton ball in it. The cotton balls can them be removed if they start to mold."
In my own experience, Odontomachus in the wild will recruit to peanut butter baits (O. simillimus in Palau, and O. bauri in Panama). If you want to get more elaborate about ant colony nutrition, A. Dussutour and S. J. Simpson published an article in 2008 formally describing a precisely adjustable diet for ants mixing different protein powders, sugar, and agar. I used one version of that diet as an ant bait in Panama, and found many different ants were attracted to it.

With respect to sugar water, it is important because adult ants actually cannot swallow solid food. That's why you'll never see ants consuming solid food outside of their nest. They have to cut it up into manageable peices and bring it back to the larvae in the nest. The larvae chew and swallow the food, and regurgitate some of it for their adult sisters. So for small ant colonies which might not have many larvae at certain points, liquid foods are very important for the health of the adults.

As for Camponotus and plaster, I actually don't have any experience with that, but it seems like an easy hypothesis to test! Newly mated queens can certainly chew through fabric screening that can contain most other ants. They don't seem to be able to chew through metal screening however. If you like the way plaster regulates humidity, it might be worth trying to reinforce it with some metal screening.

Hope this helps!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

Dear AntAsk team,

I've been rearing a colony of North American Odontomachus for about three years now. Recently I separated about 200 workers from the main colony for the purposes of another project which has since been completed. Reluctant to return them to the original colony for fear of contamination, I have been keeping these workers separate and supplying them with sandy soil, some dried wood, a cotton ball of water, a cotton ball of sugar water and biweekly termites or pinhead crickets. However, I was startled to find that over three months later I still have about 85 or so of the separated workers left perfectly alive and well. I was wondering, what is the average longevity of most Odontomachus workers? Is this common for them to live this long?

Thanks for your help,

Dear Kaitlin,

Thank you for contacting AntBlog. Your experiments with Odontomachus trap-jaw ants sound interesting. To address your question, we contacted an expert, Andrew Suarez, who has lots of experience rearing Odontomachus colonies in the lab. Here is what Andy had to say:

"We have maintained a number of Odontomachus species in the lab, and have found workers to be quite long lived under lab conditions. For a few of the larger species, we have had workers live for over a year. Six months, however, is definitely not unusual."

Good luck with your trap-jaw ant colonies!
Andrew Suarez (guest expert), Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team


My Wife and I bought my Son an ant farm for his birthday and we're enjoying watching the everyday interactions of the ants. We followed the instructions in the guidebook that came with the ant farm and caught approximately 20 ants in our back yard and introduced them to the colony. I believe they are 'pavement ants' (they're fairly small and light brown in color). I also think they are all workers as there is no noticeably larger ant that could really be considered to be a queen.

There are a few questions we'd like to ask.

1. Will our ants ever reproduce? According to the guidebook, sometimes workers without a queen will start producing their own offspring. This doesn't appear to be happening in this case as the number of ants is dwindling. We started with around 20, but now there only seem to be 6 or 7 or so left. (It has also been about 3 weeks now, and according to what I've read on the internet, pavement ants tend to have a lifespan of 3 to 4 weeks, so this is probably natural).. However, I've also read that in most cases the offspring produced (if any) would be male, which wouldn't be any use to sustaining the colony in an ant-farm context.

2. If they die out, can/should I introduce other ants? Presuming that the probable outcome will be that the ants will die of old age without reproducing, we would like to repopulate the colony. However, I'm concerned that this might be unfair to the new ants, as they might be forever on their guard due to the old ants' pheromones being everywhere. Would this be an issue?

3. What would be a good (locally available) sort of ant to introduce? We're in Manitoba, Canada. I've only seen two species of ant around here (that I can distinguish) - one is the pavement ants, the other is a sort of shiny black ant about 3 times bigger than the pavement ants and seems a lot more aggressive. When I was catching the pavement ants, one of these wandered by and they all got out of its way. I also watched one of the black ants have a furious struggle with a caterpillar and drag it off somewhere. I'm thinking these would be fun to observe, but I also don't want to cultivate something that swarms all over me when I open the food and water holes on the farm. (The pavement ants tend to run away.)

4. Is it 'right' to capture a queen? It would probably be in our best interests to get hold of a queen in order to keep the colony going. However, I don't want to destroy an existing nest in order to get one. Conversely, I don't really want to have to keep 're-booting' the colony every couple of months. What would be a viable (and ethical) way to get hold of a queen?

5. Can/will they overpopulate? The alternative worry to having too few ants is having too many! Do they regulate their population growth according to the space they have or do they just keep reproducing? I'm assuming that in the wild they would just expand their living space to deal with the new population, but in the context of an ant-farm environment, they could get a little squashed. Is this an issue?

Thanks for your help,

Steve - Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Hi Steve,

Great to hear that you are enjoying an ant farm! Here are the answers to your questions:

1. The guidebook is correct in that workers are usually sterile. In rare cases they can start laying unfertilized eggs that will develop into males. Ants (and honey bees) have a so-called "haplodiploid sex-determination system". Fertilized eggs are diploid and will develop into females, while unfertilized eggs will develop into males. Queens usually go on a mating flight, and become inseminated, and this gives them the chance to lay fertilized eggs that will develop into females. Workers, on the other hand, will never mate. In the absence of a queen, they might develop unfertilized eggs, which develop into males. However, I think it is unlikely that this will happen in an ant farm.

2. I would not be too concerned about the pheromones. Just introduce new ants to the ant farm once all the other ants have died. If there are still a few ants left, you could take them out, put them in a little plastic container and freeze them over night. That is an easy way to kill them. Only if the farm gets too messy, I would exchange the substrate.

3. For your third question, I contacted another ant expert, James Trager, and here is what he had to say: "Though some Myrmica species there may sting with perceptible effect, they are smallish and not very likely to sting. There are no large stinging ants in Manitoba. The larger ones the writer mentions are probably a Formica species, which are effective predators, even though they completely lack a sting. Some Formica are rather aggressive and may bite when their nests are invaded, they nevertheless can make rather good captive ant colonies. I must qualify this by mentioning that in general, the bicolored (red and black) species do not thrive in captivity, but the all black ones do. On the other hand, pavement ants (Tetramorium), though smaller and pretty good escape artists (as the writer notes), also make good captive colonies, if properly cared for in a well-sealed apparatus."

4. I would not dig up an ant mount, but if there are some pavement ants and you are not destroying the landscape, I'd say go for it! However, the best way to get hold of a queen would be to capture on right after it's mating flight. The queens will still carry wings, but after they have mated, they will take them off and try to dig into the soil. This would be the perfect time to introduce her into a ant farm. The survival rate of mated queens is not very high, so if you have the chance to find several, I would keep them in little plastic containers with a bit of dirt first. If there is one that starts producing workers, I would take that one with the newly emerged workers and introduce her into the ant farm.

James Trager has some useful advice on how and when to obtain a mated queen for your ant farm: "In fact, there are plenty of mating flights yet to happen across North America (and especially that far north, including some as late as mid-September). These occur in the big genera Formica (now through mid-August), and Lasius & Myrmica (now into September, depending on species). Also, some species may readily be collected as entire colonies under stones on wooded slopes, though, whole colonies can be difficult to handle and their queens difficult to get without some good basic equipment and experience."

5. I would not worry about having too many workers in your ant farm. If you had the luck of obtaining a reproducing queen and had too many workers, you can always take some out and freeze them. Read this post on the best density of workers in an ant farm.

Good luck with your ant farm!
James Trager (guest expert), Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

I am interested in setting up a formicarium. What are the best methods for setting up sustainable and easily viewable formicaria? And what North American ant species tend to lend themselves for use in an amateur formicarium? (John, Leeds, UK moving to US soon)

John, thank you very much for this question. Many people are interested in keeping ants in a formicarium (plural is formicaria, but many people just call them 'ant farms'), and they are really cool, but there are some things you need to consider.

- Types of ant farms
- Ant food and water
- Moisture
- Cleaning up
- Which ant species to keep?
- How to handle your ants
- Overwintering
- Concluding remarks

Types of ant farms
Formicaria are available on the internet or from some pet shops, but you can also build one yourself. There are quite a few different types ranging from slim ant farms to simple jars which we will discuss here. You can make any type of nest more elaborate by connecting several containers with plastic tubes (clear) by cutting a whole in the container and attaching the plastic tubes using a glue gun.

The slim ant farm with dirt
The majority of ant species in temperate regions nest in the ground. When you are keeping these ants, it is a most natural habitat if you provide your ants with some dirt. In order for you to be able to see the ants, you would want an ant farm made from glass or acrylic plastic. Slim containers also make it more likely that you will see the ants, but you have to be aware that they will likely try to tunnel away from the glass. To encourage the ants to tunnel near the glass, you can cover it up with aluminum foil when you are not watching them. It is really important that the container is well sealed and your ants don't escape and find themselves a new nest somewhere in your apartment. Unless you are a skilled do-it-yourselfer, you may want to buy an ant farm from a store, because they can be quite tricky to make. You should definitely check out some websites on the net to give you some ideas. Here are some youtube videos providing step-by-step instructions for a great ant farm using old CD cases (video 1 and video 2). Also a simple way to construct a glass ant farm can be found here. Once you have the container, you want to fill it with a sand/soil mixture that stays loose and does not become hard or compact. You have to make sure that the substrate is kept moist, but not wet, in order for the ants not to dry out, but also not to drown. So before you fill your ant farm with the substrate, make sure that the substrate is moist. Slightly spray it with water and mix it. Sand and soil in equal amounts is a good mixture, but sift the dirt before you use it so it is loose. You can buy sand in aquarium shops and soil in flower supplies if you don't have anything suitable at home. There are some shops on the internet that sell ant farms filled with a blue gel. These types of ant farms are for short term keeping of ants because you cannot replace, refill or clean the blue gel, but these kinds of ant farms can be very fun and educational for children and adults alike.

Pogos slim.jpg

This is a glass ant farm that was constructed in the lab of Robert A. Johnson (Arizona State University, USA) and instructions can be found at this website.

An ant farm from a jar filled with dirt

Another way to make an ant farm with dirt is just to use a jar. You can take an old peanut butter jar (glass or plastic), clean it out really well and remove the stickers (soak it over night and use some soap). Fill this jar about half full with dirt, again you can use a mixture of sand and soil (sift the soil in any case) in equal amounts. For ventilation, you should cut a whole in the lid and cover it with mesh. You should not use a fabric net in this ant farm model, because the ants can bite through the net and escape. Attach the mesh using a glue gun. You should NOT use Fluon® (also called "Insect-a-Slip Insect Barrier ") to coat the top 3 inches of the inside walls to prevent the ants from climbing up, because it will get very messy with the dirt and then the ants can just walk on it. See section below on feeding ants.

A simple Tupperware model
Tupperware can be quite handy when you want to make an ant farm yourself. This model is often not so fancy to look at, but it fulfills the needs of many ant species.
- Buy a Tupperware container or any plastic box with lid.
- When you keep your ants in Tupperware, they often try to walk up the walls and escape. To prevent this you can use a liquid called Fluon® (also called "Insect-a-Slip Insect Barrier ") to coat the top 3 inches of the inside glass walls. Fluon® is slippery for the ants and prevents them from walking all the way up to the lid. Use a foam brush to apply it and move the brush up and down not sideways. Let the container sit upside down for at least 2 hours allowing the Fluon® to dry and then you can turn it over, but you should wait at least 24 hours before you place your ants in the container.
- For ventilation, you have to prepare the lid of the Tupperware container. Use a cardboard cutter (careful not to cut yourself and use a cutting board underneath!!) to remove a small square from the lid (1 by 1 inch, or 2.5 by 2.5 cm² works well). Even though you have used Fluon® some ants will still reach the lid for the container. Because of this use some very fine net (wedding veil works well) and cut a piece of 2 by 2 inch (5 by 5 cm²) and cover the open square with it using a glue gun. Make sure to apply the glue tightly from the inside so that the ants don't get caught between the net and the plastic. It is unlikely that the ants will actually reach the lid, because you are using Fluon®. So the danger of the ants biting through the net is not very high. Just make sure you watch the activity of your ants at least every other day.
- Once you have the container ready, the ants need a place to actually nest in and keep their eggs, larvae and pupae (referred to as brood). You can use a test tube or make a cavity with plaster.

CSM ant lab nestkl.jpg

This picture shows a Tupperware box with Fluon® coated walls as they are used in the Moreau lab at the Field Museum. Note the hole in the lid covered by a fine net that has been attached using a glue gun. Photo by C.S. Moreau.

The Tupperware model with test tube
You can use a test tube to provide a nest to your ants. Prepare the Tupperware box as described above and then:
- Take a test tube or some other kind of tube (glass or plastic) and fill it one third with water.
- Take some cotton, form it into a ball and push it inside the tube until it is damp and prevents the water from coming out when you place to tube horizontally. The inside front part of the tube should stay dry.
- Prepare some black paper shields or tin foil to cover the tube at the dry end. This way the ants have a dark nest. Prevent the tube from rolling around by pressing it into some modeling clay at the bottom of your container.

graph formicariumkl.PNG

This is a sketch of a simple Tupperware/plastic box ant farm with a test-tube as a nest for the ants (A). In part of the graph (B) you see how the test-tube is constructed. Image by D. Ballhorn.

The Tupperware model with plaster cavity

Another way of making an ant farm is using some kind of Tupperware or even a small aquarium and then making a cavity. Some additional models of this type of nest are found at this website.
- Buy some kind of plastic or glass container (a small aquarium is nice).
- Use some modeling clay and form it the way you want the cavity to look later.
- Prepare dental plaster and pour about 1-2 inch thick (2.5 - 3 cm) on the bottom. Let that dry for a few hours (about 6 hours should be sufficient).
- Then place your modeling clay on top of this bottom layer, prepare some more plaster and pour it around the modeling clay. Make sure to leave it open at the top, so you can get the modeling clay out again and access your ants later.
- Let the plaster dry for at least 24 hours, and then carefully take out the modeling clay.
- Now you have a nice cavity for your ants, but you can also decorate it making it look more natural (for example you can use natural pigments to color the dental plaster like the one shown below otherwise the plaster will be white).
- You can apply a very thin layer of glue to the plaster and take some dirt or fine sawdust and sprinkle it onto the glue layer. This will give your ant farm a more natural look than the white or grey from the plaster.

This is an image of a harvester ant colony (genus Pogonomyrmex) in a nest made with dental plaster. This nest was designed by Ray Mendez in Arizona, USA. Photo retrieved from Ant Course yearbook 2009.

Keeping twig-nesting species in twigs
Some ant species, especially in warmer climates nest in dead and hollow twigs. To keep these species in a natural habitat you can just collect the twigs and keep them in a Tupperware/plastic container or aquarium with a tight fitting, sealing lid.
- Prepare a container with Fluon® and allow for ventilation as described above.
- When you have a large number of workers in the twigs, they like to expand. You can just take some bamboo twigs (about 0.5 inch or 1 cm in diameter) and cut them into 7 inch pieces, place them in the container and the ants may move in. They will excavate the twigs themselves. This is fun to watch and gives the ants something to do.
- You can take a slightly bigger glass container/aquarium and place your bamboo twigs in there. This is great to watch when you have several active workers.

Here is an aquarium in which a colony of the twig nesting Pseudomyrmex salvini was kept. Note the twigs that the colony was collected in at the bottom and new bamboo twigs in the aquarium. Food was offered in plastic weigh boats, but any container will do. A lid was constructed from acrylic plastic, but beware because the ants started to escape because the lid became deformed due to heat lamps on top of it and Fluon® was later applied to prevent the escaping of ants. Photo by S. Kautz.

Ant food and water
In nature, ants make use of many different food sources. Some species are very specialized and for these specialists (like the leaf-cutter ants) you will need to find the food they prefer. But the majority of species lives on a mixed diet of honeydew (which is basically sugar water enriched with some amino acids) and dead insects. We will outline how to satisfy generalists.
- It is important to keep your ant farm clean and not spill the food. This prevents the ants from getting stuck, for example in honey water, and you will have fewer problems with mold.
- For the generalist ants you should provide three different "dishes", one with diluted honey, one with dead insects and one with water. You can cut plastic or aluminum foil into discs of about the size of a plastic soda bottle lid.
- Preparing the diluted honey: Mix about half a cup of honey with half a cub of water. You can add a bit of a crushed mineral and vitamin tablet, but really only a bit. Keep this refrigerated. Use an eyedropper to place little drops onto the dishes. Don't make the drops too big: the ants might drown in it!
- Preparing the dead insects. You can buy crickets from pet shops. Freeze them and then take from the freezer as needed. If you have a small ant colony, about half a cricket every other day should be sufficient. Be sure to break open the insect when you put it in the container for your ants.
- Water should also be supplied on a little ant dish and in little drops, so the ants don't drown in it or you can wet a cotton ball and put it in the nest and the ant can drink from it.
- You can slice up an apple or a carrot and offer that to your ants occasionally. They might like it.
- Place the dishes on top of the substrate in a dirt nest and on the ground in the other kinds of nests.
- Watch how much food your ants actually need and prepare the ratios accordingly.
- It should be sufficient to feed your ants every other day and clean up your ant farm by removing dead bodies or spilled food.

Moisture is very important for your ants. Since ants are so small, they can dry out very quickly and this will kill them. It is also important to avoid mold in your ant farm. So you really have to see how moist your ant farm is and then regulate it accordingly. Here are some general tips:
- When you are using a dirt nest the dirt should be moist, but not wet. Use a spray bottle to provide some moisture if it gets too low.
- When you are using a plaster nest, the plaster should be damp. Just pour a LITTLE water on it occasionally. Once you have mold, wipe it off using a paper towel. If the mold gets too bad, move your ants to a new nest. You can take out the plaster and re-use the box. Try to disturb your ants as little as possible when moving them!
- When you keep your ants in a test tube, water is provided. Just watch out that it does not get used up. But this happens only after quite some time!
- If you keep twig-nesting ants, occasionally spray them with water. This should be enough to keep their nests moist enough.

Cleaning up
Try to remove dead bodies (both dead ants and the prey you are providing), spilled food and mold as soon as you see it! Most ants will keep their nest cavity clean and remove dead bodies from it to a trash pile they create. But, it is your job to remove the dead bodies from the container! Use forceps (tweezers) to avoid disturbing your ants as much as possible. Also try to avoid taking out the live ants and especially the brood whenever possible. This might damage them and they could die a couple of days after you touch them.

Which ant species to keep?
It is a great idea to get species that are native to the area that you live in. This prevents the establishment of invasive species (see our post on Fire ant invasions). There are some online shops that sell tropical species, but these could become a threat to our native fauna (if there are queens present) and often they have been exported illegally. Never ship ants with queens across state or country lines. So it is a good idea to drive to the woods and look for some native ants. You may want to try to get an ant queen that has mated, because workers are not sustainable. Workers do not lay eggs and they only live about 1 year, but a nest of only workers can still be quite fun to keep. You can dig up an entire nest and try to get the queen with brood and workers that way. An alternative that I would recommend is that you wait until June-August (as soon as it is the right season) and try to get a founding queen after her mating flight (see our post on How can you tell if an ant is male or female?). At this time of year, usually there are many queens that have been swarming and walk on the ground in search of a suitable site for a new nest. When you see that you should collect several queens, but you have to keep them in separate containers, because they most likely will attack each other. Once you have the queens in their container, they will lay eggs and these will develop into worker ants if she has mated. Keep in mind that native ants are a very important part of their ecosystems, and destroying a larger colony can have more of an impact on the surrounding community than you might imagine. This is another reason why it's good to start with a newly mated queen: their chances of survival, from the time they fly from their nest to their second or third year as the queen of a new colony, are very dangerous times and only a very small fraction will survive. By giving her a nice, safe formicarium to start her colony in, you might be saving her life!

All the most commonly encountered ants that live around people's houses are possible to keep in captivity, and the majority of these can be fed a generalist diet (discussed above). Here is a list with just some species native to temperate regions that can be kept in ant farms (far from complete!!!):
- Lasius species (ground nesters; native to temperate regions) Lasius niger is the most common garden ant in temperate Europe, and there are some very common species in North America, too.
- Camponotus species (often very big ants! ground nesters or nest in twigs; native to tropical and temperate regions), but these are carpenter ants so be sure to not let them escape in your home.
- Formica species (like to build mounts; native to temperate regions, rather big)
- Pogonomyrmex species (North America, harvester ants are native to arid regions, need seeds as food source and be CAREFUL!!! they have an awful sting. Check out this website for notes on Pogos in an ant farm
- Myrmecocystus species (honey pot ants, North America, arid regions)
- Messor species (harvester ants, need seeds as food source, native to temperate regions)
- Myrmica (native to temperate regions, rather small)
- Tetramorium
- Tapinoma
- Pheidole

How to handle your ants
You should try not to touch the ants for two reasons. First, they might sting you (depending on the species you have) and second, you might harm them. When you need to pick up individual ants, because one escaped from the ant farm, use feather weight forceps (these are tweezers that are very thin and flexible and will not squish an individual ant). You can also use an aspirator, but be very careful that you don't accidentally suck in an ant. That might end badly for both on you! Here is a suggestion for an online store that cells equipment for handling ants.

Depending on the species you have and the region you have the species from, you might want to keep the ants cool in the winter (in a basement or even in the fridge). This imitates the annual cycle so the queen might have improved egg production. You should start keeping the ants in a cold room when it gets cold outside. Don't immediately place them in the fridge, but try to cool the temperature down gradually if possible. An easy way to do that is to keep them near an open window starting in late October, for example (but be careful of direct sunlight on hot days!). Then, in late November, early December, move them to the fridge. Check them weekly for moisture and always offer some food. Then, get them out the fridge again in February and try to warm them up gradually again. Even when you have ants from temperate regions they will survive if you do not overwinter them, but the egg production of the queen will be reduced after 2-3 years. So if you only have workers, you don't need to overwinter them.

Concluding remarks
There are many different ways to keep ants and we did not include all of them. There are also many kinds of ants (see our post on How many kinds of ants are there) that can be kept and hobby ant farmers as well as experts have a lot of experience on keeping ants. There are many different forums out there that discuss such experiences. A nice list of useful websites and interesting forums for people interested in ants can be found here, here, and at many other sites on the internet.

Enjoy your formicarium!
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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