What is ant-keeping?
Ant keeping is keeping ants as pets. Just like an aquarium with fish, for example, one can also have a formicarium with ants. Ants are very industrious animals, always busy hunting for prey, tending their young, digging nests and so on. It is very interesting and fascinating to see what it is like underground and to be able to observe the ants so closely in their daily lives. Contrary to what many people think, there are not just red and black ants but thousands of different ant species, all with unique characteristics.
Why keep ants?
Keeping ants is a fun hobby for young and old alike. Maintaining an ant colony does not have to take a lot of space or money. Ants are ideally suited for children as a 1st pet. It provides a piece of accountability, is a fun low-threshold way to learn a little about nature, and unlike, say, a rabbit, is not a burden to parents when the child does lose attention.
There is plenty for adults in the ant hobby as well. Observing the ants is an entertaining and relaxing activity. Growing the ants, building formicaria, solving problems and learning new things can put a lot of hours into this versatile hobby. Also, the fellow hobbyists are generally friendly and helpful, because of this there is a nice community.
Biology of the ant
When you start keeping ants, it is helpful to understand a bit about how an ant is put together and works.
We usually call ants by their scientific (binary) name. These names are used all over the world and written the same. The first part of the scientific name tells which genus the ant belongs to; it is capitalized. Take Camponotus barbaricus, the Camponotus species are the giant ants. The second part of the name is the species name, barbaricus. Species has to do with the ant’s characteristics and not its origin. For example, barbaricus means something along the lines of savage/barbaric.
You may have noticed them, on a hot summer afternoon, sometimes tens of thousands of flying ants in the air and on the streets. These flying ants are the gynes and drones (females and males).
When a colony is several years old it will start producing new gynes and drones, when the time comes they fly out en masse and mate with flying ants from other colonies. The drone fertilizes the gyne in the air after fertilization the drone dies, the gyne will shed her wings. There are 2 types of gynes, non-parasitic and parasitic.
A non-parasitic gyne looks for a suitable place to dig a burrow. In this den she will lay her first eggs with a good dose of luck and hard work she will build a great kingdom together with all her daughters. This is the most common way.
A parasitic gyne looks for a somewhat smaller colony of another species. She kills the gyne of the other colony and keeps the workers as slaves to help take care of her brood.
There are also colonies with gamergates, which are workers who can lay eggs. When gamergate is dead, a newborn worker will take over.
An ant always consists of 4 parts: head, thorax, scale/stalk, abdomen. The size, shape and color of these parts can vary greatly. There are thousands of different species of ants that have evolved all over the world in the most extraordinary ways. There are the Odontomachus (Trapjaw) species, which have enormous jaws with which they can catch and kill their prey at speeds of over 100km/hour. Or the Myrmecocystus mimicus (Honey pot ant) that can suck their abdomen so full of fluids and sugars that they have an entire ball the size of a fat marble hanging behind them.
As with many insects, the development of the ant has several stages.
- Egg, the gyne usually lays a lump of eggs from the eggs come larvae.
- Larva, the larva can usually move and be fed or in some cases eat itself completely full. After a period of feeding and growth, this larva pupates.
- Pop, in most cases the larva wraps itself in homemade silk to pupate here. But don’t be alarmed there are also plenty of varieties with nude dolls.
- Ant, workers or in the foundation stage the gyne packs out the pupae when the ant is fully grown. The ant’s exoskeleton must then harden for about a day, as the ant hardens further the exoskeleton becomes darker.
- Gaster = abdomen
- Thorax = thorax
- Gyne = ant queen
- Drone = ant male
- W = worker
- Q = gyne
- Grey = a newborn ant with an exoskeleton not yet hardened. These ants are light in color.
- Naked doll = a doll without a silk jacket.
- Trophallaxis = the transfer of food or moisture between members of a colony. Ants feed each other mouth to mouth from a 2nd stomach specifically for this purpose.
- Physogastric = physogastric means swelling of the intersegmental membranes. When an ant is saturated the gaster is stuffed, you can see this very well in Camponotus species, for example.
- Semi claustral = a gyne which cannot founder on its own supplies, must hunt for food.
- Claustral = a gyne which founded on its own stock, does not go hunting for food.
Starting and learning
All about how to start keeping ants and frequently asked questions in the hobby.
Starting to keep ants
It’s best to start your ant adventure with a Lasius niger (Black road ant) or Messor barbarus (Harvest ant) colony.
Lasius niger is a common species in the Netherlands and Europe. They are very easy with food and super stress resistant. With this species, it’s okay to make a mistake once in a while!
Messor barbarus is an interesting seed-collecting species from Spain and France, among others. The unusual behavior and beautiful majors make the species very popular among every ant keeper. The species is a difficult founder, the gyne is very stress sensitive, we therefore recommend beginners not to purchase a single gyne but a colony. Once you have a colony with a number of workers, it is a relatively easy species that can grow very quickly.
The test tube setup
A test tube setup is the first nest of a gyne or small colony.
When flying out in the wild, the gyne digs a 1-chambered nest. The test tube setup mimics this, this nest is optimal for a starting colony. You always receive our ants in a test tube setup.
It is important to first raise your ants in a test tube or a special starter/rearing nest. The ants like to sit close together. When ants have too much space it causes stress and pollution.
It depends on the species on how many workers you can put an ant colony in a nest. After all, some ants are larger than others. Choose a nest 4 to 5 times the size of the current colony.
For example: does the colony take up 1 room of space? Then give them a nest with 4 rooms.