How to Start With Ant Keeping – A Full Guide

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Keeping ants as pets is a wonderful, exciting, and educational hobby for all ages. Ants are fascinating little creatures, that are capable of incredible things together as a group. Ants are everywhere. They crawl around on pavements, in forests, in trees, and even in our houses. Is it possible to simply catch a few of these tiny ants and put them in a jar? How can you start with keeping your own ants?

As a whole, ants as pets require maintenance just like any other pet. They need a species-appropriate home, food, and water. In order to start with ant keeping, you need an ant farm or test tube setup for a queen ant as well as some ants to put in. You also need some time and patience.

In this guide, we will go over how to catch a queen ant, how to make a home for your colony, what to feed your ants, and more.

How do You Start a Pet Ant Farm?

Before you walk outside to catch a queen or collect some workers, you should gather information. Reading this article is the perfect way to prepare yourself for keeping pet ants!

Do Ants Need a Queen?

As a whole, ants do not necessarily need a queen in captivity. They do need a queen in nature because she is the only reproductive ant in the colony. Without a queen, a colony will eventually die out.

In nature, an ant colony always has one or more queens, depending on the species. The queen is the only ant that can lay eggs and thereby keep the colony alive.

In some species, the queen can live up to 30 years. Worker ants live between a few weeks and some months.

There is no king ant. Male ants only appear once a year if the colony is already big enough to reproduce and create new ant colonies. The male ants are called drones and they have wings.

Their only job is to fly around, mate with young queen ants, and die right after. 

The ants you see in a colony are only female worker ants with different jobs such as collecting food, bringing the trash outside, protecting the nest, and caring for the queen and the brood.

Worker ants in captivity without a queen will act normally, build tunnels, collect food, and are very interesting to watch.

After some weeks, they will die for natural reasons, and the ant farm will die out, which is totally normal and ok.

If there is a queen on the ant farm, the colony will continuously grow and will live for many years.

Before you start collecting ants, you should decide, whether you want a colony with a queen, or only worker ants to watch.

What is a Formicarium?

A formicarium is an artificial home for ants in captivity. The formicarium is the ant’s nest, primarily designed for ant lovers and scientists to watch the behavior of ants. It is often partially or completely see-through to be able to properly study the ants. 

A formicarium can also be called ant farm. It is made of a material that the ants cannot chew through. It can be a place filled with soil, sand, or earth, depending on the species’ needs, where the ants can create their own tunnels and chambers. It can also have pre-made tunnels and chambers, in which the ants can nest.

The formicarium is only the nest of ants.

If you keep ants, they need an additional area where you feed them. 

How to Start an Ant Farm Without a Queen Ant

You want to start an ant farm with worker ants and without a queen ant. Therefore you can collect worker ants for your formicarium. Never add a foreign queen afterward. She will probably be killed quickly by the workers. A queen has to establish her own colony without existing worker ants.

In order to start your ant farm, you can either buy an ant farm or build one by yourself. 

How to Build an Ant Farm

You need two jars, one big and one small jar, preferably glass because it is see-through and ants cannot chew through it.

The small jar has to fit into the big jar. You can turn the small jar upside down, put it into the big jar and fill the created tunnel with soil.

Use the soil from outside, where the ants are, that you want to collect. Fill the big jar up to the bottom of the small jar.

The small jars’ bottoms should not be covered. This is the place, where you can offer your ants water and food.

Use a sponge or something similar and use it as a water reservoir for the ants. When the sponge is wet, the ants can drink from it. Use freshwater, not sugar water.

Punch a few small holes in the lid of the big jar. These are the breathing holes. Don’t make them too big, or the ants will escape.

Once you have collected your ants outside and put them in the jar, give them some privacy to settle down.

Maybe cover them with a blanket or put them in a darker place first. Never place the ant farm in direct sunlight.

When the ants have settled down a bit, you can offer them a drop of sugar water on the bottom of the small jar and smaller insects every few days, depending on how fast they eat what you give them.

We have a whole article about building an ant habitat that you read right here if you want to know more.

How do You Keep Ants Alive in a Container?

First and foremost ants need air, water, and food to stay alive. 

Ants Need Air to Breath

If you close your container with an air-tight lid, you need to punch holes in the lid to allow some air to circulate. 

If you want to keep your lid open, you can rub baby powder or insect-a-slip to prevent your ants from crawling out of the container. Make sure that nothing hangs in or out of the container, or your ants will escape.

Ants Need Access to Fresh Water

They also need access to water at all times. Ants can drink the tiniest drops of water.

You can offer your ants a wet sponge or a test tube about ⅓ of the tube filled with water and closed with some cotton. The water will soak into the cotton and the ants can drink from the cotton.

The nest should also be humid but not too wet. You can spray a bit of water on the soil to increase humidity in the container.

Feeding Your Ants

Most ants eat basically everything. They like sweets such as honey, syrup, and sugar water. You can offer them a drop of sugar water every few days, depending on how quickly they consume it.

Ants like fruits such as bananas, watermelon, apples, and many others. You can offer small pieces of everything and make a test, what your ants like the most.

Most ants need proteins in addition to carbs. Proteins can be given to the ants through insects such as cockroaches, crickets, centipedes, or even other ants.

We have a complete list of things that fire ants eat but you can apply that to almost any other ant species as well.

How to Start an Ant Colony From Scratch With a Queen

Starting a colony from scratch is a very exciting process. It takes time and patience but is worth it.

If you want to start a brand new colony, you can either catch a queen by yourself or buy one from another ant-keeper. Queens can be bought with several worker ants.

How Many Ants do You Need to Start a Colony?

You can start a colony with only one ant. But it can’t be a random ant, it has to be an inseminated queen, capable of laying eggs. This is the only ant you need if you want to start a new colony.

It is also possible to catch several queens of one species and put them together to make the colony grow faster. But this method brings the risk of the queens killing each other.

You should only put one queen in each test tube to create her first set of eggs and workers.

You can read more about how many ants are needed to start a colony in this article if you want to know more.

How to Catch a Queen

Winged, virgin ant queens fly around in spring and summer. You can recognize queen ants by their size, maybe wings if they have not thrown them off yet, and if you look closely enough, by the scars on the middle part of their body, where the wings once were.

Do not catch queens when they are still very close to their nest. The risk is too high that they have not mated yet.

We have a full guide on how to get a queen ant if you want a more detailed explanation on how to do that.

The Nuptial Flight

The best chance to find a queen is to look outside on a sunny, warm spring or summer day with a light breeze after a rainfall. These are the best conditions for a nuptial flight.

During this flight, male ants and young queens fly away from their home colony and mate mid-air. After that, the male ants die, and the female queens land and start looking for a place to start a new colony. 

Preparation to Catch a Queen

Prepare yourself with some test tubes and cotton to close them, or small containers that can be closed. The lids should not close air-tight. You can punch a few small holes in the lids if the lids close firmly. 

You can also take a card, or firm paper, or something similar with you to put under the ant when you put the container on her. This makes it easier to catch them.

If you usually need glasses, you should definitively take them without. Good eyesight is essential if you are looking for a queen.

Try to be patient.

There are days, on which you will find several queens and others, on which you won’t see any queen.

That is totally normal.

Don’t be disappointed if you can’t find a queen on your first attempt. There are plenty of queens out there!

How to Recognize a Queen

A queen ant is bigger than the normal worker ants. Sometimes you can find queens on the ground, that still have their wings on. This could be a sign that they are not mated yet, but you should catch them anyways. Some queens just take their time to throw off their wings and some even keep them on forever.

Another indicator that you are looking for a queen is little marks on the queen’s body, where the wings were.

Of course, you can only see these marks, when the queen was thrown off her wings already. If you can see these tiny scars on an ant, you are definitely looking at a mated queen.

Catch the Queen

Be gentle, when you try to catch the queen. You don’t want to harm her. You can try to lead her into the test tube or container with your hands or put the container over her and use the firm paper to turn the container around with the queen inside.

Put only one queen in one container and use a new container for the next queen. Queens might fight and kill each other if you put them together.

How to “Store” the Queen

Once you caught your queens, you should put them in individual test tubes. These settings imitate the chambers in which the queens would lay their eggs in nature.

Pour fresh water in about ⅓ of the test tube, close that part with cotton, then put the queen in and close the tube again with cotton. The queen does not need food during the next week. She can drink water from the cotton and will start laying eggs. Give her some privacy and put her in a dark place such as your wardrobe without checking on her too much. If she is too stressed out, she will eat her eggs.

How Long Should a Queen Stay in a Tube

Now that the queen is in the test tube, she will hopefully start laying eggs. You can check on her every week to see how she is doing. She will take care of herself and the brood.

When the first workers are fully developed, they will eventually start crawling around more and start looking for food. A good indicator is that the workers start pulling the cotton in order to escape.

They are looking for food for their queen and for themselves. This is the time to give them their first meal.

This meal could be a drop of honey, syrup, or sugar water. After that, you can offer them a piece of an insect the next day and so on.

When Should I Move my Ants Into a Formicarium?

Keep the queen and her workers in the test tube, until around 20-50 workers are fully developed. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, if you own a colony of ants that usually only include a few worker ants. But in general, a colony with only 20 or fewer workers will be unable to cope with too much space and should not be moved to a formicarium yet.

It can take several months and up to a year or in some cases even longer until it’s time to move your colony to a formicarium. Be patient, it’s worth the wait.

Can a Queen Breath in a Tube?

A queen ant can breathe in a tube if the tube is not closed air-tight. You can either punch tiny holes in the lid of the tube, to let the air through. Or you can close the tube with a cotton ball. This is breathable enough for a queen ant and her workers.

How Many Eggs Can a Queen Lay?

After you caught her freshly mated queen, it can take a few days or even weeks before she lays her first batch of eggs.

The amount of eggs the queen lays highly depends on the species. 

On average you can assume that the queen will lay the first batch of 8-20 eggs.

How Long Does an Egg Take to Develop?

The development of ant eggs highly depends on the species. In some cases, it only takes a few weeks, for some ants like the Lasius Niger (Black garden ant)  it takes up to 2 months until the final worker state.

On average it takes around 3-5 weeks for an egg to develop into a worker ant.

This process is a complex and fascinating one, similar to a butterfly becoming… well a butterfly. 

The ant queen as the mother of all colony members lays the egg.

This egg develops into larvae which become pupae.

During this state, the worker will start to darken to its’ final color. Before, they are white or even see-through. When the pupae state is finished, the ant wakes up and is ready to be a worker.

How Can I Make my Colony Grow Faster?

If you want to make your colony grow faster, you can adapt a few things.

Usually, a higher temperature makes ants more energetic, faster, and more willing to thrive.

Another factor is food. If you offer your colony more food, they will be more motivated to grow the size of the colony because they can feed more ants. 

One last factor to make your colony grow faster is space. If a colony is big enough, you can move them to a bigger formicarium, allowing them to grow even more.

As a whole, the main factors to adapt, in order to allow your colony to grow faster, are the temperature, the amount of food you offer them, and the size of the formicarium, they live in.

Which Ant Species is the Best for Beginners?

Out of the thousands of ant species that are classified and known so far, there are some that are perfect for beginners, while others are rather challenging.

There is not really a “best” ant species to keep, because it always depends on where you live, which species are native in your area, and also what you want from your ant colony.

Ant species that can be recommended to beginners are regional ants that are not too demanding towards their living space and food. You might also want a species that is not hazardous and not too crazy about escaping the formicarium.

These species are rather easy to care for with a low failure rate, making them good ant species for beginners. Please keep in mind, that they are only good beginner ant species for you if they are native to your region.

The Black Garden Ant (Lasius Niger) as well as her close relatives, the Lasius americanos and Lasius neoniger are good ants for beginners. Another rather easy-going species are ants from the Camponotus family. If you live in a region, where the Pavement ant (Tetramorium immigrans) is native, this one also makes a great pet ant.

If you want to have a list of beginner ants with a more in-depth explanation of why they are best for beginners then consider reading our article about the best ant species for beginners right here.

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