Ant purchasing guide
Hello! If you are reading this I assume that you are planning to purchase an ant colony soon, be it from a store, second hand, through an acquaintance or from a friend. There is of course a lot to consider when purchasing a colony. What food do I give them and how much does a colony eat? Where should I keep them? What if they escape? How long does an ant live? How do I know that my future colony will arrive in good condition? Can ants get sick and how can you tell this? These are all questions that future ant keepers ask themselves. In addition, there are also questions that are all too often forgotten. This purchasing guide was drawn up to help inexperienced (future) ant keepers. Do you have any pressing questions, doubts or comments after reading this guide? Your questions and comments will be answered and possibly even included in a new version of this guide. Be sure to forward this to firstname.lastname@example.org
Start with yourself
Before we start answering questions, it is of course important to make sure that the right questions are all being asked. You must first answer a whole series of essential questions:
How much experience do you have with keeping ants and / or insects?
An important part of the hobby is to inform yourself well before you can actually start this new adventure. Have you never taken care of insects for a long period of time (no, putting ants in a bottle does not count as experience 😉)? Then it is best to start with a very simple beginner species. The stereotypical beginner species is Lasius niger. This species is very common and requires little prior knowledge or maintenance. Other species are also possible, but inform yourself very well, both online and with the seller. The nicest varieties are often a bit more complicated to keep and if you do not know what you are doing, chances are that you will end up with a disappointment. So start simple! Successfully growing a colony, regardless of the species, can be very rewarding in itself. Do you already have experience with keeping insects? First look carefully at what conditions ants need, but it is best to also go for beginner species. Once you build up some experience with 1 or 2 beginner species, you can already buy more difficult species. But again, the message is: inform yourself before you start and make sure you have everything you need to take care of your ants!
How much budget and time do you want to invest in this hobby?
The great thing about this hobby is that you can start very easily with a minimal budget and only one or two hours a week. If you wish, however, you have the option to invest more budget and / or time in this. So decide for yourself how much time and budget you want to spend on this. There is no correlation between the amount of time or budget you put into this and the results you will achieve. You can easily find colonies and supplies online that require a large budget but can go wrong after a week. So decide for yourself which budget you want to use, regardless of the offer.
Why do you want to keep ants?
This is a very important question that will also partly determine the answer to the previous question. Do you want to make a nice setup to put on the cupboard at home? Then your budget will probably be a bit higher than if you are just curious about how it all works. So think carefully about this and adapt your purchasing behavior to what you want, do not get carried away by beautiful advertisements or sales pitches. It is important that you stick to your motivational reason for keeping ants. This can of course change during the search.
Depending on the reason for your purchase, you may also be interested in other ant species. Do you want to keep the colony with your 4-year-old son? Then you might want to go for a species that cannot sting. Do you dream of a colony with thousands of ants? Then look for a species that grows a bit faster.
How much do you want to learn about ants, their lifestyle and living conditions?
The answer to this question will determine how complicated your ant species may be. Do you like the idea of keeping ants but don’t want to look up too much? Then take very easy beginner species that are robust, easy to maintain and do not have many requirements in terms of humidity, temperature, etc. Do you really want to learn in detail about ants, their way of life, their specific requirements, their habitat? Then you might be able to go for more complex species that, for example, need a little more humidity, or specific living conditions (acorn ants (Temnothorax sp.), For example, are interesting for this as a beginner). However, keep it simple in the beginning. For example, leaf cutter ants sound very fascinating, but they require an experienced caretaker and complicated setup!
Ant colonies, like other animals, are sensitive to the conditions in which they are kept. If these conditions are not ideal, a colony may become ill or unhealthy. In addition, not all colonies are the same. Natural diversity sometimes ensures that certain colonies are much stronger and healthier than their other counterparts or just much weaker. Below are some tips to determine whether your colony is healthy and some factors that you can take into account when deciding a purchase.
Origin of the colony
In general, there are 2 direct methods of obtaining an ant colony (besides buying): Capturing a queen after it has had a nuptial flight or digging up pre-existing colonies in nature. Both ways have some advantages and disadvantages. It is therefore important to check with your seller how these colonies were obtained.
Each year, many colonies of the same species will produce winged ants at the same time, so-called alates. These are either males or unfertilized females. When the conditions are right, all these ants fly out together and mate in the air, the nuptial flight. After the nuptial flight, the males will die while the fertilized queens land, shed their wings and find a place to start a colony. This is also the time that ant enthusiasts look forward to all year round and are therefore ready to catch some of those fertilized queens. These can then be sold as freshly caught queen or first grown up to the first workers and then sold. However, please note:
- A queen that sheds her wings is not always fertilized. An unfertilized queen will only be able to lay eggs from which males hatch. This will therefore not lead to a successful colony that requires workers. Whether or not a queen has been fertilized, you can only be 100% sure when she has her first workers. Keep this in mind if you are buying a single queen (even if she has brood).
- So a queen with workers is fertilized? Great! … Well, no. It is possible to give brood from another colony to a queen, this is sometimes called brood boost. It will ensure that brood that is further in its development (often pupae) will more quickly lead to workers and thus accelerate the start-up of the colony. However, this can also be done with an unfertilized queen. So always check whether a queen has been “boosted” before you buy it. Ask how long ago the boost happened and whether she has already had workers from her own brood.
If a queen is not caught, there is a (small) chance that she will live long enough to raise her first workers in nature. This colony can then grow into thousands of individuals. At this point it is also possible to excavate them. Sometimes colonies for sale online are therefore taken directly from nature. In addition to a greater ecological footprint than the capture of a freshly fertilized queen, this can also pose some potential problems when kept in captivity.
- An excavated colony is often incomplete. A queen adapts her behavior to the size of her colony. In the beginning she will still be economical with food and thus gradually produce some eggs. Once the colony is larger, she will start laying eggs more often because her hundreds to thousands of workers can continuously care for and feed her and the brood. If a colony with 10,000 workers is dug up, this queen is used to a large food intake and good care. If only a hundred workers are taken along, the queen’s food input will suddenly drop. At best, she can adapt to the new situation and everything will be fine. However, it is also possible that the colony will have difficulty developing further because they cannot maintain their growth. Always ask whether a colony has been excavated or not and if so, how long the seller has been taking care of the colony. It is important to note that the colony has a healthy queen that is adapted to the colony size. If she has been cared for in captivity for some time, it will be more likely that the colony is and will remain healthy.
- You cannot know the age of the queen when she is caught in the wild. An ant queen does not live forever and will eventually die (usually after years). If you are unlucky, you can get a captured queen who is already at the end of her life. She can then die sooner than expected.
- Some colonies have more than 1 queen, these are called polygynous. However, some polygynous species allow unfertilized queens back into the nest. These often behave like large workers. If a colony is excavated and several queens are present here, it is not certain that all queens have been fertilized. If you buy a single queen (or colony with 1 queen) of a polygynous species, always ask about the origin and whether she has already laid eggs that have developed further into workers. If you buy a colony with more than 1 queen, you always run the risk that they are not all fertilized.
So always ask about the origin of the colony, how long the colony has been in the possession of the seller and how the colony has developed during its period with the seller. If a colony (outside hibernation / resting) has not received any new workers or brood in a period of several weeks, then there may be something wrong with the health of the colony (or the seller’s care method, this may possibly have been done consciously) . Take the species into account (eg larger species need longer to produce workers from an egg).
The general “hygiene” of a colony is a bit more difficult. Ants process their food into, among other things, excrement and often some of the food remains (exoskeleton insect, dried drop of sugar water …). This will sometimes make a colony nest look dirty. It is therefore not always easy to estimate whether a tube is “too dirty”. For example, some species produce an enormous amount of waste, making it practically impossible to keep them in a clean nest. However, there are some situations where you can rightly question the hygiene of a nest. So always ask for a photo of the colony before you buy it. This will give you an idea of the actual number of workers, general cleanliness of the tube and whether you will actually get what you expect. The following may indicate problems when you see them in the photo:
- Discoloration of cotton ball and water tank. This is a slightly more nuanced point. Often there is waste and excrement on the cotton pad of the water reservoir. This is often not harmful to the colony. However, if you see that the entire cotton ball (not only on the side of the ants but also on the side of the water) looks “rancid” (shiny / greasy looking), then there is probably a fungus in the cotton ball and the colony needs to be moved. Mention this to the seller and ask them to move them to a new tube, even if you may have to wait a little longer.
- Small white or red dots. Here too there are various options. Some species have feces that form white-yellow dots. This is harmless. However, if it is moving (ask for a video if necessary) small white or red dots, the colony probably has mites. Not all mites are harmful to ants, but as a general advice, I would say don’t buy these. It is perfectly possible that these mites are not harmful, but you cannot possibly know that from a video or photo.
- Food residues in the colony’s tube nest. Many ant sellers (including the shops) keep the colonies in test tubes and also feed them here. This is no problem at all as long as the food residues are removed regularly. If you see food scraps in a photo, ask if this is a recent photo and how long the food has been in there. If it is not fresh, request that the tube be cleaned (and possibly put some fresh food in before shipping, even if it is not necessary). Food residues in a closed damp room cause mold. Sending a colony in this state increases the chance of mold development along the way. If you see moldy food scraps in the photo, ask yourself how well the seller has taken care of the colony. Talk to him / her about this.
- Water level. Water is essential for all animals. That is no different for ants either. Always check the photo to see if there is a water reservoir (or some other form of moisture supply) as a colony can completely die out within hours to days if they don’t have water. If it is not clear in the photo, you should ask.
Live arrival guarantee
This is a term you may come across in your search. What the seller means by this is that if the colony does not reach you in one piece, you are guaranteed to receive a new colony or get your money back (or some other form of compensation). This is usually a sign of the seller’s confidence in the health of his colony and that he is also preparing it properly for transport. If this is not stated, make clear agreements with the seller about what happens if something goes wrong (ants die on the way, package gets lost …)
In addition to an ant colony, you also need all kinds of other material for this hobby. Below is an overview of some of these materials, what to look out for and how important they are.
Very often young ant colonies are kept in a test tube with a water reservoir. This is a very simple setup that works well for most species. It is also easier to send this tube by post than a complete nest. That is why your colony will often arrive in a test tube.
Now it is of course very tempting to make or buy a nice nest for your ants. However, it is here that things go wrong with most beginning ant keepers. Golden rule: A colony with less than 50-100 workers is best kept in a test tube! For most species this means that you will keep them in a test tube for the first 1-2 years. Despite advice for nest types that you can find online (often also distributed by sellers of those nests), don’t count on your colony going straight into a nice nest. Ants are generally tightly packed and often we overestimate how much space they need. As a result, colonies that are too young are often placed in a nest that is too large, with the result that the colony is under enormous stress, waste accumulates in the nest leading to fungi and parasites and that the colony eventually stops developing or even dies out. So, we will repeat this again to be sure you got the message: colonies with less than 50-100 workers should not be placed in a nest! (Small side note, it is possible in some cases if your nest is well adapted to the colony, but if you have no experience you’d better not do this)
In addition to the size of a nest, the material properties of the nest are sometimes not ideal for your colony. To avoid a whole list of types of nests and advantages and disadvantages, I will stick to the following: Do you really want a certain type of nest? Then look up online or ask the community which species do well in this type of nest. If you have a species and would like to give them a nest, look up online or ask in the community which nest is best suited for your species. Each type of nest has certain hardness, moisture retention, etc. that can limit which species you can keep in it.
Again an easy rule: from the moment you have workers you can connect your colony to an outworld. This outworld can be very complex with shutters, connections, ventilation holes closed with mesh, some nice substrate and plants, etc., or it can be a simple box with a tightly fitting lid. This also has to do with how much effort you want to put into creating an outworld or what budget you have to buy one. In general, there are 3 important properties for an outworld: Non-toxic (for example, pay attention to which glue you use), escape-free and well-ventilated. The first two speak for themselves. Good ventilation helps prevent mold.
Anti escape solutions
Of course you don’t want your ants to escape either. Various remedies are available for this. This can range from simply using a lid to putting a layer of something on the walls that the ants can’t get over. Take into account that all these substances have a certain lifetime and must be replaced afterwards. Sometimes a lid has to be taken off for ventilation and food, so not ideal if you have a colony of 10,000 workers who walk around in your outworld all the time. Inform yourself about the options. Start with simple cheap solutions (eg oil, talc in alcohol) and see how well they work and how practical they are before you buy more expensive solutions. A more expensive solution is not always a better one. Also always try to find some online reviews as similar products at different sellers are sometimes of different quality. If you want to test anti-escape solutions, it is best to do this on an outworld that is not yet connected to your colony and where you can put workers from your own colony or some “wild” workers to see if they can escape. This way you can apply the anti-escape layer more easily and you avoid direct problems for your colony due to lack of experience.
Ants need (in addition to water) sugars and protein. How much of each depends on the species. In general, you can feed most young colonies once a week. When choosing food, consider the size of your colony and the size of the food. A colony of 10 workers will not eat a complete mealworm, so you may want to offer fruit flies until they are more numerous. You don’t have to immediately reach for feeder animals. Many ants also like some sugar mixed in water, honey or the piece of chicken on your sandwich this afternoon. You can experiment with this. Watch out for possible toxic substances present on the food you offer. Here too your budget and time are an important factor.
You may also find a variety of ant keeping tools online. This can range from tweezers to syringes or strange hooks to get cotton wool out of a test tube. Know that many of these things are “luxury goods”. They can make it much easier for you but are not essential. Are you going to buy a nest with a 2 mm hole to refill the water reservoir? Then you might want to buy a syringe, because that will not be easy at the tap. A special hook to get cotton wool out of test tubes sounds very handy, but maybe you already have something else at home that works (a skewer also works, for example)? Again, you should first think carefully about what you may already have at home and what will really add value to your implementation of the hobby. Do you have doubts about it? Check reviews if available or ask around with other ant keepers.