Ants as pets

Keeping ants as pets is not immediately obvious to many. Yet this hobby has many advantages and interesting aspects over other hobbies! On this page you will find general information you need to keep ants as pets. However, we recommend that you look up species-specific information in addition to the general information you can find here. Before we begin our explanation, we ask this important question: why should you keep ants?

Why keep ants?

Ants are found almost all over the world. It is a hugely diverse group that has found many different ways to adapt to very different conditions around the world. Wherever you live, you will find an ant species that suits your interests! In addition, you also have a lot of flexibility in how much time and budget you want to invest in this. A setup for ants can go from a few euros to hundreds of euros! The do-it-yourselfers among us can also fully indulge themselves in creating a living environment for the ants.

Due to the great diversity of ant species, we can find a lot of unique and interesting behavior in them. This is a great reason for many to keep ants. As a pet you can study the ants much better than in the garden or in an the wild. Some unique features, such as the well-known “ant streets”, can be easily studied in our environment. However, a lot also happens in the nest, which we often cannot easily reach in nature. This is much easier in a test tube or formicarium. You can also see in the nest how workers bring in food, take care of the brood, how the queen lays eggs and so much more!

Ants are therefore ideal for learning about nature. In addition to the behavior of the ants themselves, you can also learn more about their role in nature. They are important cleaners of dead insects or live in symbiosis with other animals. They are therefore an important part of our ecosystem.

Finally, you are their caretaker. If done correctly, you can have the pleasure of starting with that one little queen or colony that can become a colony that can contain hundreds to even thousands of individuals!

Essential food for ants

Before we get into some explanation, first this important message: With all the food you give your ants, it is important to make sure that it does not contain harmful substances. Just think of pesticides on fruit or certain preservatives in foodstuffs for people or other animals.

Ants mainly need 3 things:

  1. Water
  2. Sugars
  3. Protein

In addition, they also need vitamins, minerals and other trace elements, but these are often present in their food sources that provide them with protein or sugar.

The most important thing you should never take away from your ants is water. A few days (even hours!) without water can have disastrous consequences. Always make sure your colony has access to fresh water. Just like any other animal in the world, water is essential.

Just like humans, ants also use sugars as a source of energy. Some examples of sugar sources are sugar water, honey or honeydew. An adult worker will not grow any more. So she mainly needs energy (sugars). However, this is a different story for the queen and the brood. The queen must produce new eggs and the eggs must develop into adult ants. Proteins are needed for this. In nature, ants find these proteins by eating other insects or in honeydew, a nutritious liquid secreted by a variety of leaf and root aphids. In captivity you can give them this (or related food, you don’t have to give them exactly the same insects as they would encounter in nature, for example) or some alternatives such as meat, egg, milk etc. Depending on the ant species and even individual colonies, ants will have certain preferences. So if you consider it safe, you can experiment!

Necessities

Another advantage of keeping ants is that you have a lot of freedom in how you want to keep them and which materials you want to use. However, there are some basic principles that apply to most species, we provide an overview here.

Nest

Let’s start at the beginning, where the whole colony will start and new workers will emerge, the nest. The nest serves as a safe space for the queen and her brood. Most of the ants will also often be in the nest to care for brood, tend to the queen, protect the colony and serve as a “reserve” should reinforcement suddenly be needed outside the nest.

The nest must meet certain conditions that depend on the species. First and foremost, it must be a safe place. For most species, this means that this must be a reasonably enclosed space, the size of which is adapted to the colony. Often this nest is divided into rooms so that ants can use different rooms for different functions. In addition, the nest must also form the right environment, i.e. the humidity level must be adapted to your species. If you choose a species, you should therefore look up how moist their nest should be. Ideally, you create a humidity gradient in the nest so that the ants can choose what suits them best. Finally, it is also important that a nest is sufficiently ventilated. This way you prevent harmful fungi and parasites. This is often facilitated by having a well-ventilated outworld (see below).

In nature ant nests occur underground. These are therefore completely dark. In captivity, however, many species can get used to light. It is mainly a sudden change in light that will cause the ants to panic. You often do not have to keep most species in the dark, but make sure that they are not disturbed too much by, for example, cupboard doors that open and close or lights that go on and off. This effect of changing light can be somewhat weakened with red foil. This way you have a balance between a stable environment for your ants and visibility inside the nest without disturbing them.

In practice: Nest

A typical nest for most founding colonies is a test tube (see image below). This is divided into 2 parts: a water reservoir (blue) and the breeding chamber for the ants (gray).

There is a cotton ball between the water reservoir and the incubator. This allows for slow evaporation of moisture in the tube in order to keep the humidity sufficient. Ants can also drink water from the cotton ball. It is important that the cotton ball is thick enough to avoid leaks, but also not compressed too hard so that water can continue to come through.

If you have a claustral queen without workers, it must be in a fully closed chamber. In a test tube you do this by stuffing another cotton ball into the opening of the test tube. Other options are also possible, but make sure that she cannot dig in and that it lets oxygen through. If you don’t need a closed chamber, the opening will of course serve as the entrance and exit of the nest.

As a rule of thumb, colonies with less than 50-100 workers should remain in a test tube. This is a stable environment that requires little maintenance from the ants to survive. If you go to other types of nests, the circumstances may change over time. If your colony is too small to adapt to this quickly, workers can die or eventually even the entire colony. It is therefore recommended for beginners to follow this rule of thumb and keep working in test tubes for as long as possible.

Once your colony is big enough (and you already have enough experience) you can move to other nests. It is also best to adjust these nests to the size of the colony (so not 10x larger than the test tube they just came from). There are many different types of nests, for example you have nests made of plaster, acrylic, plastic, ytong or other materials. If you want to get started with this yourself, keep the following in mind: moisture, ventilation and strength. Moisture and ventilation have been discussed previously. If you want a damp nest, make sure that you have materials that absorb moisture well and release it back into the nest. Also note, certain materials will mold more quickly and therefore need either lower humidity or better ventilation. The sturdiness of the nest is important because some ant species are strong enough to dig into hard materials. So be sure to look up enough information before you buy or make a nest. You can of course also go for a “natural setup”, where you use a substrate (loamy sand, soil, …) in which the ants can dig and make their own corridors and rooms. Here it is important that you use a substrate that is suitable for moisture absorption and firmness. One danger here is the collapsing of corridors and chambers. More info can be found below (at the end of the section outworld).

Here are some examples of nests:

Outworld

Anything that is not part of the nest is the outworld. Of course, we don’t want our ants to happily roam the house, so we have to provide them with their own smaller version. An outworld must be well ventilated and large enough to provide food for the ants. In addition, they will also throw away their waste here, which you as an ant keeper must then clean up. Some species also prefer to explore far from the nest, so these species try to escape more often or have too little space in the outworld. So provide for this if necessary. In general, most beginner species with a colony of about 50 workers are certainly satisfied with 10cm x 10cm surface for their outworld. This brings us to this last point, or rather these two last points: outbreak prevention and ventilation.

As you probably thought, these two aspects work against each other. If you just leave your outworld open for good ventilation, your ants are gone. On the other hand, if you use a completely closed outworld, they are safe inside, but the air also lingers there and you quickly get mold. Fortunately, there is a solution for this: outbreak prevention!

There are different forms of outbreak prevention. For the sake of convenience, we divide them into 3 categories: physical barriers, “slippery” barriers and water barriers.

Physical barriers are fairly obvious. You’re using something your ants can’t get through. With ventilation in mind, this does not have to be 100% hard impenetrable material. For example, you can use a lid with a hole in it. You cover that hole with mesh. A wad of cotton wool as previously discussed with our test tube is also an air permeable physical barrier. Of course, make sure that you use sturdy material and that there are no gaps for ants to get between.

Slippery barriers are based on slippery surfaces that ants can no longer climb on. Often this is applied on a vertical wall or at the bottom of a lid. Some examples of commonly used agents are talcum powder (applied as a mixture with a volatile substance such as ethanol), oil or fluon. Once this barrier has been installed on the walls of an outworld or on the underside of a lid with an opening, sealing is no longer necessary and therefore sufficient ventilation can be provided. A difficulty with these types of barriers is that their efficiency depends on how well it is applied. In addition, this is only temporary, after a while the barrier will wear off and the ants can cross it again. Renewal and applying properly is the take home message!

Finally, you can of course also put your ants on an “island” or surround their outworld by water. However, there are 2 problems with this: first and foremost, ants are sometimes smarter than you think and put dirt in the water to build a “bridge”. In addition, it often happens that ants end up in the water and die. This is therefore only recommended for more experienced ant keepers.

In practice: Outworld

You can create many types of outworlds. This can range from a simple candy box to a large setup with corridor hoses connecting different specially made bins. The only limitations here are your imagination and budget.

Many ant outworlds are made of acrylic or glass. These are transparent so you can see your ants well. Plastic boxes or other do-it-yourself solutions are of course also perfectly possible. Just remember: provide ventilation and outbreak prevention.

You can of course also decorate your outworld with objects, substrate and plants. Of course, always try to use safe materials. If you want to prevent your ants from nesting in substrate, keep it reasonably thin and dry.

You can find an example of an outworld with metal mesh below:

Natural setup

As mentioned at the beginning of this page, ants are a fun way to easily get in touch with nature. That is why some ant keepers also want to try to mimic their natural environment. An environment where you do this is called a natural setup. You often have a substrate that will serve as a nest for ants and a substrate for plants. You can also add “cleaners” such as springtails or woodlice. These will further clean up waste from your ants and prevent fungi and parasites.

As mentioned earlier, it is important that you use a suitable substrate. It must be sturdy enough so that your ants can dig stable passageways and rooms. Also avoid moving this type of setup and other sources of vibration as much as possible.

This kind of setup is very nice because you can have a piece of nature in your living room. However, you have to be careful not to break the balance in this type of setup. For example, parasitic mites can be introduced through food and propagate en masse if you don’t pay close attention, with serious consequences for the health of the colony. With smaller colonies you will likely see no or very little activity in the outworld. This is because a young colony will take less risk and will send out only a small number of workers in search of food.

A good intermediate solution for an ant keepers is to combine this natural setup with a permanent nest. For example, you can bury a pre-made ytong nest or a test tube nest under substrate in such a way that you can still see your ants from one side, for example. You can also limit the digging space to the edge of the outworld so that the colony will create corridors and tunnels that remain visible along the side.

Below you will find an overview of what has been discussed above

With the information on this page you are ready to take your first steps in the world of ant keeping! Note that each species is different, so look carefully at what requirements your species has to choose the perfect nest and the outworld. Besides a nest and outworld, there are of course other things that you can use in the hobby. However, since all these things are not essential, we will not discuss them further here.

Do you have any questions or comments? Please feel free to contact us, we are happy to help you!

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