Ants are unlike any other pet. Yes, obviously, you can’t cuddle with them as you can with cat and dogs. But that does not make them boring as pets. On the contrary, keeping ants and observing the colony is most interesting. Find out how they gather food, build a nest, care for their brood, see them hunt and keep their homes clean.
An ant colony is an ideal pet for several reasons. They don’t make any noise, they don’t smell, and they don’t take much space. And in contrast with many other pets like birds, fish and rabbits they don’t cost much time to take care of. But of course, like any other pet animal, they also need proper care. On this page, we will have a look at how to take care of a pet ant colony. We will discuss the general care on how to house them, how to feed them, how to clean them and how to create a proper environment. Ready to dive into the world of these fascinating creatures?
Housing an ant colony
The housing of an ant colony highly depends on which species you want to have, and it needs. These types of housing for keeping ant colonies is called formicarium (formica means ant). So, how do we house an ant colony?
There are many different types available to keep ant colonies, but they can broadly be divided into three types: Basin or arena, islands, and farms.
The basin or arena is a cube-like enclosure, sometimes also called ‘tank’. This enclosure type looks much like aquariums or plain glass terrariums. The difference between a formicarium and an aquarium is that a formicarium has holes in its sides, so that you can connect multiple elements on each other. Often they have overhanging edges, and some are adapted with separations or double bottoms.
The island type is a low glass container that must contain water and to build up an island for the ants. It is an open-top enclosure, but because of the water, it prevents ants from escaping.
The most typical type of housing ants is an ant farm. This type contains two glass plates that are parallel at each other with a narrow space in between. They have connection high on the top so that it can be filled with a form of a substrate, and ultimately ants can dig into it to build a nest.
There are other types of enclosures possible. You can keep tiny ant colonies, for example, in a large glass jar. Another popular housing type is based on Ytong — a lightweight concrete where the nest shapes are carved out.
Although there are different types of enclosures, connected together with tubes, creates the living space for the ant colony. You combine the different housing types and sizes to create one large enclosure (what ultimately is the formicarium). How you set it up depends on the species and the size of the colony, but almost always consists of a basin and an ant farm connected to each other. One thing that different types of formicarium have all in common: Prevent ants from escaping, provide oxygen and ventilation, and some way or opening to be able to feed and provide moisture to the ant colony, and of course to remove dirt out.
I personally prefer the formicarium designs of antstore.net. Their product line has a large variety of different types of glass and acrylic housing that all can be connected to each other. Although there are many suppliers of pre-build enclosures, you can also build enclosures yourself or re-model an old aquarium into an enclosure suitable for ants.
One size fits all doesn’t apply here. Every ant species have different demands on the size to house them. For example, with the care of our leaf-cutter ant colony of over 1 million ants, we have multiple ant arena’s (six connected enclosures in total) with sizes between 30cm x 30cm x 30cm up to 30cm x 60cm x 60cm. But when you keep an ant colony for Messor barbarus (harvester ant), you can keep them in a much smaller formicarium.
To give you a bit of guidance, I created this table onto what sizes you must think of at different ant colonies. It is an indication, and you should always check the needs of the specific species.
|Ant species||Type of formicarium||Needed size|
|Messor ssp.||Farm + basin||Medium|
|Camponotus spp.||Farm + basin||Medium – large|
|Lasius spp.||Farm (+ small basin)||Small – medium|
|Tatramorium spp.||Farm (+ small basin)||Small – medium|
|Myrmica spp.||Farm + basin||Small – medium|
|Pheidole spp.||Arena/basin||Small (- medium)|
|Serviformica spp.||Farm + basin||Medium|
|Atta spp.||At least 3 basin/arena||Extra large|
|Acromyrmex spp.||At least 3 basin/arena||Large – extra large|
Enclosure substrate and furniture
The substrate is an essential part of the habitat of the ant colony. There are many different types of substrates you can choose from. Besides using it as a substrate, it is also a crucial part in the nest-building of the ant colony. Thereby it serves more than only a material laying on the bottom. For this part, we focus on the most common materials used for nest-building.
- Sand – loam – granulate mix: Typically, ant farms are filled with a sand-loam mixture and some granulate at the bottom. Ants can dig into the sand and create a nest. A sand-loam mixture is firm and keeps moisture rather well.
- Aerated concrete: Aerated, lightweight concrete, often called Ytong, is used to carve out chambers and tunnel connection to recreate a nest for ants. Many ants like this type of nests. Usually, there are some holes to moisture the concrete, keeping the humidity in the correct range for the nest. You can also purchase pre-build Ytong nests with a plastic or glass frame on it so you can observe how the ants behave.
- Gypsum: This material is being used for a long time by ant keepers and is easy to recreate an ant nest. You can carve out the chambers and tunnels that connect them. This material is also used to create hills where ants can’t dig in, sometimes covered with other materials like gravel and sand. Be aware that some ants can chew a way out in they can in a nest of gypsum for a long time.
- Cork: This material can also be used to shape nests; however, it is more difficult to shape. It absorbs moisture rather well but can become too wet.
- Wood: Nests can be made of wood, but it is more difficult to shape. Wood nests can become mouldy more quickly when it is too humid. It needs a lot of ventilation because of this reason. Ant keepers do not often prefer it.
- Styrofoam and gel: Styrofoam and gel are recently frequently sold as pre-build ant farms. Especially formicarium with gel is seen many times in shops. However, these materials are not suitable to grow an ant colony for an extended period. I would stay away from these materials. It would be much better to choose for sand-loam, Ytong or gypsum nests.
Other types of materials that are used as a common substrate in basin enclosures are sand, vermiculite, pebbles, gravel, granulate, hummus, coco-peat, bark, leaf-litter. In these cases, the substrate is mostly used to keep up the humidity in the enclosure, and for nest building too.
All ants need proper temperature and humidity in their environment. Depending on the species, most ant colonies need a nest that is a bit higher than room temperature. You can heat the nest area with a heating pad or a heat cable. You can use regular light bulbs when you cover the nest from any light. Ants won’t accept light in their nest, or they will try to move to another area where it is darker. You can also you a ceramic dark heater. This produces the heat but not the light.
With many ant species, the basin or arena needs to be warmer than the nest area. For the basin or arena, it is sufficient to use a regular light bulb. Up to 30W should be enough to heat for most species. When you have a large enclosure, it is better to use multiple light bulbs instead of one very strong heat source.
When heating the nest, be careful about overheating. If the nest has not enough ventilation or air circulation, the temperature can rise pretty quickly too deadly levels.
Humidity in the nest chamber needs to be for almost all species to be higher than the arena. Often, the arena or basin needs a humidity of 30% up to 50%. For the nest chamber, a humidity of 50% up to 70% is enough. If you make the housing too humid, especially in the nest chamber, it can become mouldy, or the moisture will accumulate in the enclosure.
Many species hibernate during the winter months (around November to April, but can slightly differ depending on the species). The ideal temperature for hibernation should be around 5°C and 8°C. You can achieve this by putting the ants (mostly they are all in the nest chamber) in the fridge, or if you have a cold cellar or crawl space, you can place the ant colony there. Be aware that during hibernation, ants still need water to survive. So provide some moisture once a week or two weeks.
If you want to know more about temperature and humidity, read the articles in the basics guide about ‘temperature and heating‘ and ‘humidity and drinking‘.
Feeding an ant colony
Almost all ant species are omnivorous, which means they eat both insects and plant materials. In general, they need two essential nutrients to thrive: protein and carbohydrates (sugars).
Proteins are fulfilling the need for growth and expansion of the colony. They gather it mostly from dead or live insects and is fed to the larvae and the queen. Larvae need it to grow into adults. The queen requires proteins for laying eggs.
Adult workers can’t digest proteins. However, adult ants don’t grow and therefore, don’t need proteins. Instead, they need carbohydrates, mostly in the form of sugars, to provide the energy to do all the work. Ants love sugar. You can offer sugars in liquid form, for example, with honey, syrup or sugar-water. Providing fruits also works well and contain natural sugar.
Some ants have special needs. For example, harvester ants (Messor spp. and Pheidole spp.) collect seeds for their colony. They chew them and feed the chewed seeds — called ‘antbread’ — to their larvae. In contrast, leaf-cutter ants (Atta spp. and Acromyrmex spp.) collect leaves to grow fungus garden, which in turn they eat and feed to the larvae.
Ants need water like any animal. Ants can survive for a couple of days without food, but they can’t survive without water. Well-moistured ant nest provide water, and the adults drink it from the walls. Therefore, nest build from Ytong is popular to use, since this material absorbs moisture very well and slowly spreads it through the nest, providing water for the whole colony.
It is also good to provide water as an additional source but is mostly combined with providing sugar water (water with dissolved sugar in it). Make sure that you don’t make it to ‘sugary’ so ants will stick in it. Also, when you provide it in a regular bowl, ants may drown, so it is better to use special (sugar) water feeders.
Cleaning the formicarium is rather easy – you almost don’t need to clean at all. Most important is to refresh and replace uneaten food left in the basin. Always replace food after two days so it won’t rot or mould. Also, don’t feed more than the ant colony needs. If you provide them to many live or dead insects, and they take it all with them into their nest but don’t eat it there, it can start to mould inside the nest.
Most ants bring dead ants and other garbage outside their nest onto a garbage pit. You must take this garbage out of the formicarium regularly.
Starting and development of your first ant colony
You’ll need to start a colony with a queen. The easiest way to get a queen is by going to a shop that is specialized in ant colonies. Of course, you can gather ant colonies yourself in nature, but regulations often do not permit that you take wild animals to keep them as pets.
When you want to start a new ant colony, you have the option to start with a single queen or with a queen with larvae or workers. I can recommend you to start with a queen together with some workers. First of all, this is easier to start with because the workers will care for the queen. Second, you know the queen is fertile and produced offspring, and last it is not much more expensive to buy some additional workers.
Most of the time, when you buy an ant colony, you’ll receive it in a so-called test tube. A small and long glass tube containing the queen and some workers. When you have set up your formicarium, don’t drop the ants into your enclosure. Better would be to put the test tube into the enclosure and let the ants move out by themselves.
If you receive the colony in a temporary enclosure too large to put in your formicarium, try to connect it in some way to your formicarium so they can move in that way. Make sure that every crack and hole is tied off so the ants won’t escape.
If the ants have been relocated, you can remove their earlier enclosure. From now on, you can observe how the colony starts to develop. The queen will lay eggs, and the workers will care for the queen and larvae, providing them food and extend the nest with new tunnels and chambers.
Species-specific care sheets
Every ant colony has its specific needs and care to let them thrive. This page only provided general and basic care information. Have a look at the section on the species-specific care sheets to find how you best can keep and care the specific ant colonies.
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