We are keeping ants!
Ants have been a background obsession for a while and I have kept it in check by watching videos, browsing formicariums, and keeping myself busy with the reptiles. It finally got to be too much and after 3 years of this I finally decided to pull the trigger and get some ants.
Ants are exceedingly difficult to breed in captivity and we will not be attempting it. The main way that keepers start a colony is to capture a queen ant after her mating flight and before she manages to find a hiding spot.
Here in Georgia we have many species of ant and there are mating flights throughout spring, summer, and fall. Different species fly at different times and knowing which species are flying in a given month and the weather conditions that trigger a flight are key to finding the right species.
If you don't care what species you end up with, you can try your luck at any time by simply walking around and looking for them. The method I used to capture my starter set of queens is called "black lighting", which involves pointing a black light at a large white surface and watching for queens landing nearby.
Our first batch of queens are almost entirely a single species, Pheidole bicaranata. P. bicaranata is a species of "Big Head" ant, given the name due to the dimorphic appearance of the workers. Workers come in two shapes, minors and majors. Minors are about 1-2 millimeters and look like a generic ant, majors are twice the size and have enlarged, muscular heads. The large heads of the majors are used for defense of the nest and for breaking apart tougher food items like seeds. Pictured below are the two casts of a Pheidole species.
Raising a colony
A captive ant queen needs several things in order to start her colony: moisture, darkness, and peace. The test tubes in the main image for this post are the first 3 queens I caught. A test tube setup, kept in a dark place and left alone, provides most queens with all they need to get the colony started.
Different species of ant have different requirements. The ones that I caught are claustral, which means that they will not leave the nest to forage once they have started laying eggs. Claustral queens do not eat until their first workers, called nanitics, to pupate and begin foraging. The nanitics will bring the queen food that they find. While developing, the queen will eat some of her own eggs, choosing weaker or damaged ones to feed to her nanitic brood.
Once the first nanitics are mobile, food is offered. Food for most species is either protein or sugar. For the P. bicaranata, their first meal will be baby dubia roaches from my dubia colony. They will be fed every other day with a variety of foods.
The colony will stay in the test tube until it reaches somewhere between 50-100 ants. At that size, they will be ready to move into a "founding formicarium" or small ant farm. A founding formicarium has few chambers and access to an "out world", an open space for the ants to forage in. Most founding formicaria will fit in the palm of your hand.
Once the colony is well established in the founding formicarium their live becomes a series of moves to larger formicaria until they reach their sustainable colony size. Colony size varies greatly by species and P. bicaranata tends to have a smaller colony of 1000-2000 individuals.
Here is the interesting part. Ants have very high potential to become invasive if they are taken out of their natural range. There are also established invasive species in just about every corner of the country. This is not something we wish to contribute to. All of our ant queens and colonies will be collected and sold locally.
In addition to local only sales and trades, we will try to prevent the colonies from being taken more than 150 kilometers from the site of collection. Here is a map of what that looks like:
These limits help reduce the chance of introducing a colony to a non native environment if they escape. There are many ant keepers that do not adhere to rules like this. It is possible to import Asian, European, South American, or even African species. There is also an ant black market with keepers in Germany and China as two of the biggest participants. Our goal is to be environmentally responsible with all of our animals but the ants warrant special concern and care to ensure everything goes well.