How to Keep an Ant Colony
So you’ve purchased your first ant(s) from statesideants.com or caught your own. Where do you go from here? This guide covers the basics of keeping ants from the start to the end.
This guide aims to generalize the process of ant-keeping, but it’s important to remember that ants are very diverse, and not every species, nor colony has the same care. Because of this, it is likely that you’ll encounter dilemmas that this guide cannot walk you through. In these cases, it’s always best to talk to a more advanced keeper, as they’re likely to have already gone through similar experiences and developed solutions. There are many online groups of ant-keepers who are willing to help. You can also contact email@example.com for personal guidance. Additionally, this guide does not cover the care of hyper-specialized ants, namely those of fungus-growers or social parasites.
The Queen Stage
Most species begin with queen(s) on their own. This is called the founding stage.
There are multiple methods of colony founding, and which one your queen uses depends on its species. On Statesideants.com, your queens’ founding methods will be noted on their information pages.
The most common method is fully claustral founding. This term is derived from the name of the queens’ founding chambers— the claustral cell. A queen being fully claustral means that in the wild, she doesn’t need, nor want to leave her claustral cell. For most species, simply put your queen in a test tube setup and wait for her nanitics—or first generation of workers—to eclose. She raises these workers off of fat stores created by breaking down her now-useless wing muscles. Your queen does not need to be fed during the founding stage if she is fully claustral, and doing so could stress her out. For these queens, they should not be disturbed more than once or twice a week, as too much disturbance could stress the queen out. Doing so may cause her to eat her brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae). Instead, once she has workers, you can feed them immediately.
The second most common founding method is the semi-claustral method. These queens cannot raise their first generation purely off of their wing muscles and must forage for food to raise their nanitics. During this time and depending on the species, it is important that the queen is fed protein and sugars. Sometimes feeding weekly is enough, other times twice a week is better. Before the queen has larvae, you’ll want to feed small amounts of protein (fruit flies are great for this!). However, once she gets larvae, you’ll want to feed more. It’s almost always better to overfeed than underfeed, just make sure you don’t allow old food to mold up and cause issues. Remove trash when you can.
Semi-claustral queens can be raised with an outworld, but it’s typically better for the queens to simply feed them in a founding test tube setup.
The third founding method is social parasitism. A full guide for social parasitism will not be covered here, because it is extremely complicated and methods vary from species to species. Social parasites are not for beginners.
Keeping a Colony
Now that your queen has her first workers in a test tube setup, you’ll need to keep the colony fed and growing. Depending on species, your colony could grow very quickly or somewhat slowly. How long your colony stays in a test tube is dependent on this; generally, it is beneficial to allow a colony to fill up its tube before moving them out into multiple tubes or a larger nest.
Once your colony begins to grow and feeding becomes difficult in the test tube, you may need to consider an outworld. An outworld is where the ants forage for food and functions as the outside world. Outworlds can come in a variety of sizes, and can be homemade from containers or purchased from Statesideants.com. When your ants are using their outworld, it can get pretty dirty. Whenever you can, remove existing trash or leftover food from the outworld to prevent mold or trash buildup.
An outworld without a barrier can just become an extension of the nest. You need to make sure that ants cannot crawl out and escape from their contained setups. For this, you need a barrier. Barriers are bands—typically of Fluon or talcum powder—applied to the lip or walls of your outworld, making the surface slippery which stops ants from escaping. Fluon is available for purchase on Statesideants.com.
So, how do you connect your test tube up to the outworld? You can use vinyl tubing to connect your test tube to a port drilled in the side of the container, or you can simply place the test tube into the container and take off the cotton. The ants should be able to easily access their nest and outworld. Make sure to not overcomplicate the outworld with anything that could have harmful chemicals.
Moving to a New Nest
Your colony will eventually outgrow their test tube to the point where they don’t fit! You’ll need to either add more test tubes or move them to larger nests. There are multiple methods to use to move your ants to a new nest. You’ll want to be sure you have enough workers to move all the brood and discover the new nest efficiently (usually 20-50 workers). Just keep in mind that every nest needs a consistent source of moisture, as ants die without it. You MUST have a water source in the nest somewhere.
Simply shine a light or expose your colony to light while they are attached to a new nest via tubing or tape, and keep the new nest dark. Make sure the light isn’t too hot. The ants will hopefully begin moving, and once they’re done, detach the old nest and dump out any stragglers into the outworld.
The sunlight method is a step up from the light method. Some ants can withstand regular indoor lights, but sunlight is usually much more bothersome to them. Expose the old nest to sunlight while keeping the new nest dark. Pay attention to the temperature of the nest, and be careful to not let the sunlight cook any ants.
This is a last ditch method, because it is not very graceful and can potentially harm the ants. If they will not move, and you truly need them to, dump them into the new nest and seal it, or, if easier, dump them into the outworld with the new nest attached and allow them no option except to move into the new nest. Be careful when doing this method and pay special attention to the queen and brood.
At the same time, this method may be required for very young colonies if they have to move. Small colonies are especially stubborn, and may choose to never move without coercion. In these situations, especially between tubes, some gentle tapping tends to get the job done in a few seconds. Any potential leftover brood can be carefully transferred with the end of a slightly damp q-tip.
Feeding Your Colony
Feeding is perhaps the most important part of keeping your colony healthy. Most species need both sugars (for nourishing the adult ants) and protein (for feeding the larvae). Sugars must come in liquid forms. You can feed your ants sugar water or honeywater. Ants can regurgitate food to larvae and other worker ants, so they don’t need the food to be directly in the nest to eat it.
Protein can come in the form of:
Mealworms or superworms
Other insects without pesticides or chemicals
Insects will always be healthier than table scraps for the ants, but when your colony is larger, sometimes it’s easier to feed them leftovers. Live feeding—especially in small colonies—can be harmful for the ants. It is almost always better to pre-kill the insects.
You can create sugar water by mixing sugar and water in a tube or container and then putting tiny drops in your ants setups, depending on colony size. Make sure to not put drops that are big enough for the ants to get stuck and drown. It can also be provided through a liquid feeder, which tends to be much more effective as colonies grow.
Some ants are granivorous, meaning they eat seeds for their carbohydrates instead of sugar. Common seeds that granivorous ants can eat are:
Heating Your Ant Colony
Heating is vital to many species of ants, and recommended for most. If you purchase ants from Statesideants.com, their preferred temperature and heating gradient will be noted on their information page. You can provide heat using heating cables, heating mats, or simply using a space heater. Many ants will grow faster with ample heating, and some may be stunted or not grow at all without it, such as harvester ants. For heating cables, simply lay part of the cable over one side of the nest; this is an easy way to provide a gradient. Make sure this heating is not too close to the water source, or it could cause condensation and flooding. For heating mats, try to form a similar gradient by placing the nest/tube only barely onto the mat. Space heaters, incubators, and other more general sources of heat can work, but should be set more conservatively to avoid accidental overheating, and are typically only efficient for heating many colonies.
Some species need diapause (sometimes erroneously referred to as hibernation) in order to continue growth. If you purchased your ants from Statesideants.com, their diapause needs will be listed on their information page. Diapause for such species needs to happen for 2-4 months (varying by species) to ensure the colony continues growing healthily. Most species will give off clear signs to tell you when they’re ready to diapause, such as a drop in activity and brood count. A well-fed colony makes this especially easy, since the reduction in brood won’t be associated with a lack of food. Once ready to diapause, most species will only have early-instar larvae. During diapause, the ants should not be fed. It is recommended to feed your ants a large amount of food prior to hibernation to minimize deaths, and succeedingly a large amount afterwards.
To achieve diapause, you can use a mini fridge, fridge, or wine cooler to chill the ants. The recommended temperature for diapause is around 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit, and it should not drop much lower; essentially, a bit above freezing. You don’t want frost or ice to form in the ants’ nests, and you don’t want to actually freeze the ants. If you decide to use something less reliable like an outdoor garage or shed during the winter, ensure that the environment doesn’t get below the recommended temperatures. Diapause typically brings some deaths. However, for the most part, ants may look deceased (curled up), and really just be deep in hibernation. This dead look can occur—especially in larger ants—sometimes for up to a week after exiting diapause. It may also only last for minutes.
Assistance With Ants
If you ever have questions, there's a large community of antkeepers online who are willing to help. If you have questions specifically for us, about our products or general antkeeping advice, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.