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Though ants may not be the first pet of choice that comes to somebody's mind, many people, myself included, have found them to be fascinating creatures to keep as pets.  Their industriousness and hitherto secret way of life can be a source of wonder and entertainment.

So, how exactly does somebody keep ants as pets?  Are they dangerous? What do they eat?  What sort of home do I need to provide them?  How can I stop them escaping? What if the produce flying ants?  These are just some of the questions I intend to answer.  Any questions that you still have after reading these pages, please feel free to email me by clicking on the Contact Me tab on the left of your screen.

One of the first considerations you need to take into account is the age and experience of the person intending on keeping the ants. For example, you don’t want to allow a child to keep stinging ants, at least not until they have had experience in keeping ants. For those in the UK I would recommend the common black garden ant Lasius niger.  These ants are perhaps the best known ants in the UK and are an ideal species to keep as a beginner, or if you want a large active colony. If you have kept ant before and feel you want something different from Lasius niger, then perhaps something like Myrmica rubra, a red stinging ant may be of interest to you. These ants tend to have smallish colonies but build large tunnels and chambers and can be quite aggressive.  The sting isn’t that bad but may be distressing to young children.

Another factor you need to consider is what sort of nest you’ll have to provide your particular species of ant.  Ants live in a vast variety of nest types, according to their kind, from simple excavations in soil to a “ball” made up of leaves sewn together by the ants; from rotting wood to “paper” nests. Some ants don’t even create nests but live in a bivouac made up of their own living bodies.

Choose a species that you can afford and have the time, resources and space for. Some ants require specialised environments such as the hot humid climates found in the rain forests, others are not so fussy, and only require room temperature.  Again Lasius niger are ideal as you can keep them in a simple tub filled with lightly dampened soil.  If you want to be able to see into their nest then consider a slim style ant farm, glass or plastic, (I prefer the former as glass is clearer than plastic and doesn’t warp - though it can smash!).

Finally you need to consider what your species eat.  Some species eat seeds, other insects, whilst others eat fungus grown by themselves from chewed up leaves.

Once again I will champion the cause for good old Lasius niger, which, are, in fact, my favourite species of all.  Lasius are ideal for the following reasons:


Identifying the Queen


To make sure you have a queen and not a large worker, look at the shape of the thorax (the middle part of the ant where the legs are); if it is large and just as wide, if not wider than the head, and if the abdomen (the back part of the ant) is large, then it’s a queen.  Worker ants’ thoraxes are slimmer than their heads.  Here is a picture, for comparison, of a worker and queen of Formica fusca, a large black ant found in the UK and Europe. Not the difference in size, especially how the thorax of the queen is much large in comparison to her head than that of the worker.


It is very important that you do not simply take one of the winged ants from the main nest as she will not be mated, and therefore will not produce a colony.

It takes about 8-12 weeks for a queen, once she has laid eggs, to produce workers, so a little patience is required here.

Please note that with many ant species, such as Lasius niger, once the queen has made her burrow she will seal herself in and will not emerge ever again. She does not require food at this stage so do not be tempted to open her burrow and out food in.  She has enough body reserves in her to sustain herself and her brood.  Once her first workers start foraging you can start to feed them.  The same situation stands with water; you don’t need to provide your queen with water until her first workers start to forage.


Here you can see a queen surrounded by her workers. Note the size difference but, more importantly, the size of the queen’s thorax compared to her head; it’s as wide, if not wider. The workers on the other hand have slender thoraxes.

This picture was taken from the Planetinfo website.





Food

So, what food do you give them once it’s time to do so, and how do you give your ants water? The food you give them depends on the species of ant you have.  Most ants like Lasius niger eat all kinds of insects such as flies, crickets, cockroaches, wax worms, meal worms and other soft-bodied creatures.  They also like fruit and other kitchen scraps.  If you have a queen in your colony with larvae then it is important to feed your ants some protein such as giving them freshly killed insects. You can also buy reptile protein jelly food which your ants will thrive on.  I use that for my ants when I am away from home for long periods.


Water


The best way to give water is either in a reservoir, such as in the downloadable guide I have, or you can use a spray mist bottle to squirt fine water droplets on the inside edge of your ant farm, or put a damp cotton wool ball on a small plastic lid; just ensure it’s damp enough so that when you touch it your finger comes away damp but not to much that it creates puddles at its base as the ants may drown in it.  


Obtaining Ants

So, let’s assume that you have decided to go for my favourite species; Lasius niger. Yay!

You can either order a colony of ants from a supplier or you can start a colony of as it does in the wild; with a single mated queen - the latter needs a bit of patience as it could be at least 3 months before you see any worker ants, but it is the most rewarding method to start a colony.  A little more on obtaining ants later, but for now I would suggest you get their home ready first; the last thing you want is for your ants to arrive and you have nowhere to put them.

As mentioned on the previous page you can use something as simple as a plastic tub filled with soil, but the only problem with this is that you won’t be able to see into the nest.  Therefore the best thing to use is a slim style “ant farm” which you can get from various suppliers, including Toys R Us and Amazon.  I prefer the glass types personally, though they are more expensive.  The good thing about these sort of ant farms is that as your colony grows you can attach more ant farms onto your original to allow the ants to expand out.  They also allow you, more or less, full view of the inside of an ant nest, which is a fascinating thing to see.

Here are some links to ant farms available on the Internet:

Amazon UK - a cheap and simple plastic ant farm.

Ants UK - a more expensive glass ant farm, including foraging areas.

Ant Store - a store that sells ant farms and ants in Germany.


So, you have your ant farm, but how do you set it up?  Well, I have made a guide to show you how to set your ant farm up.  You ant farm may not look exactly like mine but you can adapt the instructions to your own ant farm.  Click HERE to read the document,(you’ll need a pdf reader which most computers and tablets and smart phones have these days). Please accept my apologies in advance - the pictures that you’ll see on the guide are small and I have lost the large versions of those pictures which you could click on.  Now the clicks will only take you to a blank page, but rest assured I am preparing a new document with expandable pictures.

I find the best way to put your ants into your ant farm is to simply place them into the foraging box, if you have one attached to your ant farm, or to attach the test tube, which most sellers despatch their ants in, directly onto the port of the ant farm itself.  The downloadable guide shows how to do this. Allow your ants to move in in their own good time, do not try to rush them into it.  If you do decide to pour them from their tube into the ant farm then please do so gently.

Right, you have your ant farm set up, but where do you get your ants from?  Well, as I mentioned earlier there are two main ways I suggest you get your ants; from a seller of live ants such as Ants UK  or Ants UK , or you can wait until the annual mating flights (when you see all those awesome flying ants emerging from their nests) and capture a newly mated queen.  The queen has to be mated so the best thing to do is wait until you see the flying ants actually flying.  Wait for an hour or so and then take a walk outside, keeping your eyes to the ground.  You’ll soon start to notice some wingless, larger than normal ants scurrying about on the ground.  Chances are these are newly mated flying ants that have removed their wings and are looking for a new nesting site.  Pick one of them up and put them into your ant farm, making sure there are no other ants in it.  Leave her alone and she will eventually starting digging a burrow, lay some eggs and produce her first workers.