Keeping Ants as Pets

Can you keep ants as pets? Is it easy to do? How much does it cost? Where can I keep my ants? What do I need to consider? How to keep ants in an ant farm.

So, you, or perhaps your child, wishes to keep ants. You know what ants are and you’ve seen them aplenty outside, but how do you keep them as pets? Are they a safe pet? How do you feed them? What do you feed them? How do you stop them from escaping? These are some of the questions I often get asked by prospective ant keepers.

Here I will try to answer these questions, and others, to give you a good chance of successfully raising an ant colony of your own. The information I provide here will assume you are completely new to ant keeping.

Keeping Ants as Pets - first considerations

Before you get your first ants there are a few important things you need to consider:

The age of the ant keeper
What species you wish to keep
Where you intend to keep the ants
How much you can afford to spend on the equipment

Age of the ant keeper

Bearing the age of the ant keeper in mind is extremely important. Children often develop interests that they get can suddenly and fully get absorbed in. They can lose interest just as quickly. If your child wants a captive ant colony as pets, then just bear in mind that you could end up with a colony that nobody wants.

Also consider, if you get a colony with a queen ant in it, you’ll have a growing number of ants as time goes on. If it is the first time your child has kept ants, then I recommend getting a colony that does not have a queen. Especially if the child is pre-teen. 

Captive ants without a queen will last just a few weeks. This will allow you to gauge whether your child has a genuine interest, or a passing fad. 

Of course, this does not just apply to children. You could be an adult who has never kept ants before. Much of the same advice applies to you too.

Which species should I have?

Species is a very important consideration when looking at keeping ants, again, especially if you are inexperienced.

For beginners/children I would strongly recommend you obtain a species common to your area, so that if you do have to let them go, for whatever reason, then you are not introducing a possibly invasive species.

It is also wise to consider whether the ants you wish to keep are aggressive sting users; there are some species of ant that have a very unpleasant sting. For example, I would not recommend getting Paraponera clavata; they are otherwise known as the bullet ant, and for very good reason!

If you live in the UK, then you don’t have to worry too much about very painful stings. There are UK ants that do sting or that possess a hard bite, but generally speaking UK ants are fairly harmless. My suggestion would be to keep Lasius niger, the common black garden ant. They are easy to obtain and keep, do not possess a sting, and are very active ants.

Where will you keep your ants?

You will also need to consider where you are going to keep your ants. Here I am not referring to what you intend to keep them in, though, of course, that too is important (I will address that a bit further on). I am talking about where are you going to keep the ant farm? In your house?  

Do you have somewhere to keep the ants if you do not wish to have them in the house, such as a shed, greenhouse garage? etc. Will you allow your child to keep them in his room? If so, then they’ll need to be kept somewhere where an over enthusiastic child at play will not knock them over.

The choice really is yours. I would consider keeping them in a shed or greenhouse to be just as good as being indoors. However, I would be hesitant to keep them in a garage where a vehicle is also kept, as the fumes from the exhaust, if running, might affect them. The ants may not be affected by it, but I have seen my ants affected by wood smoke in the past.  My Lasius umbratus colony appear to get very anxious when they smell smoke.

I keep my ants in what I call my “ant room”; it’s actually a utility room I had built onto the back of my house, in which I have my freezer and tumble drier. It has a shelf in it above the tumble drier and has adequate lighting and ventilation. The heat from the tumble dryer does not adversely affect the ants. In fact, they rather like it when I use the dryer.

Which set up will you use?

There are many different t types of ant farm available. Your budget will be an important factor in you choosing which species of ant to keep, and what to house them in.

Ant farms (to use the vernacular) can be expensive to purchase if you want a top quality one. Fortunately, there are many cheap beginner’s ant farms you can use, such as the green plastic “Antworld“, which you can find on Amazon.

You can even use certain household objects, such as an old ice-cream tub, though that would be quite constrictive for an ant colony that has a queen and a constant growth in population.

Personally, I use a glass set up which consists of a large glass nesting box, a glass foraging (feeding) box connected by clear plastic tubing.

Should I get a queen ant?

When keeping ants as pets, this is perhaps one of the most important questions you should consider.  If you want your colony to grow and to last, potentially, years, then a queen ant is a must.  I do find that ant colonies with a queen can be a little lacklustre, especially if they have no brood as well.  After all, there’s not much for them to do; no queen to attend to, no brood to feed, no population growth and therefore no physical nest expansion needed.

This is what you need to consider when obtaining a queen ant:

  • Queen ants lay eggs - this means your colony will get larger.
  • A growing colony needs more and more food.
  • Once your colony become well established it may produce flying ants

If you have considered the above, and you are comfortable about getting a colony with a queen, then the next thing you will want to know is where can you get a queen ant from.

Where can I get a queen ant/ant colony?

If you want to get a queen ant, the absolutely golden rule is …

Do not dig up an ant’s nest!

This is extremely important. By digging up an ant nest you pose a great risk of destroying the entire colony, and possibly the queen herself, in the process. Ant nests are a wonder of insect architecture, and they are created with specific micro-environments in mind.  This is essential to the ants for colony survivability.

There are two ways to get a queen ant safely.  The first way is to wait until the mating season, and capture a newly mated queen.  The mating flights usually occur in the summer months, and we all know it’s happening as flying ants appear everywhere.  When you see flying ants taking to the air, give it a couple of hours, then go for a walk in your garden, or in the street.  Keep you eyes on the ground and you will start to see unusually large ants running about on the ground.  Chances are, these are newly mated queens looking for a new nesting site.  Pick her up, and  place her into your ant farm.

The second method is to purchase a ready made colony from one of the many websites that sell them.  Some species sell for only a few pounds/dollars/euros, whilst others sell for hundreds, or even thousands.  It all depends on the species and the size of the colony you want. 

Such sites are Ants UK, Antstore or Ants Kalytta.

My Ant farms

In the picture above you can see two of my set ups which use parts from two different sized starter kits. The one at the back consists of two large nesting boxes (covered in blue material to keep it dark inside the nest), which are connected by a short length of clear plastic tubing. The right-hand nesting box as you look at in the picture is connected to the large glass box you see on the far right. The set up in front of the blue one consists of one large nesting box attached to a small foraging box, again by a length of plastic tubing. These starter kits are available from AntsUK.com.

I have been keeping ants as pets for more than 20 years. At the most I have had 12 colonies, but today I have just three.

Contact Myrm

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My Ant Farms (Oct 19)
My current ant farms as of October 2019