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Keeping and studying ants can be a rewarding experience. Wether you're interested in building a formicarium, finding and collecting ants, studying them or reading about studies others have undertaken, you will find much of what you need here. This guide aims to assist you in establishing a colony of Lasius niger or similar species in captivity. These are the cosmopolitan ant species (of the British Isles and elsewhere) and are suitable because they are commonly found near homes, are not threatened in the wild and are generally hardier and adapt to captivity better than their counterparts.

Other species which have similar lifestyles may be equally suitable and this guide will be applicable to these.

Mentions in this guide of outdoor conditions and temperatures pertain to a climate similar to the British Isles, although the guide itself is applicable to all regions with these species; just remember to adjust the metrics accordingly.

What you'll need

If you wish to keep a sustainable colony for prolonged study, you are going to need the following:

  • A queen ant of the species formely mentioned

  • A suitble container to observe the ants in (known as a formicarium; a vivarium designed for the study of ants)

  • A place indoors, away from pets, young children, out of direct sunlight, away from frequent vibrations, with a cool temperture in winter and a warm temperature in summer

Your formicarium

Your formicarium will vary depending on species of ant you manage to capture, and will grow in size and change in type as the colony expands. A queen or very small colony (up to 10 workers), requires a small, secure container which is transparent or has a transparent. Plastic tubing (bunged at both ends with cotton wool) or a test tube (bunged at one end) is ideal.

You might also consider a petri dish, a plastic container you might get takeaway food in, or even a plastic cup with cling film over the top. If it's not bunged with cotton will, it's going to need cotton wool inside with the queen. The cotton wool needs to be kept moist to provide drinking water and maintain relative humidity. If you're using tubing or a test tube, you can moisten the cotton wool regularly to regulate humidity, or you can do something clever with the cotton wool and create a water reserve (illustration to follow).

When can I find ants?

If you are lucky enough to be reading this during the warmest months of the year, then this is the ideal time to collect ants. In the UK and other places with a cooler climate in winter, you are unlikely to find a queen or small colony as an inexperienced ant collector. You are far better waiting until spring in the case of the UK.

Overall, the best time to get a queen is during the mating (nuptial) flights. In the UK this may take place at any date from May to October, and at any hour from very early morning until midnight. For the most part, metropolitan ant species (Lasius niger & Myrmica sp.) will take to the skies between mid July and mid August and more often than not, in the early evening.

The flights most often occur on the warmest, clammiest days, often following rain and lacking strong wind.

This is when you will see winged ants (alates or sexuals) taking to the skies. If you are lucky enough to witness this, check the ground nearby for queens. They can be found everywhere following the nuptial flights, and are differentiated from other ant castes by their size (usually much larger than the workers) and the lack of wings (females pull these off shortly after mating, becoming fertilised 'queens'). They may be hidden in grass, darting accross pavement, hiding under pebbles and plantpots, practicaly anywhere that conceals them from preadators in the short term.

If the nuptial flights have passed you by and it's now between mid August to the end of September, you may have to go further afield to get your starter colony.

Capturing queen ants

If you are in the field capturing queens, for ease of collection, you may wish to collect them all in a single container. I suggest something with sides at least 15cm high filled loosely with strips of kitchen role. This will hinder the ants escape if you are collecting many queens and will alleviate the need to keep opening and closing the lid. Ensure there are air holes on the lid which you will ultimately fit. The queens of niger and flavus will not fight in the short term.

Another good time to look for queens -if next summer is too long to wait for you- is a warm day in spring. Select a day that is unusually warm and a time of day when the sun has been shining for a few hours. This will increase the likelihood of finding a queen close to the surface. Find a fairly dry area in a clearing with lots of flattish rocks, branches, paving slabs etc to overturn, away from areas of heavy human traffic is often best. You may get lucky and find a queen this way. Check for any eggs and larvae that may already be present.

Otherwise, simply turn over stones and chance your luck. Red ants (Myrmica sp.) tend to be better for collecting entire colonies. Lifting a small sized stone may reveal a queen, dozens of workers and various brood. Try and collect as much as you can, but remember, these ants can sting! Summer is best as they are likely to be near the suface and you may be able to spot surface foragers.

Capturing established colonies

It is possible to capture established colonies, but for species (such as those talked about here) with hundreds to thousands of workers in a mature colony it is rare to be able to dig up an established nest and locate the queen. Additionally, there's a good chance this will damage the colonies survival prospects and you'll come away empty handed. Even if you are able to excavate the queen and parts of colony, they are less likely to survive the transition into a captive environment as a new queen would be.

An established Lasius flavus nest showing extensive tunnel networks.A queen that has spent years underground is likely to be acutely photosensitive. We also feel that a great deal of the pleasure derrived from keeping and observing ants comes from watching the colony mature from the single, founding queen.

For these reasons we would discourage the practice of digging up established nests.

In the begining: feeding and 'over-wintering'

You needn't and shouldn't feed your queen anything at first. You can watch her for a number of days out of curiosity, but as soon as possible, you should move her to a darkened place. Here she should stay until February.

Where you choose to 'over-winter' the queen should be dark (but not pitch black) and cool (ideally between 2 and 6°c). The idea here is to emulate outdoor winter conditions as they would be underground (or at least, undercover) to stimulate the natural hibernation-like behaviour of greatly reduced activity. At the same time, we don't want the cold spikes as the ants would experience in the outdoors, to reduce the fatality rate that would be the case in the wild. You want it to be dark enough for her to settle, but not so dark that she becomes completely photosensitive.

In the interim, ensure she has the appropriate humidity and access to water. She has fat reserves which are at least sufficient to see her through until the second generation of workers emerge from the pupal stage, and this won't be until the following spring.

Lasius niger eggs on the side of a petri dishThat said, you may want to give your colony a head start. If so, in March you can feed her a tiny droplet of sugar water or diluted honey, you can use a pin or toothpick to create a small droplet. Do this strictly as a one-off to give the queen a nutritional boost. The queen is bound to have eggs at this point and some of these eggs will have hatched into larva.

As we come into April and the mean daytime temperature outside begins to exceed 8°c, you can think about bringing your fledging colony into a warmer environment where a constant temperature above 14°c is maintained. This might be somewhat above the external temperature, but is preferable if rapid colony growth is desired. If you want to be precise and are able to ensure there is little fluctuation (such as with a low-voltage heat mat), plump for 28°c, but this should not be exceeded. Within reason, the warmer the temperature, the faster the shorter the time will be for the development of egg into adult worker.

The appearance of the first worker ant

Once the first worker has emerged from the pupal stage as an adult ant, you can start giving solid food. The first generation workers are small (known as nantics) and not many larva will yet be present, so they don't require a great deal of nutrition beyond what the queen is still able to provide.

Give another tiny droplet of sugar water or diluted honey, as before. Give only as much as will be consumed in less than 12 hours after it is discovered by the ants. If it is consumed straightaway, you can give slightly more. A week or so on from this, you can give a small, solid food item. A good choice is a fruit fly or aphid. The food item should already be dead. An effective way to kill a fruit fly or aphid is to place the insect in the freezer for around 2 or 3 minutes and then leave it to thaw for about 30 minutes, before providing it to the ants.

As the colony establishes

A good rule of thumb is to give no more than a single fruit fly or aphid sized food item at the emergence of each worker. Tiny droplets of sugar water or diluted honey can be given very infrequently in addition to the solid food items.

It's so much easier to give a little at first and add more later, than it is to try and remove unconsumed items that have started to go mouldy. Mould will pose a risk to your ants, so try and avoid it developing in the first instance.

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