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Getting Started with Ant Keeping

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So, you want to keep ants, have the space for it, and are ready to go, but have just one question: how? This is the guide for you!

At its most basic, to have an ant colony you need:

  • A queen
  • A nest
  • A foraging area
  • Some food
  • A place to hibernate them in the winter

If it seems pretty basic and easy, that's because it is! Now, there are a lot of different ways to go about obtaining each thing and different people have different opinions. My goal with this guide is to provide enough information to get started and be hopefully successful with any kind of ant. However, different species can have slightly different requirements, so be sure to read up on the one you specifically have!


Can't have a colony without a queen! To get a queen you can wither 1) buy her or 2) catch her.

1) Buying a queen

If you are looking to buy a queen, there are resources like the Ohio Ants Marketplace and the Ants Canada GAN Project that can hook you up with people selling queens or more established colonies. Typically, when you buy a queen she also has 10 workers and some brood. Queens can be a bit picky when they are starting a colony and can actually eat their brood if they are disturbed too much before this point. But, at about 10 workers, the queen and ants seem to transition out of founding mode and into colony mode and are more resistant to disturbances.

If you buy a queen, make sure she is native to Ohio. Ohio Ants has a list of native ants and Ant Maps is also an extensive resource to find out what native ants are. To be clear transporting queens across state lines or importing queens in ILLEGAL and can result in hefty fines or jail time. Plus, if non-native ants get loose, it can be an ecological disaster. Look no further than the invasive fire ants of the American south. 

2) Catching a queen

This is the exciting part! Different species fly at different times of year , but here are general rules of thumb:

  • Once temps get above 60F, generally sunny days after some rain are good times to look
  • You can look anywhere! Sidewalks are your friend! It's much easier to spot a queen on smooth white surface rather than a leaf pile. 
  • If you find a queen and she has wings, she is less likely to be fertile (I think I've heard some people report it's about a 30% chance of fertility).

The exact size and shapes of queens can very from species to species, but compared to workers queens generally:

  • Are overall larger
  • In proportion, larger thorax since she has wing muscles and will also have wing scars (little ridges towards the front)
  • In proportion, have a larger gaster


This picture includes one of the larger queens around: Camponotus pennsylvanicus. Not all queens are this big, but that's still the general shape you're looking for. Once you find her, scoop her up and take her home!

A Nest

What a nest is for your colony will change as they grow. It will start out as 1) a single, dark, moist chamber for a queen to lay her eggs and eventually transition to the classic 2) formicarium with many rooms and tunnels. 

1) Founding chamber/first nest

The easiest an most common initial home for your queen is the test tube setup. You'll need:

  • Test tube (Cheap on Amazon)
  • Cotton ball
  • Q-tip (or similar sterile thing)
  • water

Now to assemble:

  1. Rip cotton ball in half
  2. Fill tube with water somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3 of the way full
  3. Take half of cotton ball and insert into tube
  4. Use Q-tip to quickly ram cotton ball into water. If you go quick, an air pocket won't form. If you get an air pocket, it's not the end of the world though
  5. Gently pat cotton ball down with Q-tip until it is completely moist
  6. Add queen
  7. Seal entrance to tube with dry cotton ball.

Once you are done you should end up with something like this:


In the wild, queens dig out small chambers like this to start laying their eggs in. Moisture is important for the development of the eggs and is provided by the moist cotton. As the ants develop, drier areas might be preferred and the queen might move them towards the drier cotton side. Ants know better than you how to raise their young, so it's always good to give them options! Giving the queen a small room with a moist end and dry end lets her do her thing. And as you can see from the picture, this even works for large queens, like C. pennsylvanicus.

Now you place her in a dark area and leave her alone! You'll want to check your species, but many queens (fully cloistral ones) do NOT need to be fed during this time. Feeding them might even stress them out. They will be digesting their now useless wing muscles to raise their brood and get food once the first workers arrive. Semi-cloistral queens still like to forage, so you'll want to do the same setup, but instead of stealing the tube to cotton, attach it to a small foraging area. 

Depending on the time of year you collect her and the type of species, you might see eggs in a few weeks or several months. Eventually they will develop into workers and once the first workers arrive (nanitics) you can give them a foraging space and start feeding them!

As the colony grows, they will require larger and larger space. There are many sizes of formicariums available to purchase and you can also try to make some yourself! Each formicarium should have a "recommended number of workers". You don't want to give your ants something too large since they can't properly maintain it. One strategy is to buy a larger formicarium, but fill a lot of it with sterile sand or dirt. That way the colony is originally restricted to a small area and can dig out  what they need in the future.

A Foraging Area

At it's most basic, a foraging area is a place outside the nest that you put food in for them to gather. These are referred to as "Outworlds". It can be a simple as a tupperware container to as complex as you want it to be. Unless you want a natural set up, anything dry that the ants can't escape from will do. You want it to by dry to discourage ants from nesting there. Otherwise, there are plenty of options for 1) containers 2) decorations and 3) ant escape barriers. 

2) Containers

Really, anything will work - as long as it's clean. I mean, I wouldn't recommend an old gas can, but as long as you like looking at it and you can modify it in a way that works for you, then it's good. Tupperware containers, old glass jars (food jars), and critter carriers are common choices for containers.

2) Decorations 

Tile grout is probably the most common base to use since it's cheap and can give some weight to your outworld. This will help keep it still as you attach tubes or other things. You can also press things into the grout as it dries and the grout will keep them in place. For decorations, once again, you can use about anything as long as it's clean and dry. If you grab stuff from outside, you might want to dip them in some hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol to kill off any annoying bacteria for fungi. I personally like to use decorations from the pet industry (fish & reptiles) since they seem like a pretty safe bet and give a nice "natural look".

3) Ant barriers

There are two main categories of barriers for ants: a) stuff they can't walk over and b) stuff they physically can't get through.

a) If your container doesn't have a lid, then you need some kind of barrier your ants can't walk over - the slip off. Popular options are Fluon/PTFE (teflon) or a mix of rubbing alcohol and baby powder. Both mixtures can be applied to the last inch or so of your container and both have to be REAPPLIED as your ants dirty them up. They both have the same idea of making a slick surface that ants can't walk on. However, different species have slightly different feet and what works for one species may not work for another. You'll have to check your specific species. Rubbing alcohol and baby power can be found at a local grocery store and Fluon/PTFE can be found here: https://www.bioquip.com/search/DispProduct.asp?pid=2871A

b) If your container has a lid, then you can poke a hole in it and glue screen/mesh over the hole. This keeps the ants in, but lets air though. The size of mesh you'll want to use depends on your size of ant.

Here are some outworld examples: 

Re-purposed cosmetic jar:


Critter carrier outworld (mesh glued to inside of lid, you can see the old fluon barrier I'm going to remove):



Now that you have a foraging area, what food do you give your ants? Really, you just need to provide them with two things: 1) Protein and 2) Sugar

1) Protein

Beyond just needing protein for life, protein = eggs. Ants prefer insect proteins, with crickets and meal worms being easy to acquire and commonly offered. Any pet store that has reptiles will have crickets and meal worms at a minimum. A meal worm colony is also super easy to maintain - but that's for another time. Some ants will also eat nuts and seeds for protein, so feel free to experiment. Word of caution though - insects from outside are generally not recommend since they might have pesticides on or in them that can harm the ants. But if you're in a pretty chemical free area, you may not have problems.

Regardless of what protein you pick, you can give too much, so it's better to control how much and when you give it to your ants. Too much protein can build up in your ants and shorten their lifespan. To address this, people generally give a little protein every few days, or a lot once a week. In the early stages, a cricket leg might be enough for your colony, whereas later one you might need to throw a few crickets in there. 

2) Sugar

All sugar all the time. Always make sure your ants have a sugar source or are not out for very long. Common sugar sources include: honey (sometimes watered down), sugar water, humming bird nectar, and maple syrup. You can place small drops of honey on wax paper for starting colonies if you are worried about them getting stuck in it. Once a colony has a bit of workers, this isn't as much of an issue and you can use shells, milk carton lids, water bottle lids, or really anything that acts as a small bowl. There are also specialized feeders for ants like this one: https://www.ohioants.com/product/galileo-liquid-ant-feeder-feeding-kit-byformica/.


OK! You caught a queen, raised some workers and now it's fall. What do you do? Well, you live in Ohio, so you need to simulate winter. This part is completely natural and necessary for the ants and if you don't hibernate them, the queen may die early. Ants generally start slowing down anyway in the fall due to their own internal clocks, even if you have them in a warm space. To hibernate your ants, isolate them in their nest (detach it from the outworld, etc.) and move it to an area that can be around 40-50F in the winter. Common choices include: part of an unfinished basement, garage, or a wine cooler. Once your ants are in hibernation, let them hibernate! They're just like bears and sleep though winter. They don't need food or anything else, just a quite, cold, dark space. A good time to hibernate is from November to March, but different species need different hibernation lengths, so check your species. 

Once spring comes around, you can take your ants out of hibernation and let them wake up. If your ants look dead don't worry (yet)! Ants have a lot of defenses against the cold, and sometimes, it just takes a while to wake up. I've heard of some peoples colonies taking up to two weeks to get up and running again. So, like many of use, some colonies just aren't morning people.


And there you have it! The basics of ant keeping. I hope you find this helpful and feel free to ask any questions! I'll help out where I can. Happy Anting!

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