Q and A
Tar Heel Ants Ant Keeping Question & Answer Page
Q and A Session from 12/18/21
Q: I just received the package with a Mini Hearth formicarium and Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, what are some tips to get started if I know nothing?
A: First we have a video on the Mini Hearth, more or less an overview at first, but it does go into some details about it as well. This will give you a good visual on the formicarium and how it works, with some ants inside of it as well.
Q & A session 1/15/18
Q1. To provide water, does the water well (of the water tower) need to be filled to the top, or is water available somehow even when the water level is lower?
A1. Water evaporates up and through the screen into the air to keep the formicarium more humid. Ants do not need a lot of drinking water if they are kept in a humid environment. An ants anatomy makes them (some better than others) very adept at holding moisture inside at higher humidity levels without constantly having to absorb moisture like, for instance, we do. In fact some queens can go many months without drinking water. I still try to leave droplets from time to time in case they need water to drink (and sometimes you will see them rush to drink water droplets), but the water tower is not meant for that purpose. Use liquid feeders and food such as apple slices and honey-water for worker ants to offer them water.
Q2. Would you recommend using the nestmate as an airway or for extra humidity (for Aphaenogaster lamellidens)? I was looking at your videos on YouTube and you had a colony of this species that discarded their trash by a nestmate that was for ventilation due to the dryness.
I was looking for a tutorial on how to clean a nest while the ants are in it…
A2. I would use the nestmate as a vent for Aphaenogaster lamellidens and other “messy” ant species that tend to store trash nearby. If you see them being very clean and carrying trash out to the foraging area, you can change that later on as needed.
On a side note, as a matter of opinion from personal observation, the entire Aphaenogaster genus can be considered “messy” for ant pets but nonetheless make great pets!
Cleaning out a nest with ants in it is difficult at best but not completely impossible either. The Nucleus-style habitats with two sides are the best for that. You can move the ants away from the side you need to clean and then remove the glass. Stop up the central access tunnel to prevent ants from travelling back while you are performing maintenance. When you have ants inside a formicarium with only one section, you either move them out of the nest temporarily or try one of the other two methods:
- First, place the formicarium with them inside in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. After the temperature drops, they slow down and most species do not move at all or very slow to react. Take them out of the refrigerator, remove the glass, and quickly brush out trash from the chambers. They wake up fast so this takes good planning and execution in advance. I recommend doing this all INSIDE a larger bin so any escaped workers can be left alone while the cleaning is done and then replaced back inside the foraging area once the glass is placed back on. It may be better to slide the glass on from the top or a side instead of letting it snap into place. This is a little more controlled and helps prevent ants from becoming trapped in between the two surfaces when replacing the glass.
- Get a large open container and put the formicarium down inside (as mentioned also in “1”). Make sure you apply (fluon or another barrier) around the top of the open container to keep escape ants from crawling out. Take off the glass and then clean it. Let the ants run around like crazy for a few minutes until they settle down a little. Now clean out the chambers with a brush and do whatever other maintenance you need. You just need to be really cautious with your movements and especially patient when putting the glass back. This entire project can take 30 minutes to an hour the first couple of times you do it, later it becomes much easier with some experience under your belt. It may be even more helpful to put the colony in the refrigerator for a few minutes (if the larger container fits in yours of course) before trying to put the glass back.
I do not recommend trying part 1 or 2 with ants that sting. In that case moving them completely out into a second habitat is best for cleaning maintenance.
Q3. Also I was wondering is the water tower sufficient for letting the ants drink or should I provide with separate drinking water?
A3. I would provide most of the water they need through foods such as apples, pure natural honey, and juicy insects such as mealworms and crickets (fruit flies are a great source of food but they do not have a lot of water content). Water is ok to offer through a liquid feeder or a few drops on a dish but it does boost the humidity in the foraging area which can cause mold if you do not clean the trash regularly. If you keep the water tower full (not 100% full but at least with some water in it) it will keep the humidity very high (80-100% targeted in areas around the water tower, and less the farther away you get from the water towers) depending on the conditions of your home. Water may be available for ants to drink from the screen but that is the purpose of the nestmates we offer mainly.
Q4. I just recently bought a Mini Hearth and I was wondering how do I put my queen ant into the Mini Hearth without stressing her too much and just dumping her in there? She’s in a test tube set up right now.
A4. I would place her in the refrigerator for a few minutes to cool her down (and subsequently calm her down) before attempting to move her. Move her out into a second holding container first. Once she is secure and sage, then move her eggs into the Mini Hearth and place them on top of the water tower. Now move her inside the Mini Hearth. This is of course easier with larger ants with larger eggs. With very small ants you may need to wait until the brood is either larvae or pupae so they are easier to move. Featherweight forceps, piano wire, and moist Q-tips are all great for moving eggs. Moistening the tip of the wire and Q-tips is also helpful when transferring eggs.
Q5. If the queen ant isn't fertile, how long will she live? How can I tell if she's fertile?
A5. That depends on the species, but typically you would see her laying eggs within 1-2 weeks after capture (most often much sooner and sometimes within a couple of days) if they fly in the spring. Some queens fly in the late summer and fall and will overwinter with no eggs. These queens would then lay their first eggs and start a colony the following spring. The best indication that a queen is fertile is if she drops her wings, but this is not 100% and should just be used as being simply an increase in the odds she is mated and not a guarantee. Dropping wings plus laying eggs quickly after capture is as close to 100% you will get without actually seeing her first workers arrive. The first eggs of a queen of some species sometimes can be infertile and turn out to be males if she did not mate successfully. This is general knowledge but exceptions are possible with such a diverse set of sizes and behaviors among the many thousands of ant species worldwide.
Q6.Could you suggest a good general size for the nest? Is it a better idea to get the Medium ant size and then just let smaller species use it or would it be better to put a medium species is a small size container or would they be too cramped?
A6. Small ant species generally have workers 2-5mm and a queen no larger than 8mm. Medium-sized ants are generally workers that are 6-8 mm and a queen no larger than 8-10mm. Large ants are a bit different. Some genus such as Messor have very large queens (16-18mm) but workers can be much, much smaller particularly the nanitics (or minims). As far as ordering a nest from Tar Heel Ants, these are still large species because the nest must fit the queen first. This does give us an opportunity to make the most of the available space when making your nest, so mention a species name if at all possible when ordering. Most other species considered large have workers 8-12mm (not many 12mm but some) and queens from 14-22mm. This includes all larger Camponotus species. The Formica genus is a little different as it is about 80-20 larger species as far as what people tend to keep in captivity, but some the 20% that people keep are smaller and would be better suited as medium sized.
As you can see it is difficult to find a nest that suits all, but medium would be the best choice with a note mentioning you do not have a species targeted. In this case I can make it suitable for medium sized ants, but also include some larger and smaller areas as well with little impact on usable nest space.
Q7: I'm still doing research to make sure I'm well prepared for my first colony. After reading about the hazards of buying too large a formicarium for a colony I'm now looking into an Atom Nest for carpenter ants. Would there be a way to block off areas of a fortress to make it smaller and then unblock those areas as the colony grows?
A7: In my honest opinion, the Mini Hearth is the best founding formicarium for most species. We have different versions of the Mini Hearth for different species and you can view these on our product pages. I would recommend the Mini Hearth over the Atom nest (removed temporarily for revamping as of 2020). So to answer the first part, the Atom Nest is not what I would recommend for starting especially for these larger ants.
The dangers of using a large nest depends greatly on the species, size and layout of that nest, as well as things like what you’re feeding them (and how much at one sitting). Vastly out-sizing your colony would never be a good investment of money unless your goal is to also have a "show" formicarium as well or you are doing some sort of project that requires this setup. In these cases I occasionally will build people formicaria that have some areas blocked off for later expansion so that the ants cannot access all areas of the nest at once. The Fortress is not one of these that can be blocked off. We also have several of these as normal products like the Nucleus formicaria (and many sizes of these). One side of the smallest Nucleus is 4x6” (100mm x 150mm) and the Fortress is 4x4"(100mm x 100mm) so again the Fortress for one queen and a few workers is pretty large, but for how long? That depends on luck, the species, and you’re care of them. We also try to pack as many features and use a thoughtful layout to help you control your habitat (read further...).
The majority of the nests people use do not have removable glass or tops. They are home-made or purchased from elsewhere. All of our habitats have the removable tops and removable glass panels. Example: You start a queen and a small colony off in a Fortress. Later, they want to use a specific area for trash inside the nest. Now you can use that removable glass feature strategically to remove the trash. How else do we help you deal with that using the features of our formicaria?
Nestmates are one of the most important features of Tar Heel Ants formicaria. On the top right of the Fortress is a nestmate port. When used as a vent-nestmate, this area can be kept dryer than other locations inside the nest. This is where ants will likely store the trash. They are smart! If they are able to march the trash up to the top where the nestmate is, then this is a good spot for it when removing the glass and cleaning. You can just slide the glass down a little, and remove the trash without causing a lot of trouble with your colony. Putting them in the refrigerator to slow down their movements for 30 minutes to an hour will help also. The nestmate is positioned at the very top of the nest away from the water tower. Since the water tower is where the queen and brood will make their home and the entrance to the foraging area at the bottom nearby (part of the design), the worker ants (like those in my own Fortress nests) will then use the foraging area for the trash because it is easier for them. This is ideal for you as an ant keeper as you have the most access to trash removal there. Underground in a wild ant colony, taking trash up and out of the nest is not always done. Ants use a trash chamber and then fill it in with dirt to keep it from being a problem for the colony. The Fortress was designed to combat the problem of trash storage for ant keepers and has worked very well for this purpose during our testing of the habitat.
The Fortress is simply not large enough to block off areas. You would be better off to purchase two mini hearths (which one large chamber two Mini Hearths together are similar in total size to one Fortress), and connect one later when you needed. Again, using the features of the fortress like nestmates, removable glass, etc. The size should not be overwhelming for a small colony. They are not far from their foraging grounds either which for some species is important because they seem to get “lost” in larger habitats. Remember, the first workers are nanitics and much smaller and less capable in many ways than older generation workers.
Other nest designs such as the Pinnacle nests (without specific modifications) I do not recommend beginners use a queen or small colony in at all. These also include larger sizes of the Nucleus. While people have successfully started colonies in these from a single queen, it is a lot more work and expense up front for what is needed Again, this comment is not to discourage or insult those who feel this is what they want, just experience and personal tastes speaking through these words. Out of all my ant colonies I try to begin and keep, less than 50% have succeeded. Each year that number increases, but that is with years of experience. It is fun to watch a colony grow from using a single chamber to filling up the entire nest, admittedly! My Aphaenogaster lamellidens colony is a good example of this as they went from occupying a single chamber (they had 40-50 workers and a queen) to now taking up an entire side of a 4x8 nest. I cleaned out this nest several times by moving the colony to another area, and removing the glass and cannot wait to see them fill up this entire nest and be ready to move out into something larger!
We do make all different sizes of nests. This is for you to find one that fits your personal strategies best as well as match them to the ants needs as well. We are happy to discuss a custom design with your input.
Q8. Do colonies continuously grow or do they level off as they've achieved criticality, so to speak?
A8. No, colonies do not grow without breaks. They will grow in spurts, particularly when they are young. These spurts are more difficult to see as a colony gets larger. In the first year of a Camponotus spp. queen’s cycle, she will lay 2-3 batches of new eggs and then go weeks or months without laying any eggs at all. Each batch of eggs will take 6-12 weeks to become workers. Not all of the eggs will actually become workers. In one year, from the time a Camponotus chromaiodes (for example) queen is caught to the following spring, an average colony would have 10-20 workers with some being much less and some more. Other genus have different growth rates of course, but that is just to give an idea of how much ants can grow. The biggest growth spurts come around mid-summer of the first year when the second "wave" of eggs are becoming workers and also late spring/early summer of the second year. These times will be adjusted depending on when the queen flies (the later they fly in the spring/summer, the later the growth spurts etc.). The colony should be kept in cold temperatures during the winter for 4-5 months, ideally in a location (such as a refrigerator) that is not below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Q9. How many ants would be considered a small colony and how long would the Fortress formicarium last before becoming overcrowded?
A9: Labeling an ant colony “small” depends on the species and their biology, but for an ant keeper it usually is any first year colony. Camponotus species would be 1-30 workers. Even within that range there are vastly different behaviors you will see as a colony of that specific size for each species. For a Lasius species, a colony of 1-40 is a small colony. For Solenopsis invicta or Tetramorium caespitum, a small colony is up to several hundred at which point you should be preparing for a big jump in population with a larger nest ready hopefully. For the Fortress, it would be large enough for about 2 years for a colony larger species ants within the Camponotus genus. This is with optimal conditions. For Lasius, about the same time I would estimate but you will have many more workers in total numbers due to their small size in comparison. For Solenopsis invicta,Tetramorium caespitum and other fast growing species, about 1 year.
Q10: When I scooped up some of the loose dirt to capture some workers, there were 2 alates in the mix, one appeared to be male (small head and smaller body than the other) and 1 female. I placed them in separate containers. I assume that I should let them go outside?
A10: Letting them go will not help them achieve their goals in life (which is mating). They will need specific routines from the workers and environmental queues to successfully fly and mate on a mating flight. You can do this on days the species is flying which should be soon (still they most likely will not begin their mating flight without the colony), but most likely these ants will die and never have the chance to mate without beginning in their colony This is near to impossible to achieve for a captive colony. If you let them go they will simply hide somewhere or become food for other animals. I would just keep them with the colony as they can be used as food for the colony (Yikes!).
Q11: What are your suggestions for formicaria for the following ant colonies:
a. Camponotus castaneus queen and brood
b. Solenopsis invicta small colony with 10-15 workers
a. I think for Camponotus castaneus I have had better results using the Mini Hearth style habitats (with a "ceiling") for this species. The Inception Chamber would be another good option due to size and form-fitting tunnels. Make sure you order a large species habitat for these ants. Both provide the same space for them to nest and grow, but this species grows slowly so it would be suitable for them for a year to 1.5 years approximately.
b. For the Solenopsis invicta colony, you have your hands full there! They can grow amazingly fast so I would get something a little larger like a Fortress Type II (always need a Type II nest for this species with us due to their ability to dig through soft stone). These start around $65 but you will not be sorry you got something larger down the road. The Fortress also has two expansion ports for expanding to larger colonies as well. Despite them being small ants (and some workers are very small to tiny…) I would choose the medium species option for a colony of this stage. They will need the extra space for brood piles.
Q12 and A12: (mutliple questions and answers about Camponotus sp.)
q1. Can a Camponotus castaneus queen make it through 3/4 inch tubing if I try to let them move to the mini hearth on their own?
a1. Yes. All large ants can fit through the 3/4" tubing.
q2. Or should I cool them down and move them myself?
a2, For small colonies especially it is very important to let them move on their own unless it is absolutely imperative they are moved immediately (ie. colony health is threatened...)
q3. About how big will the colony get before it outgrows the mini hearth?
a3. Camponotus sp. of the larger variety(like Camponotus castaneus)...an average of 25-30 workers (this usually takes 1-1.5 years from a founding queen). The size of the brood pile for a colony this size is very large usually so I recommend moving them or begin moving them around this size. One thing to note is that during the winter period (diapause...) a colony of this size will be just fine in a Mini Hearth. They would need to be moved out after the diapause period prior to the larvae they overwinter growing.
q4. I have a Casita that I when I ordered it I selected medium for the size ants. Will it someday be adequate for them? If not I can save it for a different colony. I love the way it turned out. I was initially planning on building my own but came across Tarheel ants and what you make is so good I will never have a reason to build my own. THANK YOU! :)
a4. Medium sized formicaria (species- medium sized) are usually adequate homes for smaller and larger species. Take a look carefully at the layout and make sure you think the queen can make it to the water tower area. If you are certain she cannot you need to purchase a formicarium for large species.
q5. Last question, if the room temperature is kept 70 to 72 degrees, do I need to apply heat to a section of the formicarium?
a5. This is a little on the cool side for Camponotus development. Further north in Canada and upper areas of the U.S. you may have some species that can grow well in that range of temperatures. As a rule I keep them in the mid to upper 70s at a minimum during the growth season.
Q & A about caring for Pogonomyrmex occidentalis