So you’ve decided to keep ants as pets. You’re interested in watching their eusocial behaviour from up close. You want to see a colony grow from scratch into a cosmopolitan society consisting of thousands of individuals. Maybe the fascinating world of ants is completely new for you and your curiousity came out of the blue. But you don’t really know where to start. Don’t worry, because this guide will help you to successfully start an ant colony and introduce you to the world of ant keeping. Keep in mind that keeping ants is very rewarding, but it’s not hard and doesn’t have to be expensive at all. This guide is aimed at species for beginners. Follow the steps in this guide and you will be just fine!

Preparations before getting your ants

Of course, my very first recommendation would be that you prepare by expanding your knowledge about ants. I have written an article about basic ant biology to help you out. Keeping ants wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t know how they reproduce. That’s how a colony starts anyway! Also, if you don’t know what certain words mean, check the section about terminology in the same article.

The next step is to put ready all equipments. Here is a checklist of stuff you will definitely need:

  • Test tubes (this is where you will house your starting colony – I know it sounds weird, but trust me)
  • Cotton balls
  • Small container
  • Unperfumed talcum powder
  • Alcohol (70% will suffice)
  • Ant food

Go get this stuff before you even obtain an ant colony (or queen). It shouldn’t cost you more than a few dollars. Don’t go and immediately buy expensive stuff. If you really want to spend a lot of money, you can do it later anyways. Start cheap, so you won’t regret spending all your savings on fancy ant equipment if your colony fails to survive. Read further to understand why you need the random stuff listed above.

Making your first artificial nest

Before you get ants, you need something to keep them in. This is often called an ‘ant farm’, but we will refer to it as a formicarium (like an aquarium, only for Formicidae, or ants). A formicarium consists of two major parts: a nest and a foraging area. I often see beginners make the same mistake: they want a big, awesome-looking formicarium, with many nest chambers and tubes and a huge foraging area. But there is really no need for all that. You might have noticed that ants are actually tiny creatures. They don’t need a lot of space. At least up to a hundred ants will thrive perfectly in a test tube. So that’s exactly what we are going to do. We are going to house our ants in a test tube. That’s right, the test tube will be their artificial nest.

It might sound boring, but trust me (and trust most other ant keepers), this is without doubt the best way to start an ant colony. It’s cheap, it’s expendable, and it creates perfect conditions for colonies if prepared correctly. They also provide the ant keeper easy and clear visibility of his or her ants. You don’t want to keep your ants in a sand formicarium, or you will never see them back again (they tend to hide). What’s the point of keeping ants if you can’t see them? Furthermore, providing a small colony with a formicarium that’s too large will cause your ants to dump their waste in an empty section of their nest, where you can’t reach to remove it and where the waste will surely mold, ruining your formicarium. Make the nest size right and your ants will keep their nest clean themselves.

When your colony outgrows the test tube, there are several other methods to build a formicarium. I will write about that in the near future (subscribe if you’d like to get a notification). But for now, just stick with the test tube.

So how does one create such a test tube nest? Well, it’s very simple:

  1. Get your stuff together.
  2. Fill the test tube with tap water.
  3. Push a cotton ball halfway through.
  4. Remove excess water. Done.
Filling a test tube
Preparing a test tube is easy: (1) You’ll need a test tube, a cotton ball and something like a stick. (2) Fill the test tube with water. (3) Use the stick to push the wet cotton ball halfway through. (4) Remove excess water. Your first ant nest is done!

That’s it. Your artificial nest is now ready to be used. Why it’s made this way? Because ants need water in their nest. Not only can they drink from the water reservoir you just created, but their brood also needs a certain humidity in order to survive. It might take some experimentation to get it right (like everything in ant keeping). If you use too little cotton, the test tube might flood, drowning your ants.

You might want to cover the test tube with aluminium foil to make it dark for the ants (they like that). You can even close the test tube off with another cotton ball. This way, you can carry it around. For example when you catch or buy ants and want to bring them home. Consider it a Poké Ball. You will catch and house all your ant species in your “Poké Ball”. Gotta catch ’em all!

Attaching a foraging area

The test tube will serve as a artificial nest, but ants need to come out of their nest in order to gather food. In the wild, they have the whole world to forage (search) for food. In captivity, we must provide them with an foraging area or “outworld”. This is the part of the formicarium where you will offer your ants their food and where they will get it to bring it back into their nest. An artificial foraging area is nothing more than a small container where you can stick your hand in to feed the ants and to remove waste. Just place the test tube in a container and you are ready to go. Your beginners’ formicarium is now finished.

Beginner's formicarium
This is how the formicarium of every beginner should look like. It’s simple, but highly efficient.

Preventing your ants from escaping

You might have noticed that the container in the picture above is not closed off with a lid. “But aren’t all my ants going to walk out of their formicarium?”, I hear you ask. You would be right if the ant keepers wouldn’t have already thought of that. This is where the talcum powder and the alcohol finally come to use. Mix both to obtain a thin paste and smear it gently across the upper walls of the container (a paint brush works fine). The alcohol quickly evaporates and the talcum powder will remain there to form a barrier to your ants. Most ant species can’t climb up the talcum powder covered walls, because the particles will – along with the ant – fall off when touched. Don’t make the paste too thick, otherwise the talcum powder will be too dense and your ants will still be able to walk across it.

Applying talcum powder
This is how to apply talcum powder: (1) You will need talcum powder, alcohol, and a paintbrush. (2) Mix talcum powder and alcohol. Don’t make it too thick. (3) Apply on walls of foraging area. (4) Wait until dry. Done!

There are other methods to prevent your ants from escaping, like paraffin oil or Fluon, but these are harder to obtain, so I’d recommend experimenting with talcum powder.

I hear you thinking, “why all the trouble, why not just close the container with a lid?”. There are two main reasons why a lid wouldn’t work on the foraging area of a formicarium:

  1. The foraging area will also be the place where the ants drop their waste. Prey carcasses, dead ants and everything else will be there, waiting for you until you clean it up. Considering that the humidity in the nest and probably also in the foraging area will be relatively high, closing the foraging area with a lid would obviously cause molding and stench. Keep the lid off, so the foraging area can get some frash air.
  2. When your colony grows to serious sizes, ants will be abundant all over the foraging area. Their numbers will be so high, that you wouldn’t be able to lift the lid and feed them without letting dozens of ants escape. The talcum powder prevents them from escaping while you leisurely provide them with food.

Getting your queen

Now that your formicarium is ready, you need a queen (or female). Never get workers without a queen. Get a queen with some workers. Also, don’t buy a female without workers if you don’t want to lose your money, as there is no garantuee that she’s fertilized and will be able to lay eggs. If you want to start from scratch (and you should, because it’s fun), catch your own female that has no workers yet. If she fails to found a colony, at least the attempt was free. Catch multiple females and one of them will most likely succeed.

But in the end, you need a queen. The queen lays eggs and without her your colony won’t grow and ultimately will die. Read the basic ant biology article to understand why. I have also written an entire article in which you can read how to get and start an ant colony. The article explains and reviews the different methods on obtaining a queen (including buying one).

Wondering which species you should get? I recommend Lasius niger. This species is very resistant to stress. It will most likely survive many mistakes beginners make. In addition, the ants are rather aggressive and the colony grows very fast. And last but not least: they are harmless. They can barely bite you, can’t sting, and are not pest ants. This species is also abundant in most countries of the northern hemisphere. If you live in Europe or in the United States, they shouldn’t be hard to find at all.

Starting your ant colony

Once you got your female, she has to found a colony. I assume that you have caught a fertilized female and that she didn’t create any offspring yet. In my opinion, this is the most interesting way to start a colony. Let’s say you have a Lasius niger female. You should now place the queen-to-be female in her artificial nest (the test tube with water reservoir) and leave her alone. You don’t have to feed her, because she’s loaded with sufficient nutrients to raise the first generation of worker ants. She will most likely lay eggs. It will then take about 45 days until the first workers come out. At this moment, the queen is depleted of nutrients, so that the workers must search for food in the foraging area. It is now the ant keeper’s duty to provide the ants with food.

Ant keeping
Three of my colonies, years ago, in the test tube setup. Old photos, but they show you the idea. On the left: Messor barbarus (up) and Lasius niger with Lasius fuliginosus (down). On the right: Lasius niger, actually my first colony ever.

Feeding your ants

You must be very proud now of your colony. “It’s time at last! I have raised a colony. But what to feed my ants?” Ants need two main nutrients: sugar and protein (or amino acids). The colony needs protein for the queen to produce eggs and for the larvae to grow, while sugar is needed as a energy source, mainly for the worker ants. You can offer these nutrients in several ways, but remember that ant nutrition must be liquid, because most ants can’t consume solid food (there are exceptions however). Below are two list of possible sources of these nutrients that ants can eat.

Protein sources:

  • Insects (e.g. fruit flies, crickets, cockroaches), other arthropods (e.g. spiders)
  • Eggs, meat
  • Free amino acids, protein whey
  • Honeydew surrogate

Sugar sources:

  • Sugar water (sugar solution)
  • Honey, honey water and maple syrup
  • Fruit (apples, oranges, grapes)
  • Honeydew surrogate

I would personally not recommend anything that spoils easily, such as eggs, meat or fruit. Honey isn’t recommended either, because it’s too sticky, causing ants to get stuck and die. I never use these sources for my colonies. For beginners I would recommend a combination of sugar water and insects. Regarding insects, fruit flies are great for small colonies.

You might have noticed that honeydew surrogate is in both lists. It is a solution of sugars and amino acids invented by Dutch ant keepers on, and its composition is designed to imitate honeydew (the sugary liquid excreted by aphids), the natural sugar source of many ant species. You can find the recipe here. I personally prefer and use a combination of sugar water, honeydew surrogate, crickets and cockroaches for my ants.

You have to try for yourself to determine the quantities that have to be given. A starting colony with only one generation of workers will suffice with a tiny drop of sugar water and a fruit fly a day. If you overfeed your ants, they will just leave it there for you to clean up. Slightly overfeeding won’t be a problem if you just make sure you keep the foraging area clean. On the contrary, if you underfeed your ants, the growth rate of your colony will decrease. Once a colony is quite large, you will be surprised of how much ants can eat.

Myrmica rubra
Myrmica rubra drinking sugar water

The ant keeping starts

Congratulations! You have succesfully raised your first colony. Even the founding of the colony was a great experience. But now you’re an ant keeper, it really starts. You can enjoy seeing your colony grow, interact, and hunt. You will see how the ants communicate with each other and how they work together in perfect harmony. Your efforts will be rewarded by this great play of tiny creatures. And that’s not all. There are many other beautiful species out there. Ant keeping is a hobby that never bores, because life’s simply too short to exploit it.

If you have succesfully raised a colony, please subscribe to ANTfinity to stay updated and for further readings. Share your experiences with us, so we can all learn from each other. Good luck and enjoy your ant colony.

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49 thoughts on “Ant Keeping Guide for Beginners

  1. Thanks for your brilliant idea and encouragement for beginners. I’m doing this with my 3 yo daughter. She’s the one excited about ant farming. Wish us luck!

  2. i just started ant keeping it is so satisfying knowing that you started a colony from a single queen. and cause queens live for 30 years i decided to name mine!

  3. I don’t know what type of queen I have caught and cannot find any websites that show her species. Could you possibly identify her.

  4. Thank you for all this information. I was wondering on the size of the containers. I am buying them online and aspect would help. How long do you keep them in that type of containment? When do you add soil?
    Is it too late in the year to get wild caught ants in Ky? The temps have been as low as about 30 degrees F.
    Thanks, my daughter is wanting to start an environment with ants and has for a little. She decided to use the Science fair as a great reason behind it :)

    1. the containers have to be at least the length of a test tube, although don’t make it too big, otherwise you can’t reach all the waste. I used a large ice cream tube as my beginners forage area. it also depends on the size of your colony. In terms of time, I would say you keep them in the containment until the colony grows to the population of 100; that’s when a bigger containment is needed. it is not necessary to add soil, the ants are fine with or without.

  5. My son has been slightly ” brainwashed” by the Antscanada website and wants their starter kit for Christmas. He is 11 and I’ve showed him “kid sets and he is adamant that it has to be the Antscanada kit. It seems like your set up would be much simpler and much less expensive. I also am slightly confused by all the choices of starter kits on Antscanada – it seems each kit has a different style of nest configuration. We live in New Jersey and he would try to capture a queen in the spring or purchase from a local ant farmer. Any advice you could provide would be helpful. Maybe if there is another source for simple ant farming kits or supplies for the test tubes etc. Thanks

    1. Ants Canada is on Facebook, they have videos showing they’re setups for keeping ants. (I was confused too at all the setups until seeing the videos)

    2. Nothing beats a “test-tube-in-a-container setup”, you can get test tubes on eBay, but you could try asking your local pharmacist as well.

  6. Awesome guide!
    So i just recently started with ant kepping and i have caught 4 argentine ant (Linepithema humile) queens that are now in their first and second generations living in a humble “straw” setup with no outworld yet.
    I’m thinking about moving them to a neater test tube setup, also thinking about merging the colonies so i can have 2 colonies with 2 queens each(i have read this species can do that)

    This are small ants, so how can i have the test tube in a place where i could see them closer but still connected to the outworld?
    Also, can you move the test tube around or remove the foil covering it, while the testube is the foraging area?

    I have also caught a carpenter ant queen (Camponotus mus) a week ago and it’s laying eggs already. I’ve having trouble finding information on how to take care of them. Do you have any idea if the info from your caresheet in Camponotis ligniperda is applicable to this species?

  7. Hi,
    Everywhere I guides to keep an ant colony (though I’m totally fascinated by these little girls) I can’t stop wondering, how do you stop ? I mean, not everybody can keep them for life. When you reach a significant size of colony you can’t just leave them outdoor or say “I will exterminate all my babies”.

    1. Well, the queen has a maximum lifespan so she will die someday. But queens of some species have been known to reach an age of 20 years. In case you want to stop, the most humane way to do so is to freeze them. If it’s a native species you could also set them free (but never do so with exotic species!).

  8. i have two questtions one i have an ant colony with ten workers and a queen when they reach a certain size i wnat to watch them dig in a soil setup but i wouldnt be able to see if the colony is still thriving is there a solution.
    and question would it work if i put an unfertilized queen ant and workers form the same colony

    1. a good solution for if u want to have a natural soil nest but still want to see activity is to place a slightly smaller container within the desired nest container, so that there is much reduced total area for the ants to make tunnels. whilst this reduces the total area the ants can expand into it also means they will be more inclined to build their tunnels where you can see them, up against the glass

  9. I just started ant keeping hobby and found Odontomachus bauri queen and Camponotus maculatus queen. Btw, how to catch the fruit flies for odontomachus queen?

    1. They are granivorous, so they mainly require seeds (dandelion seed, grass seed, bird seed). Complement with honeydew surrogate, sugar water and insects (e.g. fruit flies, crickets, Blaptica dubia). Be careful with liquid food sources, because they drown easily. Provide on cotton to prevent drowning. they just need a couple of seeds to chew on.

  10. Fantastic article and site, so informative. I have a question about insects for my small ant colony. I like the idea of fruit flies for them as they are small but how do you get them? Is it a case of leaving food out then trapping them or is there something specific you can use. For a small colony I won’t need many.

    Thank you in advance for your help.

  11. I caught 4 potential queens and workers. Should I isolate the queens and get rid of the workers? Or put them (1 potential queen and a few workers) in the same tube setup.

    1. search the places where you spot worker ants walking around. there’s bound to be a queen somewhere around.

  12. I’ve started to prepare an ant colony. I haven’t got a queen yet, but i’m getting there. I’m stuck on the talcum powder/alcohol layering bit. what is the proportion of talcum powder to alcohol? also, my talcum powder is a bit perfumed; will it still work?

    1. Ok, I figured out the talcum powder bit. I also captured what i think is a queen, but I still don’t know if it is a queen.

      1. 1:1 ratio is perfectly fine, but you can vary a bit according to your own preference. Make sure the paste is thin, because when you apply a thick layer, small ants can still walk the talcum barrier.

        You can recognize if it’s a queen by looking at the size of her thorax.

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