If you want to start an ant colony, you must know how to get an ant queen. A colony won’t survive without the egg-laying queen. There are several ways to obtain an ant colony with a queen, but some are better than others. Make sure you start with a beginner species that is easy to take care of. Lasius niger is one of the greatest species to start with. In this article, all methods to start an ant colony will be discussed. After reading this article, you will be able to obtain and start your own colony in a way that fits you best.
Capture a swarming female
Capturing a swarming female is probably the best method to obtain a colony with a queen for most species. There are several advantages to this method. First of all, starting your very first colony with a queen you captured yourself is the greatest way to get involved in the world of ant keeping. Furthermore, it is free, easy and educational.
So, how do you capture a female? You will need to understand how a queen looks like and how most ant species reproduce, which you can learn by reading the section about reproduction in my article about basic ant biology. In summary, females and males swarm during the nuptial flights (mostly during the summer) and mate in the sky, whereupon the female will land, shed of her wings and start excavating her very first nest to lay eggs. It is up to you to catch the female after she has mated, but before she has dug herself in. You will see such a female running on the ground without wings. That’s the ant you have to capture! Once captured, the female is best placed in a test tube with a water reservoir, where she will lay her eggs and nourish them, until the first, smaller-than-normal workers arrive within two months. Until that moment, you don’t have to do anything. The queen will take care of her offspring. However, after the first adult workers arrive, you should attach a foraging area to the test tube nest and start feeding them.
Some of the species suitable to start a colony with using this method are Lasius niger, Lasius flavus, Messor barbarus, Camponotus vagus and Tetramorium caespitum.
Dig out a colony
This method is suitable for some species, but not for most. Please realize that you will do a lot of damage to existing colonies if you use this method, with a great chance of failing to find the queen, making the effort in vain. Having said that, this method will work great on some polygynic species (species with more than one queen per colony), so it is worth considering.
The principle is very simple: you localize a colony, start digging and make sure to find at least one queen and capture a bunch of workers to go with the queen(s). There are several methods to increase the probability of finding a queen. For example, when you start digging with a garden scoop, you can transfer the sand, dirt, humus or whatever you dig in, to a white bucket, and start looking for a queen in there. If she’s not there, you repeat the process until you find a queen. I once collected a colony of Myrmica rubra by taking a piece of rotten branch home. There were eight queens in there! Some species nest inside items like this instead of in the ground. Temnothorax nylanderi, for example, nests in acorns. If you find a rotten acorn with a colony in it, you have yourself a colony. A suitable species for this method is Myrmica rubra. Do not try digging out a Lasius niger colony, because there is only one queen in there and she is very well hidden, so it is almost impossible to find her.
Purchase a colony
If you, for some reason, refuse to apply one of the methods above, or if you fail to find a queen, then it is also possible to purchase a colony. Purchasing a colony is also a good way to acquire exotic species which you can not find in the country you live in. However, exotic species shouldn’t be considered if you are just getting your first colony, because they are more difficult to take care of.
There are several webshops available selling ant colonies (just Google it) and most of them are great, but be careful with the few shady webshops out there. If you consider buying a colony, you must pay attention to several things. Make sure it is legal to ship ants to your country. Most webshops have taken care of this, but always double check if you’re not doing anything illegal. Also make sure you don’t pay too much. A colony of Lasius niger isn’t worth 20 bucks. They are very easy to capture and can be obtained for free on some forums (like the Dutch AntForum, where they will understand English). And last but not least: only buy a colony if it is clearly mentioned that there is a queen and that there are also some workers. You don’t want to end up paying for a colony without a queen, or an unfertilized queen without workers, otherwise your colony won’t be able to grow.
If you decide to purchase a species that isn’t native to your country, please be careful. Don’t let them escape and never set them free. Some species cause serious harm to the local ecosystem.
Now you know how to get and start your first colony. I would recommend to capture a swarming female, because it is the easiest, cheapest and most interesting method. When you own a colony, don’t forget to check my other articles, so you can provide optimal care for your colony. If you’ve obtained a queen and you’d like to know how to take care of her, check out my ant keeping guide for beginners. If you’re interested in updates and new articles, make sure you subscribe at the bottom of this page or here!