A Small Formicarium for Temnothorax

Temnothorax species are very tiny ants and form small colonies (with less than 100 workers), which are able to fit in small cavities like crevices in rocks, twigs and even acorns. They are not aggressive at all and can even be kept in communal formicariums. When looking for a new nest, scout workers are sent to check for possible nests. These scouts calculate the area of the potential nest and decide whether the colony should move to the new spot.

In order to keep a Temnothorax sp. colony, one must provide them with a very small nest. Even a test tube may be too large for these ants. They only need an area of around 1 to 4 cm², and not higher than a few millimeters. Making a formicarium for these ants is therefore challenging, but fun. There are many creative formicariums possible. Some people like to use cork. I’ve made very small ytong nests in the past, but I wanted something smoother for this species. So when I stumbled upon a transparent eye shadow box in a store, I immediately knew what I was gonna use it for.

I removed the eye shadow, drilled a very tiny entrance and filled the box with a little bit of plaster to make the bottom white for better visibility of the ants. Note that this little box is only a few centimeters wide.

Temnothorax nest
Thanks, eye shadow!

I’ve been using this nest for over a year now, and the ants seem to do very well. I put it in a larger box with a lid, because these ants are very small and therefore escape artists. The only downside is that I can’t moisten the nest without opening the lid (which causes panic in the colony), but lucky for me Temnothorax can withstand very extreme conditions. I haven’t moistened the nest for several months now, but the ants are still doing great. That’s because their natural nests can become very dry too. Imagine a crevice in a rock where no water reaches.

The species I put in this nest is probably Temnothorax nylanderi, however I’m not sure. I’ve found these ants in a rotten acorn in the forest. You can see in the photos below how the nest looks with the ants in it.

Temnothorax nylanderi
Temnothorax cf. nylanderi in the mini formicarium – the plaster is not so smooth anymore and they have used some of it to fill in gaps under the lid
Temnothorax nylanderi
Even the queen is incredibly tiny – note the worker going through the entrance on the far right

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Is Feeding Your Ants a High-Protein Diet a Good Idea?

According to Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer should be no. Feeding your ants a high-protein diet seems like a great idea in order to increase your colony’s growth rate. After all, queens need protein to produce eggs and larvae need protein to grow. So more protein equals a larger colony, right?

According to this study by Dussutour and Simpson (2012), the above mentioned equation is not true at all. The researchers have used Lasius niger in their study. First, the effect of protein-to-carbohydrate ratio was determined, resulting in a reduced survival with a high-protein diet. Further experiments showed that the increased mortality was due to the increased protein intake rather than the decreased carbohydrate intake. The researcher conclude that a high-protein diet not only decreases the worker lifespan, but also reduces colony size.

So for optimal colony growth, what ratio should you feed your ants? The study showed that with a 1:5 (protein-to-carbohydrate) ratio, ants lived longest. However, lower protein diets were not included in the study. It is therefore hard to tell if you should feed your ants even less protein, but for Lasius niger you should probably not exceed the protein-to-carbohydrate ratio of 1:5.

An important sidenote to this study is that it was performed on worker ants without any brood, meaning they weren’t able to regurgitate the protein in order to transfer it to larvae. In a colony, most of the protein would not be digested by the worker ant like in this study. Further research is therefore needed to determine the effects of diet on colonies.

Implementing the results of this study for the ant keeping hobby, I would suggest that synthetic foods (such as honeydew surrogate), which force the ants a fixed intake of nutrients, should be prepared with a bit of care. Increasing the amino acid concentration in the honeydew surrogate recipe for example, would probably be a bad idea for most ant species. You should stick with the original recipe. When providing protein and carbohydrates in seperate sources, you shouldn’t worry too much though.

Feeding ants
Lasius niger feeding on honeydew secreted by aphids. Natural honeydew has very low protein concentrations.
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Ant Keeping Struggles

Last months, I’ve been periodically working on a big formicarium for my Lasius niger colony. It took a while to get things done, because I was very busy. However, now the summer vacation has kicked in and I’m back from my holiday trip, I thought it was a good opportunity to finish the project.

The idea is to carve out Ytong nests and place these vertically in an aquarium. The spare space in the aquarium serves as the foraging area. The entire formicarium is therefore settled in one aquarium, without having the need to connect the outworld and nest through cumbersome ways. On Antforum.nl we call it a “formiquarium” (a pretty clever portmanteau, isn’t it?). The front and sides of the aquarium will have nests and the top of the nests will be covered to serve as the foraging area.

I’ve been carving out the Ytong nests. So far, so good. However, today I shattered the aquarium, which I found in a second-hand store for around 5 dollars! I accidently kicked it with my knee. So now I’ve got to find a new aquarium and I doubt that I will be so lucky again to find it that cheap.

(Photos with phone.)

Shattered
Yeah, I did that.

Although the project is delayed until I have a new aquarium, I will tease you with the Ytong nests, which are already finished. The three blocks are supposed to be placed in an aquarium as shown, and the top will be covered with some kind of panel for the ants to forage on. The empty space between the blocks will serve as a water reservoir.

Formiquarium
Work in progress.
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Honeydew Surrogate: Ants’ Golden Elixer

In the Netherlands, many ant keepers feed their ants something called “honeydew surrogate”. It’s a homemade golden liquid of which the composition is designed to imitate the honeydew secreted by aphids. In nature, honeydew is the main source of nutrients for many ant species. Homemade honeydew surrogate contains sugars, amino acids and vitamins, in concentrations that are almost identical to that of natural honeydew. However, its amino acid content is ten times higher than that of natural honeydew. This is done on purpose, because in nature, ants have to travel much longer distances to gather honeydew than in captivity, using up a significant part of the sugars and therefore concentrating the amino acids in honeydew before reaching their nests.

Many ant species seem te love honeydew surrogate. I feed it to my ants and when I’m short of insects to feed them, the amino acids in honeydew surrogate are an excellent replacement for insect protein. However, I like to add insects to my ants’ diet, just to make sure they get enough protein. Honeydew surrogate is easy and cheap to make and the batch will last for quite a time, depending on the number of colonies you have and their sizes.

I guess you’re dying to know how to make honeydew surrogate for your ants. I’ve translated the Dutch recipe for honeydew surrogate that can be found here on AntForum.nl (page is in Dutch). All credits go to user Mika, the inventor of honeydew surrogate, and to user Floris, who took the time and effort to share the recipe. My purpose is to make it accessible for other countries as well.

Honeydew surrogate recipe

Ingredients:

  • 25 ml of liquid amino acids (also known as BCAA) *
  • 50 ml of maple syrup, honey is fine too
  • 130 grams of glucose (also known as dextrose or grape sugar), table sugar is fine too
  • 480 ml of water

You will also need:

  • Measuring cup
  • Kitchen scale
  • Stirrer (e.g. spoon)
  • Syringes (no needle required)

* You might wonder where to get liquid amino acids. Liquid amino acids are sold in (online) sport supplement stores. The supplement serves as a quick and easy source of amino acids for bodybuilders. Try to look for liquid amino acids in ampoules, because you will only need one ampoule. They often come in packs of 10, 20 or 30, so although one ampoule isn’t expensive at all, the whole pack will be expensive while you won’t need all ampoules. Try to share the ampoules with other ant keepers and split the costs, or try to get your hands on one ampoule from a bodybuilder or a nearby gym.

 

Honeydew surrogate
All you need to make honeydew surrogate

Time to make the honeydew surrogate. Dissolve the glucose in the water in a large container. Stir or heat to increase the dissolution rate. Now add the maple syrup and stir. Finally, add the liquid amino acids and stir. Your honeydew surrogate is done! This recipe yields about 650 ml honeydew surrogate.

Honeydew surrogate is prone to spoiling, so it must be freezed prior to storing. I always fill a few syringes with the solution and then I freeze these. I store the remaining batch in a large bottle and freeze that too. When I need to feed my ants, I thaw a syringe by placing it at room temperature for about an hour. When all syringes are empty, I thaw the large bottle with the honeydew surrogate batch and refill my syringes after cleaning them thoroughly. Using this method, the batch lasts for months. Bon appétit.

Honeydew surrogate
The “golden elixer” of ant keeping. On the left: what honeydew surrogate looks like when finished. On the right: honeydew surrogate frozen in syringes.
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Ant Dormancy

Ants that do not live in tropic regions need to pass the harsh winter by means of dormancy or inactivity, in order to survive the extreme temperatures and the occurring food shortage. Dormancy is a state in which the ant’s development is temporarily interrupted. Metabolic activity is reduced to conserve energy and brood is paused being raised.

Dormancy has many forms, depending on the species and habitat of the ants. A simple resting state is called quiescence and is opposed by diapause. Diapause is an extreme form of dormancy, which is initiated and inhibited by specific conditions, like temperature and photoperiod. However, not only environmental conditions can contribute to the onset of dormancy. Temperate ants also possess a biological timer, which, in these species, is of greater importance for controlling their cycle than environmental factors.

So what does this mean for the ant keeper? Should we worry about the dormancy of our precious ants? I believe we should, depending on the species. In most tropical species, eggs, all larval stages and pupae are present throughout the year. They don’t need dormancy and can therefore be kept at high temperatures all year. My Polyrhachis dives colony for example, doesn’t need dormancy. I can enjoy them all year long.

However, temperate species do, to some extent, need dormancy. Species from the southern part of the temperate regions do not possess the biological timer controlling their cycle. Their dormancy is initiated by a drop in temperature. When there is no drop in temperature, they keep developing. Skipping the dormancy has no negative influence on egg-laying and development of larvae. I, however, do recommend dropping the temperature in the winter for 6 to 12 weeks in order to initiate dormancy. For my Messor structor colony, I will start dormancy in December and the temperature will vary between 10 and 15 °C (50-59 °F).

More important is to respect the dormancy of northern temperate species. My Lasius flavus, Lasius fuliginosus, Lasius niger, Formica fusca and Myrmica rubra colonies are in dormant state since early November and will stay so until late March. These species have a biological timer, so even if you do not drop the temperature, the development of brood will cease. It is still very important to drop the temperature though, because these ants need something called ‘cold reactivation’. They are supposed to be exposed to low temperatures in order to restore their brood-rearing-ability, which depends on many factors. Without cold reactivation, the colony will eventually fail to grow. Your colony needs to be refreshed, upon which you can enjoy a nice growth in spring!

So how do I drop temperatures for my ants? I refrigerate them. The temperature in the refrigerator is about 5-10 °C (41-50 °F), which is cool enough for cold reactivation. If you do not have a refrigerator available for ants, you can also put them in a cold basement or you can come up with another solution. Just do keep in mind that the temperature should never drop below freezing point, which can kill your ants. The ants do not need to be fed during dormancy, but water should always be available.

Below my colonies in the refrigerator can be seen. It is a second-hand refrigerator, stored in the basement. Nothing fancy, it is the cheapest second-hand refrigerator I could find (and it’s surprisingly clean for that matter). As long as it cools, it will suffice.

Ants in refrigerator
My special ant refrigerator harboring several colonies

After dormancy, temperatures should rise steadily, so the metabolic activity can increase slowly. Try to move the ants to a cold room before actually exposing them to high temperatures. Instant warming up of the ants can kill them. Because I have a special refrigerator for my ants without any food being stored in there, I can just raise the temperature in the refrigerator steadily.

Ant dormancy
Once in dormancy, ants will crawl together – in this picture: Lasius niger workers and queen

Ant dormancy is a subject which is easily ignored in literature. It is, however, not exactly an unimportant aspect of ant keeping. It determines the success of a colony by influencing its growth. As an ant keeper, you should therefore, if required, respect it and let your hard-working ants relish their well-earned rest.

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Polyrhachis dives: a golden weaver ant

I’m proud to introduce to you another colony of mine. It is a Polyrhachis dives colony with three queens and more than a hundred workers (it’s really impossible to count them, sorry). Polyrhachis dives is a species from Southeast Asia, and although they are not considered as true weaver ants, like the genus Oecophylla, they actually do weave their nest, using larval silk and all kinds of organic material. I mentioned a species of the genus Polyrhachis before, describing how this particular species can actually swim. Polyrhachis dives, however, does not swim.

What I like so much about this species is their ability to construct their nest, which makes it possible to keep them in a natural terrarium, but I also love their beautiful appearance. The ants have a shiny, golden abdomen, as can be seen below. They show very interesting behaviour, making it appealing to observe the ants in a large tank. The workers are very active, running through the tank the entire time.

Polyrhachis dives
The beautiful golden abdomen of Polyrhachis dives

I keep them in a tank with the dimensions 60 x 30 x 30 (in centimeters). As a substrate, I use a mix of cocopeat and cocos bark. Make sure no harmful chemicals are added! It is also important to create a larger surface by providing the ants with branches. Furthermore, make sure you create a spot where they can weave their nest. You can manipulate the location of the nest by using a heat mat placed against the wall of your tank, creating a warm spot. By doing this, your ants will build their nest against the glass, making it possible to observe the interiors of the nest. The species does best at 22 – 28 degrees Celcius with a relative humidity of 60%. They eat a lot of insects. Sugar water should also be available, but I have noticed that they don’t seem to like it as much as other species.

There are some notes to be made if you also want to keep this species. They require a lot of room, and by ‘a lot’, I really mean a lot. My 54 liter tank will possibly be too small in a while. I am prepared for this and I am willing to expand the terrarium by connecting other tanks using tubes. The species is known to carry around dead bodies aimlessly, which is probably because they want to dispose the bodies as far as possible. The ants are also known to attack each other once in a while.

But don’t let the stories scare you. If you have enough experience with native ants or starter species and you would like to keep an exotic species, then Polyrhachis dives is a very good choice. If provided with a large tank, enough building material, the right temperature and enough food, nothing more is required. This species is actually surprisingly easy to keep if you have a little bit of experience.

In conclusion, Polyrhachis dives is a beautifully colored species, showing interesting behaviour, making them very fun to keep. With a little bit of experience and some preparation, Polyrhachis dives is perfect for beginners in exotic species. As a final gesture, I would like to share some extra photos to show you the beauty of this species.

Polyrhachis dives
Another photo showing the beautiful colors and spikes of Polyrhachis dives
Polyrhachis dives
Standing up
Polyrhachis dives
Two workers performing trophallaxis

 

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Founding a Lasius fuliginosus colony

Lasius (Dendrolasius) fuliginosus, is an European ant species of the subfamily Formicinae. The species’ name means “sooty” or “dark”, referring seemly to the very dark, shiny color of the ant. The ants are really black (unless other dark Lasius species, which are actually brown) and shiny, making them very appealing to look at. They are also slightly larger than other Lasius species. The ants have a distinctive odor (pick one up and smell your fingers!) and nest in hollow trees, and therefore are also called the smelling carpenter ants. The nest is built using cardboard-like material made of wood particles, honeydew and a species of fungus (Cladosporium myrmecophilum). The workers can sometimes be seen moving up and down a tree in a trail, with the abdomens of the returning workers being physogastric of the collected honeydew. Their trails can be very long, sometimes up to 30 meters, providing an amazing spectacle to observe.

However, the more interesting part of their biology is the way they found their colonies. Lasius fuliginosus is a social parasite… of a social parasite. The female enters a colony of the yellow-colored Lasius umbratus, manages to take over its odor, kills its queen and takes it over. Lasius umbratus in its turn does the same to Lasius niger. The Lasius fuliginosus female cannot found a colony independently and relies entirely on the Lasius umbratus workers to raise her brood. When the yellow Lasius umbratus workers decrease and the Lasius fuliginosus workers increase in numbers, the colony slowly makes a shift from a predominantly yellow color to a predominantly black color, until the last Lasius umbratus worker dies, erasing every single trace of the conquered colony.

The dependent colony foundation is one of the main reasons what makes it so hard to keep this species. There are very few cases of successful foundations. On the one side, I find this a shame, because it prevents the ant-keeper from observing their interesting behavior and enjoying their beauty, but on the other side the challenge keeps stimulating the ant-keeper’s interest.

You’ll need a Lasius umbratus colony and a fertilized Lasius fuliginosus female to raise a colony. However, it is also possible to raise a colony without Lasius umbratus, but by using Lasius niger as a host colony instead. The latter is what I’ve done. I found a Lasius fuliginosus female in May 2012, which I then introduced to 20-30 Lasius niger workers in a test tube. She was accepted by the workers and a month later, in June, I boosted the “colony” with some brood, only to find that the female had laid some eggs. You have to be very patient, because the fertility of this species is delayed. It can take some time before the first eggs appear. In August the first larvae appeared (see picture below). Although I was very excited, I was also skeptical, because this did not yet prove that the female was fertilized. The eggs could still have been unfertilized, only to produce males.

Lasius fuliginosus
Lasius niger workers and Lasius fuliginosus larvae in a test tube

The larvae did not develop into pupae before the winter arrived and I decided to put the colony in the refrigerator in order to induce dormancy. Perhaps the rest could help the colony to develop. I ended the dormancy in February 2013. In April, the colony had produced two pupae. The queen kept producing eggs and the numbers of larvae and pupae increased substantially.

Lasius fuliginosus
Many Lasius fuliginosus pupae

On May 22nd, I took another look at the test tube and when observing all pupae I came across one through which I could see the adult moving inside. There were also other open cocoons, but I could not see any Lasius fuliginosus workers between all the Lasius niger workers. So I decided to help this one out. Her mandibles were already sticking out. I took her out the test tube and gently cut open the cocoon, releasing the adult Lasius fuliginosus worker. After putting her back in the foraging area of the colony, many Lasius niger workers started inspecting her and then dragging her. She wasn’t able to walk. Perhaps the conditions in which I’ve helped her hatch were not humid enough, which caused a problem in the hardening of her exoskeleton. Eventually she was dragged into the test tube by the Lasius niger workers. I wasn’t sure if she was under attack and would end up as food. When I took a look inside the test tube, she unfortunately seemed dead. After looking again a few hours later, I could not spot her. The Lasius niger workers probably took care of her dead body. You can see her (while still alive) in the picture below.

Lasius fuliginosus
Lasius fuliginosus adult, still gray, being pulled on by Lasius niger workers: you can clearly see the heart-shaped head characteristic of Lasius fuliginosus

I did not give up. The queen was doing fine, producing a lot of brood. There were still many eggs, larvae and pupae, but no adult Lasius fuliginosus workers. I proved that the larvae can survive without the fungus and that the eggs are viable, but something went wrong during or after the hatching of the cocoon. I was disappointed, but I still had hope.

I looked in the test tube again on June 5th 2013, and suddenly there were several Lasius fuliginosus workers between all the Lasius niger workers. They were totally healthy, accepted and functioning. There was apparently no need for me to help them hatch, because the Lasius niger workers can do the job on their own. I decided to disturb the colony as little as possible, which was kind of hard, because I wanted to watch all the time. The founding was hereby successful more than a year later from the moment I found the queen. The colony is still doing fine today, the Lasius fuliginosus workers increasing in numbers (see picture below). Now let’s hope the colony maintains as long as possible. Remarks on the care of the colony are welcome.

Lasius fuliginosus
The colony predominantly consists of Lasius fuliginosus workers now
Lasius fuliginosus
A size and color comparison between Lasius niger (on the left) and Lasius fuliginosus (on the right)

I hope this post can provide some information to other ant keepers about the biology and the founding of Lasius fuliginosus. My main advice to others would be to be patient. It took me more than a year to see the first adult worker, only to see her die tragically immediately after hatching! I also hope that other hobbyists can contribute to my knowledge and help me take care of this Lasius fuliginosus colony. I would also love to hear from other ant keepers that have successfully founded a Lasius fuliginosus colony. If you have some tips, suggestions or other remarks, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

More information about the colony founding in this species can be found here (Donisthorpe, 1922).

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Time-Lapse of Feasting Ants

Just an old, short time-lapse video of my Lasius niger colony. This is actually a 30 minute video of the ants drinking sugar water, sped up 36 times. Notice how the drops become smaller and smaller and eventually disappear. You can also see the pheromone trail whereby the ants move. Don’t forget to watch in HD!

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