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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Ant Keeping Guide for Beginners

I’ve published a new article about ant keeping. It’s a short but complete guide for beginners who want to keep their first ant colony, but don’t really know where to start. Check out the link below!

Ant Keeping Guide for Beginners
You’ve decided to keep ants as pets, but you don’t really know where to start. Follow this ant keeping guide and you will successfully start an ant colony.

More articles will be published soon. Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to keep updated!

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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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Tending Aphids

In my grandparents’ backyard there is a huge Lasius fuliginosus colony, always climbing in the plum tree there to reach the aphids, using the same trail every year. Tending aphids and protecting them in exchange for honeydew is without doubt the most important form of mutualism in ant biology. The queen of the Lasius fuliginosus colony I have been able to found was caught in the same backyard (back in 2012). The workers are also abundant in the ivy there to tend aphids, which is obviously easier to photograph than the mutualism finding place high up the tree.

Lasius fuliginosus tending aphids
Lasius fuliginosus worker tending aphids
Lasius fuliginosus tending aphids
More Lasius fuliginosus workers tending aphids
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Troubles Concerning Loading Time

For the last couple of months, ANTfinity had very poor loading time and was even down at most times. I apologize for the inconvenience. I’m not really a whizzkid, so I had a hard time to find the cause of this problem. Me being very busy with my study wasn’t helpful either. However, today I found out what was wrong and the problem is fortunately solved now.

Now that the website works well again, I can post updates of my ants again. All my colonies have been taken out of the refrigerator again since a couple of weeks, bringing their dormancy to an end. Also, since it’s springtime in the Netherlands, all native ant species are busy again. As you can see, there is a lot to write about, so subscribe to stay updated if you haven’t done so yet!

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Macro Photography for Less than Three Dollars

Macro photography is great, especially for ant keepers. Not only does it serve aesthetic purposes to see the small world from up close, it also provides insect lovers a possibility to see what’s really going on in the world of their beloved subjects.
However, macro lenses can be very expensive and it also requires some practice to properly use a macro lens. Fortunately, there are cheap and easy solutions for macro photography. One of them is a three dollar macro lens from eBay which can be magnetically attached to your smartphone’s camera.

Although the possibilities are limited and you are restricted to only one focal length (a very short one) and one magnification, for around three dollars it is worth trying and the results are surprisingly good. These shots from last summer, made with my iPhone and a three dollar macro lens, show you the capability of the lens (and I must admit that I screwed up these pictures):

Pentatoma rufipes
Araneus diadematus
Lasius niger
Jumping spider

Remember, none of these pictures are cropped. I didn’t have much time to play around a lot with this lens yet. But if you have a smartphone and you want to give macro photography a shot, but you don’t want to spend a lot of money, consider one of these lenses. Or carry this lens around with you to be able to make macro shots even if you’ve left your DSLR home.

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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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Finally Got Myself a Copy of The Ants!

I finally got myself a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ants (1990), written by Hölldobler and Wilson, the myrmecologists who contributed greatly to the knowledge of ant biology. From Google Books:

This landmark work, the distillation of a lifetime of research by the world’s leading myrmecologists, is a thoroughgoing survey of one of the largest and most diverse groups of animals on the planet. Hölldobler and Wilson review in exhaustive detail virtually all topics in the anatomy, physiology, social organization, ecology, and natural history of the ants. In large format, with almost a thousand line drawings, photographs, and paintings, it is one of the most visually rich and all-encompassing views of any group of organisms on earth. It will be welcomed both as an introduction to the subject and as an encyclopedia reference for researchers in entomology, ecology, and sociobiology.

The more than 700 page counting book is aimed at academics, and therefore Hölldobler and Wilson have summarized their most interesting findings in the popularized Journey to the Ants (1994). I recommend to start with that book like I did and to continue with The Ants if you’re still not satisfied afterwards.

Hölldobler and Wilson
My Hölldobler and Wilson collection

The Leafcutter Ants by the same writers is also a great book, full of great photos in color by, among others, one of my favorite ant photographers Alexander Wild.

I also have some Dutch books, which are unfortunately not available in English. For everyone who can read Dutch, Mieren van de Benelux (“Ants of the Benelux”) by Peter Boer is a great book on how to identify North-European ant species, containing photos from AntWeb.

If you can recommend any other must-read books about ants, please leave a comment!

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