Observing ants

Many of the most interesting features of the social life of ants can only be seen if they are studied in artificial nests.

Setting up a formicarium

Making an ant farm, or formicarium, is simple, and it enables you to study the habits of a colony of ants at close quarters.

Three simple nests

These easily built nests are useful for observing some species of Australian ants. The choice of nest depends upon the kind of ant to be studied.

Nest Design 1a

For some ants, such as the common 'greenhead' (Rhytidoponera metallica) and its relatives, no moat of water is needed to stop them escaping. This is because only the males of these ants have feet that allow them to climb clean vertical glass. The 'fence' of glass or plastic in this nest design will contain the workers quite easily, and the workers will usually prevent the males from leaving.

Materials needed:
  • Glass or plastic tray/dish with smooth, vertical sides
  • Wooden frame
  • Soil
  • Pane of glass to fit over frame
  • Opaque cover e.g. thick paper, plywood etc.
Building the nest

A large glass or smooth plastic tray, or dish with vertical sides, acts as a fence. In the middle of the tray, place a thin layer of soil inside a simple wooden frame to provide a place for the ants to nest. The frame needs an exit hole to allow the ants to emerge for foraging. A pane of glass is then rested over the soil, with an opaque cover to complete the nest. The nest should be kept covered when not being observed, to simulate natural dark conditions.

Nest Design 1b

Sugar ants (Camponotus species) can climb fences of glass or plastic, so it is necessary to form a moat around the nest.

Materials needed:
  • Nest Design 1a
  • A piece of heavy wood, of the same dimensions as the nest
  • Paint
  • Water, to form a moat
Building the nest

Fix the wooden frame from Nest Design 1a (that includes the soil and glass) to a piece of heavy wood. The tray is then flooded up to the edge of the wood, forming a moat around the nest. The wood should be painted to prevent waterlogging.

Nest Design 2

With this kind of nest, the ants are not able to emerge to forage unless a stopper is removed.

Materials needed:
  • Wooden strips to make up frame
  • 2 panes of glass
  • Nails or waterproof glue
  • Cotton wool/nylon stocking plug
  • Soil or sand
  • Opaque cover e.g. thick paper, plywood etc.
Building the nest

A glass nest may be constructed with a thin, rectangular wooden frame 15 cm to 30 cm long, and of similar width. The strips of wood making up the frame should be up to 1.5 cm thick and 1.5 cm wide. The frame separates two panes of glass, forming a cavity in which the ants will nest. Fine nails or waterproof glue hold the frame together and the panes of glass are then cemented to this. A gap of 2.5 cm should be left in the frame near a corner so that the ants and food can be put into the nest. The opening can then be plugged with cotton wool wrapped in a piece of nylon stocking. This will allow some air to enter the nest, while preventing the ants from teasing the wool. Soil or sand can then be placed in the cavity. This should be scattered thinly, so that the ants do not hide by burrowing.

If the burrowing behaviour is to be observed, the wooden strips should be made the same width as the diameter of the burrows of the ant being studied, so that no layer of soil sticks to the top pane of glass. An opaque cover of thick paper, plywood or similar material, cut to the size of the glass, darkens the nest to simulate underground conditions. This is removed for observations.

Table for nests

Materials needed:
  • Wooden board (60 cm x 30 cm)
  • 4 x 10 cm long screws
  • 4 x bottle tops
  • Napthalene flakes (or petroleum jelly)
Building the table

Make a small table (about 60 cm × 30 cm in area) by driving 10 cm long screws a short distance into the underside of a wooden board. These legs may be set into a heavy wood or other base to minimize vibration. To prevent the ants escaping, impale inverted bottle-tops on the screws before putting the board in place. The bottle tops are then filled with naphthalene (Petroleum jelly, or other grease, may be tried instead of naphthalene). The naphthalene should be replaced regularly. A nest of almost any design may be kept on this, but Nest Design 2 with a hardboard base instead of glass will be the easiest.

Collecting ants

When collecting ants for your colony, be sure to obtain a good selection of adults, larvae and pupae. It is also essential to find the queen, who is several times larger than the other ants.

Care of the colony

Keep the formicarium dark, except when you are observing the ants, and even then use as low a light level as possible. You can feed ants on virtually anything organic - kitchen scraps, bits of meat, fruit and vegetables. Give them a dampened piece of sponge as a water source.

Experiments with the formicarium

Once the colony is established you can set up a variety of experiments. With correction fluid (if the ants are big enough), you can mark individual ants and follow their activities during the day. You can calculate an ant's average lifespan by isolating individual pupae and marking the adults when they hatch out.

Introducing a stem from a plant that is thickly covered with aphids (for example, a rose bush) will allow you to observe a particularly interesting pattern of behaviour. Within a short time, the ants will start to 'milk' the aphids by stroking them with their antennae, to obtain the sweet sticky substance they secrete. The aphids are, in fact, like a dairy herd to the ants.

Like mealworms, the ants you breed are also a valuable food source. Birds and fish will readily take 'ants eggs' (that are sometimes sold under this name, but which are really ants' pupae), while some reptiles and amphibians will even eat the adults.


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Tags hymenoptera, insects, formicidae, pets, collecting,