July 7, 2020 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I love ants! What is the best small, consumer-grade ant farm that balances ease of upkeep with ability to witness amazing ant feats? Have you owned an ant farm in the last 5 years? Tell me about it!

I had the standard Uncle Milton farm as a kid, I'm happy to see that those are still around. Is there a new and improved ant farm that has come out since I've been out of the pet ant game? The translucent jelly ones look cool, but are they more than just a pretty face?
posted by phunniemee to Pets & Animals (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
We had this one going in our house this spring.

It's fun until it's morbid.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:33 AM on July 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I love ants, too! Watching this thread with great interest. I've had the gel kind that NotMyselfRightNow links as well, though for purely personal taste reasons I think that overall I preferred the giant size Uncle Milton farm. Personally I think this one looks really cool and have been considering it for a while, but I don't honestly know anything about that company or the product so I can't recommend it per se.

More recently I had a very brief, um, "free range" ant farm when I put the tiniest bit of sugar on my bathroom counter for the stray ants that wander through every now and again; it was endearing to watch and they did in fact go away again after the food was gone so no real harm done, but it was also mildly awkward to explain when my wife wanted to know if I'd had food in the bathroom so I can't exactly recommend it ...
posted by DingoMutt at 11:59 AM on July 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

We had a gel art farm similar to NotMyselfRightNow but it didn't light up. It was so-so mostly because I got freaked out at the FIRE ANTS!!! FIRE ANTS!!! warnings and wasn't able to get all of the ants out of the tube and into the farm.

Be cooler than me.

We put a piece of carrot in IIRC and it got moldy (and smelly) fast. Follow the instructions and you should be ok.
posted by nkknkk at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2020

I've never kept ants, but I have watched several videos from AntsCanada and he has done quite the number of different setups over the years. He also runs a store and as I just found out right now there's also a forum on the website as well for ant-specific questions including an entire subforum for Heated & Controversial Ant Debates, the existence of which I enjoy.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:32 PM on July 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

We got an ant farm, but it was tragic to watch them pile up the corpses in the ant morgue until the last lonely ant was left. It was terrible. I like ants. I do not like ant farms.
posted by RedEmma at 3:36 PM on July 8, 2020

Sooo the person above mentioned AntsCanada and the like and I'm here to explain a bit more about antkeeping as a hobby. I love ants too and in the past few years have gotten into formicariums, which are ants as pets to the max because you have a queen so you get to see all the real behaviors of ants like brood keeping!

I got into this hobby by accident when I found a recently mated carpenter ant queen near my house a couple years back and caught her (as a kid I had always dreamed of having a REAL ant colony, not just a farm full of workers that died), did a frantic amount of research that revealed to me that ant keeping is a long and venerable hobby and express shipped some test tubes to get started with her. I still have her and she has a little colony!

I'm not here to knock ant farms--they're a heck of a lot easier than managing a colony, because they are limited in scope, and sometimes that's a real bonus. You get to watch some ants do ant things like digging. And I had a great time with ant farms as a kid. And they're inexpensive and easy to get ahold of and populate. And it can be easier sometimes to get something knowing it has a limited lifespan rather than having an ant colony that fails.

The downside to ant farms is you're just getting worker ants, and like people mention they're invariably going to die.

Formicariums are different to keep than ant farms, and more maintenance. For instance, most formicariums don't really have the ants digging their own tunnels for a variety of reasons, they'll have preformed chambers. (Ant farms aren't designed to keep a colony with brood--trouble with humidity control, the risk of collapsing tunnels, sanitation issues, etc) But, the upside is you get to watch the ants care for brood, and if you do it right your pets will last years not months. (But be warned: colonies often die. I haven't managed to get any pavement ants through their first winter.)

So to start: you'll need a colony or at least a queen. Unlike many exotic pets, it's hard to get ahold of ant queens/colonies in the US, because shipping most species across state lines isn't allowed without a lot of permits, so you can't just buy them from a store like you could with fish or praying mantises or tarantulas. Additionally, people can't really...breed ants in captivity readily. I'm not saying it can never be done, but it's hard. Queens are going to be wild caught whether by you or someone else. You can find them in the wild but only at certain times of the year for a given species under their preferred nuptial flight conditions, and you might get lucky if you get on top of it now and keep an eye out for hot humid overcast days to take nice long walks on. Here's the AntsCanada guide, here's a more comprehensive mating chart and another guide to how to find ant queens.

I just caught an ant queen this morning that landed on my car windshield while I was dropping a cat off at the vet, so you'll want to have CONSTANT VIGILANCE and always have a container around that you when you're out and about can capture an ant queen with.

If catching ant queens sounds more tedious than like some kind of fun insect pokemon game, and you would like to get around it with money, there's a few ways to get ahold of some without finding your own that I know about:

Western harvester ants got deregulated in the past couple years for shipping across state lines and Tarheel Ants sells colonies

The GAN project, run by the AntsCanada people, will connect you up with a local purveyor of queens/colonies

Here's someone selling some Camponotus in IL, that's carpenter ants and I love mine, slow growing colonies with nice big ants

Once you have an ant queen, you put her in the test tube like this. Then you put her in a nice quiet dark place and just wait to see if she makes brood. You don't have to feed her during this time for most species (called claustral)! You can wait until the first worker ants, called nanitics, emerge. How long that takes depends on the species.

Then you'll generally need a source of protein and a source of carbs. I like to use crickets from a can that I keep in the fridge and honey.

At some point you'll want to move her from a test tube into a formicarium. You CAN make formicariums on your home, but I've been too lazy, so I've bought mine from Tarheel Ants. (I even got to go to their small store in Raleigh once, it was very exciting!). AntsCanada, as mentioned above, also has a store that sells various formicariums. I'd recommend having around an extra formicarium in case the ants make a mess that starts to mold, so you can convince them to move between them so you can clean it out.

Another word you'll encounter is "outworld", which is the part of the formicarium (built in or attached with tubing) where you can put down their food and they go out and explore in.

Here's a much longer and more indepth beginner's guide

Formiculture.com -- another forum for antkeeping
AntWiki -- I found this valuable for trying to figure out the different species I was seeing
Alexander Wild's Ant Photography -- This has nothing to do with antkeeping, I just think it's amazing and it was also super valuable for getting familiar with ant species
Antkeeping Reddit community

Anyway, if you decide to get into ant keeping, feel free to chat me up about it :)
posted by foxfirefey at 8:43 AM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

Update: Ha, I figured out that what I thought was an ant queen was actually a male ant, as demonstrated by his tiny tiny head!
posted by foxfirefey at 5:07 PM on July 10, 2020

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