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Hobbyist Ant Keeping Myths


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#1 Offline Reacker - Posted April 12 2017 - 6:08 PM

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Over the course of the many years that I've been actively involved in the English speaking ant keeping community (circa 2000) (if the high turnover set of often feuding members (mostly young children) of various forums run almost invariably by neurotic or otherwise deeply flawed administrators can be called a community) I have seen the same ant keeping techniques repeated over and over again by different members as though they are established ant keeping canon despite a seeming lack of evidence supporting them. With the very recent exception of some particularly dedicated members such as dspdrew and some of owners of the many ant keeping supply companies that are actively striving to turn ant keeping into a commercial "industry" as some of them have called this once casual and cheap hobby, there has been a dearth of users who were doing detailed trials of new techniques and rearing methods and most importantly posting their methods and results online. Some examples of these myths that I have seen but do not recall seeing any detailed evidence for one way or the other:

 

  • Refrigerating workers/queens makes them more receptive/acceptable to foreign colony fragments/queens.
  • Ants like darkness. Do they? Has anyone done any comparative experiments with the same species in the same conditions with controls and isolated variables? I haven't seen any. I've seen photos of lab colonies where colonies with a red square of plastic sheeting above a certain section will be where the queen is consistently found, but not any evidence that it makes the slightest difference in colony success. 
  • Stress kills ants. Dr. Buschinger once created a post or thread on this very subject sometime in the last ten year s on Yuku pointing out that stress is a catchall term that keepers use when their ants die for reasons that they do not understand. For a while I remember the usage of this term died down but it seems to have made a comeback.
  • You should bake/boil/sterilize wild media before introducing it to your ants. There are many examples of people doing this and advocating for its usage, but I haven't seen anyone do a detailed comparison of raw and cooked media in otherwise similar conditions. 
  • The efficacy of Bhakter's diet--though this is (if I recall correctly) printed in the back of what is possibly the most prestigious ant book to amateur keepers, The Ants, user drtrmiller claims that during his commercial research and investigation of ant nutrition he found the diet to be completely worthless and claimed that the diet is spread in a similar fashion to the myths that I am discussing. (hopefully I paraphrased him correctly) I certainly do not remember any examples of someone going through the effort of making this diet to try it out and then posting the results.
  • Do insects need to be frozen/boiled/sterilized before feeding them to captive ants? Lots of people claiming to do this and advocating for it, but no one providing results from trials where they tried this for some colonies and not for others. 

 

 

I'm sure there are other myths/unsupported techniques that I do not recall but which should be on this list. I also freely admit that there could be some detailed threads providing support/opposition to these ideas in a trustworthy manner that I have not seen, and it is also quite possible that the other language based communities have answered these questions and that information has not diffused into the English speaking community. What I find most interesting about these myths is how they seem to be spread. As I see it, it's mostly the brand new users that typically don't stick around for more than one season who perpetuate these ideas. They join, read a ton of old threads, get some advice from equally new members with no experience to speak of and then in turn perpetuate this information by 'helpfully' doing the same for even newer members. Then as is usual with the high turnover of members in the ant keeping community they disappear completely leaving nothing but a few incomplete colony journals and some posts containing recommendations to use these techniques that next year's crop of new ant keepers will find to repeat the cycle. No contact with reality is required to perpetuate these ideas, only the fleeting enthusiasm of children and a laptop. 

 

I have seen some of them like the refrigeration method since around 2004 but I have yet to see a single instance where someone performed extensive testing of it to determine its efficacy one way or the other, only anecdotal results from some random new ant keeper sloppily going about mixing queens and workers when they can barely even keep groups of a few dozen workers alive under optimal conditions. I started this thread originally intending to ask if anyone had seen evidence for it but it morphed into the text above. 

 

I think a big part of the problem is that by and large the English speaking community is terrible at keeping colonies alive for any significant portion of their natural lifespans. How often do you see new keepers who get queens or whole colonies only to post about how they did something to meddle with their colony because they think they need attention as much as a pet dog would with the predictable result of all of their ants dying? Even with more experienced and careful adult ant keepers you see that their most successful colonies are plagued by massive population die offs, random deaths of the entire colony, termination of brood production, or more mundane things like forgetting to replenish their water supply and letting their colonies die of dehydration. How many long term journals do you see that encompass even half the natural lifespan of the same species in what you would think would be the considerably harsher conditions of the wild (other than some of the extremely short lived invasives) where the colony reaches maximum adult population size without any drastic population declines or requiring brood boosting from other colonies in the wild? It's hard to properly vet ant keeping techniques when almost nobody seems to be capable of keeping colonies alive to properly vet new techniques on them. 

 

I will note that the only constant exception to this rule has been the participation in forums by actual Myrmecologists, though most of their knowledge that they have chosen to share has been in the domain of taxonomy rather than the formiculturist side of things as we now seem to be calling it. Their presence seems to be diminishing quite a lot as they understandably appear to have not much tolerance for the lowering of communicative rigor (among other factors I suspect) that the English speaking community has adopted in recent years.  


Edited by Reacker, April 12 2017 - 6:25 PM.

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#2 Offline Runner12 - Posted April 12 2017 - 8:45 PM

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Whether some of these are myths or not, the reasoning behind some of them seems sound enough.

In particular "sterilizing" medium, something that I do, which is primarily to minimize mold growth and I have noted a marked difference in my sand/soil based nests.

Boiling and freezing insects is as much a matter of keeping them from going bad and saving them for later use as it is 'sterilizing', and insects I've prepared this way don't mold as easily in the nest and seem to be easier for the ants to handle since they're cooked.

In terms of refrigerating colonies allowing acceptance this was a technique listed in The Ants. I've found it works for Camponotus in some circumstances but it's really only worth trying if you have a colony that has lost its queen and you have nothing to lose.

This purely anecdotal, but my two cents. Ants have been a consistent hobby of mine for probably 10 years at a serious level for what it's worth.

Edited by Runner12, April 12 2017 - 8:50 PM.


#3 Offline Reacker - Posted April 12 2017 - 8:57 PM

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Whether some of these are myths or not, the reasoning behind some of them seems sound enough.
...

This purely anecdotal, but my two cents.

 

This is precisely the problem that I am talking about. 

 

The last few hundred of years of the history of science has shown us time and again that ideas that have reasoning that seems sound enough are at least as likely to be false as they are to be true. That's the entire point of rigorous experiments rather than piecing together everyone's two cent anecdotes. 

 

Please provide detailed numbers,descriptions, and preferably good pictures to support the techniques that you are advocating for based on personal experience. If you don't you're just adding another unsubstantiated comment to the mountain of unsubstantiated comments regardless of how well-meaning you are. 


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#4 Offline Runner12 - Posted April 12 2017 - 9:26 PM

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OK, well all I can do is wish you luck then because not many people are going to have the time and resources to carry out the type of research that's going to be needed to conclusively prove these things one way or another.

#5 Offline Reacker - Posted April 12 2017 - 9:34 PM

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Which is again exactly what I'm talking about. Lacking time and resources to thoroughly test the  methods you're advocating for and then post the details about it is no excuse to continue to perpetuate them. I'm not expecting a peer reviewed exhaustive study on every single aspect of everything that is suggested. The level of data required is things like: what temperatures exactly did you chill your ants to and what temperature was it when you introduced the ants to other ants (cheap thermometer required), what is the history of each of the two ant groups before you captured them (free to describe), what type of enclosure did you introduce them in and was there media or food or whatever (free to describe), exactly what did each group of ants do at what time intervals before acceptance or rejection of each other (free to describe, everyone has a clock of some kind). Did you try introducing the ants to each other unchilled first to see if it was even necessary? (also free to do). Did you use an empty fridge with no other potential smells to pick up or was there a bunch of food that may be strongly scented? (free to describe). Did you mess with the ants during this process? (free to describe). What other ways did you try this process out? (free to describe and equally cheap to do as the first version)

 

The cost and time requirement to do these things is very little yet people don't even bother with this level of detail. And if you're not willing to dedicate the minimal time and minimal resources it takes to determine conclusively if a method you are attempting works or not then you're wasting your time even trying it because you have no idea if it what you were aiming for worked because of what you did or maybe what you did was entirely pointless and your goal would have been achieved regardless. Or maybe one of the steps along the way such as strongly scented foods in the fridge were responsible for the method failing and a clean fridge wouldn't cause that problem. Incredibly basic stuff that could be answered freely and easily. If that's too much time and resources I wonder if you even have time to keep ants at all. 



#6 Offline drtrmiller - Posted April 12 2017 - 9:57 PM

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You make some good points. Clarity, specificity, and attention to detail are lacking in a great deal of advice being given on antkeeping forums.
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#7 Offline OmniusClone - Posted April 12 2017 - 11:55 PM

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I apologise beforehand for the verbosity of my post.

I whole-heartedly concur with this. As someone‚Äč new to ant keeping, I find myself beholden to the advice of the people on this forum when it comes to how I should or should not handle or interact with any species I might come to keep.
Fortunately, there are people here like yourself, Drew, and others who have had years of experience whose opinions and observations I can draw upon.

That being said, to be viable, a study of is nature would have to be done by someone‚Äč who had the time, resources, and motivation to be thorough. This person would also have to have access to a large number of many different species, or at least many colonies of one species at the same level of development. That narrows the number of people who could conduct it to a minority.
And even after that, the results would have to be repeatable by others who had access to the same resources to be considered trustworthy.

I don't think it likely that such a thing could be accomplished outside of a laboratory setting. However, it does seem like this would already be something that has been looked at. Specifically by those myrmecologists studying any individual species behavior. They would have to know the ideal conditions and procedures to conduct such long term studies.

My question would be, which species is routinely used by biologists and entomologists in lab studies, and what might we be able to extrapolate from their keeping of that species that might be applicable to our own practices as far as this topic is concerned?
This is taking it as granted that other species will have different specific requirements that might alter how those practices are implemented.

#8 Offline Serafine - Posted April 13 2017 - 12:08 AM

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Ants like darkness. Do they? Has anyone done any comparative experiments with the same species in the same conditions with controls and isolated variables? I haven't seen any. I've seen photos of lab colonies where colonies with a red square of plastic sheeting above a certain section will be where the queen is consistently found, but not any evidence that it makes the slightest difference in colony success.

This is most likely more a thing of "getting used to it". Most ants can do fine in light but when they were kept in the dark at the beginning they will take some time to get used to. If I remove the cover from my Camponotus nest they instantly panic - which is a clear proof that, in their current situation and for whatever reason, they don't like light. However if I had held them in the light from the beginning they probably wouldn't care at all.
 

Stress kills ants. Dr. Buschinger once created a post or thread on this very subject sometime in the last ten year s on Yuku pointing out that stress is a catchall term that keepers use when their ants die for reasons that they do not understand. For a while I remember the usage of this term died down but it seems to have made a comeback.

Stress is mostly used to describe when people disturb their ants too often, like poking on them every day with shining lights on them, shaking them and stuff. There SEEM TO BE certain species (especially Messor) which do not seem to like it when they're disturbed too often during the founding stage and as a result more often fail.
 

Do insects need to be frozen/boiled/sterilized before feeding them to captive ants? Lots of people claiming to do this and advocating for it, but no one providing results from trials where they tried this for some colonies and not for others.

Most people do this to kill off mites and other exoparasites. And it definitely works - boiling water will fry any mite within a few seconds.
The question however should be how common mite infections are on wild prey. I have the suspicion that chances of a mite infection are LOWER on wild prey than they are on feeder insects bought from stores.
 

You should bake/boil/sterilize wild media before introducing it to your ants. There are many examples of people doing this and advocating for its usage, but I haven't seen anyone do a detailed comparison of raw and cooked media in otherwise similar conditions.

Same as with the above. I doubt garden earth bought from a hobby market has less potential of ant parasites inside than soil taken from your actual garden.


Edited by Serafine, April 13 2017 - 12:18 AM.

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#9 Offline Reacker - Posted April 13 2017 - 12:41 AM

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>This is most likely more a thing of "getting used to it". Most ants can do fine in light but when they were kept in the dark at the beginning they will take some time to get used to.

 

Please post the carefully recorded data that you took when you were trying some queens caught in the same day at the same time in otherwise identical conditions in light vs dark. Please also define the behavior characteristics that ants that are "fine"  in light display vs ants  that are in a state of "taking some time to get used to" light display.

 

>If I remove the cover from my Camponotus nest they instantly panic - which is a clear proof that, in their current situation and for whatever reason, they don't like light.

 

Which provides literally zero information regarding whether or not it matters at all if you keep your ants in light or dark long term.

 

>However if I had held them in the light from the beginning they probably wouldn't care at all.

 

 

Unsupported supposition. What evidence do you have for this? What do you mean when you say that ants "care" about something? Please define the behavioral characteristics that differentiate ants caring for something vs not caring. 

 

>Stress is mostly used to describe when people disturb their ants too often, like poking on them every day with shining lights on them, shaking them and stuff.

 

When used with this specific connotation I would agree.

 

>There SEEM TO BE certain species (especially Messor) which do not seem to like it when they're disturbed too often during the founding stage and as a result more often fail.

 

More unsupported supposition. Please provide detailed accounts of identical queens in identical setups caught at the same place and the same time being disturbed vs undisturbed in sufficient quantity that you can rule out the random deaths from unknown causes that even the best keepers experience. 

 

>Most people do this to kill off mites and other exoparasites. And it definitely works - boiling water will fry any mite within a few seconds.

 

That's the stated reason and I would agree that boiling water probably does do that. The question here isn't whether or not heating media will kill off things living inside of it but whether or not it matters at all. Ants live in the environment with those parasites all the time. What evidence do you have to suggest that a healthy captive colony would be susceptible to parasites to the extent that colony health would be adversely affected even if they were brought in contact with parasites from unprocessed media? What evidence do you have to suggest that any organisms of concern to the health of ants is lying in wait in random unprocessed media rather than through some transmission vector such as other ants, insects, plants or whatever else that wouldn't be brought along with the media? 


>The question however should be how common mite infections are on wild prey. I have the suspicion that chances of a mite infection are LOWER on wild prey than they are on feeder insects bought from stores.
 

Irrelevant.
 
>Same as with the above. I doubt garden earth bought from a hobby market has less potential of ant parasites inside than soil taken from your actual garden.
 
Also irrelevant. Neither of the last two suppositions have any bearing as to whether or not a captive colony is in any danger from media regardless of it's real or imagined parasite load. 
 
 
 
None of this is to say that sterilizing media before introducing it to your ants isn't a good idea; it's just that none of you have any idea and are just doing it because you heard about it from other ant keepers who heard about it from other ant keepers, etc, etc. Show me some actual convincing evidence that it makes a difference, not your half-remembered personal experience mixed with unconfirmed theories. 

Edited by Reacker, April 13 2017 - 12:43 AM.

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#10 Offline Nathant2131 - Posted April 13 2017 - 2:42 AM

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I have a deep agreement with this topic and Reacker's words. Provide detail and evidence to prove a point.
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#11 Offline BMM - Posted April 13 2017 - 4:14 AM

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I get the point of this topic, but it seems to disregard the fact that most of us are hobbyists. Sure, anecdotal evidence isn't as good as meticulously gathered data, but that doesn't invalidate it.


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#12 Offline Barristan - Posted April 13 2017 - 6:16 AM

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myth:

 

A widely held but false belief or idea.

 

 

So in order to be a myth it has to be false. But I don't see any evidence, that the things Reacker listed are false. So they aren't myths since it isn't proven that they're false.



#13 Offline Alabama Anter - Posted April 13 2017 - 6:31 AM

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I have a deep agreement with this topic and Reacker's words. Provide detail and evidence to prove a point.

I agree with most things said in the post as well.


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#14 Offline Jonathan21700 - Posted April 13 2017 - 6:31 AM

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Fully agreed whit Reacker. 


Edited by Jonathan21700, April 13 2017 - 6:35 AM.


#15 Offline Serafine - Posted April 13 2017 - 6:59 AM

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Provide detail and evidence to prove a point.

I don't have to and will not, in fact I don't even care at all.

I'm an ant hobbyist keeping ONE SINGLE ant colony - I'm not a "gotta catch them all" antpokomon hoarder like some people, and I'm certainly not a lab with a few dozen spare colonies and testing facilities.

 

All I did was giving reasons why people are doing certain stuff. I did not say that it's scientifically proven. But usually there's a though process behind it, even if it turns out wrong or irrelevant in the end.

 

 

Which provides literally zero information regarding whether or not it matters at all if you keep your ants in light or dark long term.

No it doesn't. That is why I said "in their current situation and for whatever reason, they don't like light."

Obviously you either didn't see that or blissfully ignored it.

 

 

Unsupported supposition. What evidence do you have for this? What do you mean when you say that ants "care" about something? Please define the behavioral characteristics that differentiate ants caring for something vs not caring.

When I remove the cover and the ants start running around carrying pupae from place to place this is a pretty good indication that they are NOT happy with whatever is currently going on and are feeling extremely disturbed. Especially with how little they react to other "disturbance" like vibrations, red light or even camera flashs (like barely to not at all).

 

 

Which provides literally zero information regarding whether or not it matters at all if you keep your ants in light or dark long term.

I never claimed that. Read my posts carefully and you might stop seeing things that aren't there.


Edited by Serafine, April 13 2017 - 7:15 AM.

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#16 Offline Barristan - Posted April 13 2017 - 7:09 AM

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Ants like darkness. Do they? Has anyone done any comparative experiments with the same species in the same conditions with controls and isolated variables? I haven't seen any. I've seen photos of lab colonies where colonies with a red square of plastic sheeting above a certain section will be where the queen is consistently found, but not any evidence that it makes the slightest difference in colony success.

 

 

Whether ants prefer darkness and if they do better if kept in darkness are two different questions. At least the first one is quite easy to answer for a lot of species. Just do an experiment like I did with Camponotus lateralis:

 

 

Some ant species don't care much about light. Camponotus lateralis freaks out easily if you take off the cover of their nest. So yes these ants like darkness, but if they do better because of darkness? I don't know. But I try to look at how ants life in nature and since most ant species live in darkness ans a lot of species also prefer darkness I keep their nests dark.

 

The problem is, what do you suggest someone who is new?



#17 Offline Batspiderfish - Posted April 13 2017 - 7:16 AM

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Ants like darkness. Do they? Has anyone done any comparative experiments with the same species in the same conditions with controls and isolated variables? I haven't seen any. I've seen photos of lab colonies where colonies with a red square of plastic sheeting above a certain section will be where the queen is consistently found, but not any evidence that it makes the slightest difference in colony success.

 

 

Whether ants prefer darkness and if they do better if kept in darkness are two different questions. At least the first one is quite easy to answer for a lot of species. Just do an experiment like I did with Camponotus lateralis:

 

http://https://www.y...v=HfzFoSct1JQ

 

Some ant species don't care much about light. Camponotus lateralis freaks out easily if you take off the cover of their nest. So yes these ants like darkness, but if they do better because of darkness? I don't know. But I try to look at how ants life in nature and since most ant species live in darkness ans a lot of species also prefer darkness I keep their nests dark.

 

The problem is, what do you suggest someone who is new?

 

 

I understand what you are trying to say, but an experiment always always always needs large sample sizes. This evidence would fall under the category of anecdote, since you can't provide statistical evidence to support that all C. lateralis react in this way. Most experiments must be conducted with more than 50-100 colonies/queens.

I think one of Reacker's major criticisms is that the North American ant community tends to run away with unscientific and unsupported claims (superstitions), turning them into unnecessary or even harmful practices.

Granted that our community has always needed to put much greater emphasis on starting colonies instead of maintaining them, since until GAN we needed to find all of our queens by ourselves. We're pretty set on this now, so it's time to take better care of our treasured pets, mostly by being attentive and accommodating to the ants, rather than having them accommodate our neglectful or intrusive behavior.


Edited by Batspiderfish, April 13 2017 - 7:27 AM.

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If you've enjoyed using my expertise and identifications, please do not create undue ecological risk by releasing your ants. The environment which we keep our pet insects is alien and oftentimes unsanitary, so ensure that wild populations stay safe by giving your ants the best care you can manage for the rest of their lives, as we must do with any other pet.

 

Exotic ants are for those who think that vibrant diversity is something you need to pay money to see. It is illegal to transport live ants across state lines.

 

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#18 Offline Barristan - Posted April 13 2017 - 7:25 AM

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I understand what you are trying to say, but an experiment always always always needs large sample sizes. This evidence would fall under the category of anecdote, since you can't provide statistical evidence to support that all C. lateralis react in this way. Most experiments must be conducted with more than 50-100 colonies/queens.

I think one of Reacker's major criticisms is that the North American ant community tends to run away with unscientific and unsupported claims (superstitions), turning them into unnecessary or even harmful practices.

Granted that our community has always needed to put much greater emphasis on starting colonies instead of maintaining them, since until GAN we needed to find all of our queens by ourselves.

 
But he can't even prove that the things he names myths are actual myths. So with his post he does exactly the same thing he criticizes: Claiming something as fact without providing evidence :).

Please name a few things you suggest to ant keepers and I'm quite sure you don't have evidence for them too. People should stop propagating their own experiences as facts but they shouldn't stop to propagate them, since almost nothing in ant keeping is scientifically proven.

Edited by Barristan, April 13 2017 - 7:27 AM.


#19 Offline Serafine - Posted April 13 2017 - 7:27 AM

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Aside from trying to put together different colonies (isn't that usually labeled as a no-go anyway?) and feeding them purely on an insufficient artificial diet (which most antkeepers don't do anyway as they feed additional insects and fruits) I can't see anything that seems to be particularly harmful to the ants.

 

It may be irrelevant whether you boil or freeze your food or soil or not, but I can't imagine that it would harm the ants if you do (unless the soil is contaminated with some toxic waste that is activated by the heat, but then your soil most likely shouldn't have been considered good in first place).

Someone with a lab, a few hundred spare colonies and too much free time (because obviously there's like bazillions of such people :rolleyes:) might want to test that.


Edited by Serafine, April 13 2017 - 7:29 AM.

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#20 Offline Batspiderfish - Posted April 13 2017 - 8:14 AM

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I understand what you are trying to say, but an experiment always always always needs large sample sizes. This evidence would fall under the category of anecdote, since you can't provide statistical evidence to support that all C. lateralis react in this way. Most experiments must be conducted with more than 50-100 colonies/queens.

I think one of Reacker's major criticisms is that the North American ant community tends to run away with unscientific and unsupported claims (superstitions), turning them into unnecessary or even harmful practices.

Granted that our community has always needed to put much greater emphasis on starting colonies instead of maintaining them, since until GAN we needed to find all of our queens by ourselves.

 
But he can't even prove that the things he names myths are actual myths. So with his post he does exactly the same thing he criticizes: Claiming something as fact without providing evidence :).

Please name a few things you suggest to ant keepers and I'm quite sure you don't have evidence for them too. People should stop propagating their own experiences as facts but they shouldn't stop to propagate them, since almost nothing in ant keeping is scientifically proven.

 

 

The list that Reaker put together was made of claims they felt were unsubstantiated. They did not argue that the opposite is true, and neither am I. However, making a claim with unaccountable conditions placed upon a single colony is part of a pseudoscientific environment that we should discourage as a way to advance the hobby. We must always be wary of hidden variables and combat them through control, repetition, and large sample sizes. That is how the scientific method works.

I agree that people should continue to contribute their experiences in any way possible, but that we should always be wary of anything which does not have clean, statistical support.


Edited by Batspiderfish, April 13 2017 - 8:15 AM.

  • Reacker, LC3 and Nathant2131 like this

If you've enjoyed using my expertise and identifications, please do not create undue ecological risk by releasing your ants. The environment which we keep our pet insects is alien and oftentimes unsanitary, so ensure that wild populations stay safe by giving your ants the best care you can manage for the rest of their lives, as we must do with any other pet.

 

Exotic ants are for those who think that vibrant diversity is something you need to pay money to see. It is illegal to transport live ants across state lines.

 

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Black lives still matter.





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