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Beginner Questions - (Semi-)Natural Formicarium

beginner ant keeping natural formicarium

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#1 Offline ISpeakForTheTrees - Posted April 24 2021 - 7:11 PM

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Hey everyone, my son recently became highly interested in ants (he’ll spend hours daily searching for them and observing them - even if there’s only one ant to watch), so I thought I would look into ant keeping so that he could have a colony available to look at whenever he wanted (even in bad weather). Long story short, after doing a bunch of research it looks like Pogonomyrmex occidentalis would be a good fit for me and my family to start with.

So, here’s where I need a bit of help. I really like to try and spoil any pets I own, so I’d like to do a really nice setup for the ants. I figure that the best way to do that would be through a relatively natural environment setup. Ideally, the setup would allow for the ants to make their nest in a way that’s similar to how they would make it in nature (albeit, it would probably have to be smaller than one of their nests found in the desert), and it would allow for the ants to harvest food from plants grown in the tank.

Here are my thoughts: I’m looking at approximately a 55 gallon tank setup (I have a rough layout sketch drawn up, but I’m not sure how to post it from my phone) where I would hopefully grow some Kentucky Bluegrass, a micro-mini rose bush (maximum size is 1 foot tall and 1 foot wide), one or more dandelions, and a double contained mulberry bonsai (it would be in a pot inside another pot to make removing it for maintenance without disrupting the ants’ tunnels too much possible). My goal would be to have about half the tank be greenery for the ants to harvest seeds from, and the other half be the sandy, gravelly, dirt like they naturally nest in. I would be adding springtails and isopods as well. Additionally, probably around the outside of the bonsai pot I would have a little buffet of sorts made up of a few little “dishes” with various seeds in them.

Here are my questions:
1)Does this sound like a setup that could work and help the ants thrive?

2)What would be the most natural way I could ensure that the ants have water? (I’m fine using a water tower setup, and I have the area I was thinking of putting it in roughly sketched out in my design, but I’m wondering if I would be able to supply them their water more naturally some other way)

3)Related to the water question above, would I need to worry about drowning the ants when watering the plants? (I’m hoping between the humidity of the tank and a regular misting with a spray bottle that I won’t have to do much serious watering, but I really don’t know for sure)

4)Would I need to worry about the springtails and isopods overpopulating and eating the plants, and, if so, what are some things I could do to stop that?

5)Would the ants eat the rosehips/seeds produced by the mini roses or the mulberries/seeds from the bonsai?

6)Would doing a different bonsai (such as Big Sagebrush or Bristlecone Pine, for example) be more beneficial to the ants? (Would they eat the sagebrush seeds or pine nuts?)

7)Would the rose thorns do any damage to the ants? (My wife really likes the idea of having a little rose bush in the setup, but she’s worried about it hurting the ants)

8)What are some other foods that the ants might like on occasion?

9)How do I know if the ants are being over or underfed?

10)I probably should have asked this before my other questions about hydration, but just to be sure I understand how this works for ants, should the water source be accessible in just the formicarium, just the outworld, or both? (Do the ants need a direct water source such as a water tower if the soil in the tank stays moist enough or if there are water droplets on the leaves/dirt/pebbles?)

11)Would it be possible to move a setup like that without collapsing the ants tunnels? (I’m assuming I wouldn’t be able to move it far safely, but I figured I would check)

12)Would we still be able to see the ants tunnels and such while allowing them to decide where they want their own nest, or would I need a more traditional formicarium against the sides of the container for that? (I’m fine not seeing all of the tunnels, but I’d like to be able to see some)

13)Would we be able to see the ants exploring the outworld with this setup while the colony is still small?

14)I understand that with Pogonomyrmex occidentalis specifically you don’t need a permit to transport them across state lines, so if I were to move to a new state in the future, could I legally bring my colony with me?

Sorry for all the questions, I’m just trying to understand what I can and can’t do (so to speak) with keeping ants. Any help is appreciated.

Thanks!

#2 Offline Lillyrose - Posted April 24 2021 - 8:21 PM

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I'm a newbie so I can't answer most of the questions .... but let me share what I know and people with more knowledge will add to it and correct anything.

Take what I say with a grain of salt.

*plants need water to live, misting and the moisture in the soil might not be enough. You want things that can handle fairly dry conditions as most plants need the water to kinda create a pull on their roots.

*chances are they won't choose to tunnel where you can see them. They might but chances are they'll avoid the light and stuff so they won't dig near the glass.

* at small stages and possibly at larger stages you'll not see your ants as much. There are variables but most of the colony will stay out of sight. When they get larger you'll see more but never as many as you have. You'll miss out on the eggs and larvae and stuff, as well as the queen. If something happens to the queen and she dies you won't know till the numbers drop dramatically.

* double check laws.. I think you need a permit to cross state lines even with them ... but maybe not if they're native to both places.

*the thorns won't bother them

* it will be very hard to move it... the tunnels probably won't make it. One of the dangers of keeping dirt set up in houses is vibrations ... they collapse tunnels. Some ants are more stressed by it than others.

Again.. grain of salt :-) have fun

#3 Offline Leo - Posted April 24 2021 - 11:54 PM

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Ok, first things first:

  • I'm fairly certain most ants will need feeder insects as a protein source, so you are going to need to supply those.
  • I suppose you could add some clay into the sand, as that usually helps the tunnels stay rigid (not moddeling clay), I am not sure how to describe the sort of clay i'm talking about, but its the sort in clay-based soils you find near streams and rivers.
  • I have never kept Pogonomyrmex, but it may be hard to see a small colony, escpecially if the terrarium has a lot of plants and cover.
  • The watering probably won't drown the ants, given that both the plants and ants are found in similar conditions in the wild. For example, water would not be too much of a problem in a terrarium with tropical ants and tropical plants, as both species are suited to the amount of water that the other needs. 
  • Rose thorns will not hurt them.
  • the springtails likely won't hurt the plants, not sure about the isopods though.
  • How much food a colony need will be experimented with, as you should feed them with a small amount of food, and slowly increase the amount of food they recieve until they can no longer finish it, at that point you should reduce it a little and feed them that amount of food maybe every other day or so.
  • when the colony is small, chances are, you will not see their tunnels on the side. You can try to encourage digging at the glass by covering it with carboard or something to darken it so the ants are willing to tunnel towards the side, or perhaps a heat mat, as ants are often attracted to heat.

even though I have a fair bit of experience, I am by no means an expert, and as I have never even seen any Pogonomyrmex in my life, you probably shouldn't take my advice too seriously. But good luck!



#4 Offline justanotheramy - Posted April 25 2021 - 1:43 AM

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oooh! ooooh! me! me!
lol.

I converted my aphaenogaster longiceps to bioactive a while go, and they're loving life.
You can see them here.

What has worked really well is stacking stones and then infilling with soil with some clay to it; to give their tunnelling some stability. I'd noticed that wild ants like to tunnel up against stones and roots underground, and that my own ants would go for edges and corners of the formicaria if tunnelling in sand.

What I would do differently is providing them with 2 habitats instead of one — I assumed I'd be able to let them forage above ground and tunnel below, but they really need a nesting formicaria and a separate outworld. That may just be a funnel ant thing though? The funnels are out of control!



#5 Offline ANTdrew - Posted April 25 2021 - 2:02 AM

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Leo did a great job answering most of your questions, but I’ll chime in a bit because I’ve had fun keeping a couple of soil setups in the past.
First, I highly recommend reading about what Dspdrew has done with Pogonomyrmex in the past. He has elevated the soil setup to a level of high art:
https://www.formicul...-15-2020/page-4

You can also read about my crude copy of his design here: https://www.formicul...rm-setup/page-7

Basically, I would recommend figuring out some way to fit an inner box inside the tank, so the ants need to tunnel on the sides (and probably using a much smaller tank). Fitting plants into something like this would be difficult, but you could leave a section with unblocked soil they could grow in. I doubt any plant would put out enough seeds to even bother considering it as a food source, especially in a low light indoor setting.
Isopods could overpopulate, so I’d skip those.
A heat pad on the side could also encourage ants to dig where you want them to, but you’d need to remove the pad to see them.
To prevent soil collapses, you want a soil with a high clay content. Basically, any soil you can roll into a ball that retains its shape will be fine. If you find an area with lots of soil nesting ants, you can be sure it will work. Where I live, my soil is basically pure clay, so I mix it 50/50 with some sand. Ants will be fine digging in pure clay, though. Clay is a blessing and a curse all in one.
Remember that ants are earth’s most successful creatures and are incredibly resilient and resourceful, so don’t overthink it. Just learn from our mistakes on here by researching.
Good luck!

Edited by ANTdrew, April 25 2021 - 2:13 AM.

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"The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer." Prov. 30:25  

Keep ordinary ants in extraordinary ways.


#6 Offline Kaelwizard - Posted April 25 2021 - 5:25 AM

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I'm a newbie so I can't answer most of the questions .... but let me share what I know and people with more knowledge will add to it and correct anything.

Take what I say with a grain of salt.

*plants need water to live, misting and the moisture in the soil might not be enough. You want things that can handle fairly dry conditions as most plants need the water to kinda create a pull on their roots.

*chances are they won't choose to tunnel where you can see them. They might but chances are they'll avoid the light and stuff so they won't dig near the glass.

* at small stages and possibly at larger stages you'll not see your ants as much. There are variables but most of the colony will stay out of sight. When they get larger you'll see more but never as many as you have. You'll miss out on the eggs and larvae and stuff, as well as the queen. If something happens to the queen and she dies you won't know till the numbers drop dramatically.

* double check laws.. I think you need a permit to cross state lines even with them ... but maybe not if they're native to both places.

*the thorns won't bother them

* it will be very hard to move it... the tunnels probably won't make it. One of the dangers of keeping dirt set up in houses is vibrations ... they collapse tunnels. Some ants are more stressed by it than others.

Again.. grain of salt :-) have fun

Pogonomyrmex occidentalis is the only species that you can legally move over state lines without a permit. For other species, even if it is native to where you are bringing it, you would still need a permit.

Edited by Kaelwizard, April 26 2021 - 9:42 AM.


#7 Offline justanotheramy - Posted April 25 2021 - 5:49 AM

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I still recommend including rocks in the soil <shrug>

Also, I've been seeing some really nice little grow lights lately at the aquarium shop for aquatic gardening setups. Might be something to look into if you want plants?



#8 Offline ISpeakForTheTrees - Posted April 26 2021 - 8:44 AM

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Thank you all for the fast replies. 
 
Those soil setups seem like they would be a good idea, though I do agree it would be difficult to fit plants into that sort of a design. So, I'm thinking I'll start off with a smaller tank or two like you suggest ANTdrew and test out a few different setups similar to the soil ones you and Dspdrew used there (I'll probably do one the same way you suggest and one or more tweaked slightly so I can compare them). I'll tinker around a bit and see if I can get a functional design figured out that would allow me to see the tunnels while also allow for plants (I have a couple of ideas, but I don't know how well they would work - it sounds fun to try and find out though). I'll hold off on the bigger tank until I figure out a design that works well with plants.
 
Also, good to know with the isopods and the clay. I'll definitely adjust my plans there. 
 
Thanks for the clarification there Kaelwizard. 
 
Lillyrose and Leo, taking your comments about the plants and watering into consideration, I did some more research on the ants natural habitat and (while I'm still planning on using the mini rose bush - though I may double pot that one to keep from overwatering the plants around it) I'm thinking I'll adjust from from the Kentucky Bluegrass to Western Wheatgrass and either one or some combination of Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Sandberg Bluegrass, or Blue Grama (all of which are native to the same environment and are frequently found growing together - most of them are bunch grasses rather than sod formers). Additionally I'm thinking I may just swap out the mulberry for a Big Sagebrush plant, as those are native to the same areas and they should make for a good bonsai. I don't know if the ants will eat the seeds from it, but the seeds are small enough that they should be able to if they want. 
 
Justanotheramy, good to know with the stones. I was already planning on adding a bunch of pebbles/gravel for them to work with since they make mounds of them in the wild, but I'll add a few larger rocks for them to play around with too. With regards to the grow lights I've actually go my eye on a couple of them - one which would work well for a big setup (which I am hoping to do in the relatively-near future) and one which would work for a smaller setup like I'm thinking to start with. 
 
With regards to the feeder insects Leo, I know most species of ants do need them, but I'm wondering if Pogonomyrmex occidentalis does or does not, because THA's guide for them seems to suggest that feeder insects are more optional than required for this species. Regardless, knowing the importance of protein for the larvae of most ant species, I'm definitely willing to offer them some fruit flies or crickets. 
 
Out of curiosity, though, would I be able to substitute the insect with something like a small piece of chicken/meat or some fish food or something if I wanted to? (I know Dspdrew offered his Pogonomyrmex cichlid pellets, but I don't know if it would be an adequate substitute or just a supplement instead.)
 
Thank you guys again for the fast replies and the help. I've got a few months before the nuptial flight for these guys, but I'll try and post about my starting setups when they're ready/once I get queens for them. 


#9 Offline Kaelwizard - Posted April 26 2021 - 9:43 AM

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I would give them feeder insects. Probably helps speed up larval development with the extra protein.
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