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Journal of My Afflicted Colonies

dead ants mold fungus colony collapse

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#1 Offline rptraut - Posted September 25 2023 - 12:28 AM

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In this journal, I'll write about my ant colonies that have become afflicted with a disease, and hopefully my observations will help others avoid these problems, or readers may have suggestions to help solve the problems that my colonies are experiencing.

 

I first noticed a problem with my colonies in spring when my largest Camponotus colony suffered extreme losses of workers.  At that time, I wasn't sure what was going on with the colony, but by the beginning of summer worker numbers had plunged until about 85% of them were dead.  Giving them additional bird droppings and pine resin didn’t seem to stop the losses.  The queen, brood and remaining workers abandoned the old nest and moved into the outworld where they are now living in a piece of wood that had been a Carpenter ant nest.   The six-year-old colony I had before has been reduced to the size of a two-year-old colony.

 

2023-09-23 002.JPG

The Greenhouse colony abandoned their dead and their original nest and moved into this piece of old Carpenter ant nest.  

 

And that’s been the typical scenario with the rest of my afflicted colonies. It starts off with significant death losses of workers.  The most seriously affected colonies were really thriving and doing well. Typically, at first, I would see every worker carrying a dead worker and their death pile growing larger every day, to the point where eventually all the foraging workers had died. Many of the small colonies were wiped out.  At first, I attributed the losses to the fact that I'd been away for eight days, and I thought I'd underestimated the amount of water that a thriving colony would use, so I attributed the losses to the lack of water as the weather turned dry while I was away.   Since then, I’ve realized that this disease is some kind of bacteria, virus or fungus that can spread from one colony to another. 

 

The colonies affected most are the Myrmica and Brachymyrmex colonies. Founding colonies were totally wiped out.  The largest colonies have been able to survive the worker losses and still have enough surviving workers to forage and bring food back to the nest.  In the medium sized colonies, the foraging workers were depleted to the point where there's only the queen, brood and nurse workers that remain in the nest. There's a great reduction in the amount of protein and sugar/water they consume. Most of the colonies sat like that for a month, basically the queen, brood and nurse workers and no foraging activity whatsoever that I could see. But the nurse workers look like they’ve continued to raise the brood and one of the earliest affected Myrmica colonies has produced pupae. I don't know what they were raising them on because they didn't take much food over that time. They may be small versions of normal size.  

 

Mites have been an ongoing problem with my colonies. I’ve had a mite problem since spring when I think I had an infected fruit fly culture and that was the beginning.  The biggest problem is that they seem to be able to show up from nowhere in a colony. I don't know, but this disease could also have been carried by those mites.  Two of the small colonies that were first affected had been brood boosted earlier in spring.  Can cocoons carry disease?  I’d like to know where this pathogen came from.

 

The colonies that have been affected include Camponotus, Myrmica, Lasius, Tapinoma, and Brachymyrmex.  The only colonies that don’t seem to have been affected are Tetramorium and Temnothorax.  Since I noticed this affliction, I tried to quarantine affected colonies.  I’ve been disinfecting my equipment with hand sanitizer between feeding and cleaning each colony and I use separate implements for each. I’ve basically tried to keep everything as sanitary as possible and yet this disease continues to spread. I've been feeding mostly meat products with a few insects that I know are disease free because they've been boiled. I've also added fruit to their diet as I noticed a lot of ants, wasps, and hornets enjoy eating the rotting pears in my orchard, so I've given them pear, peach and raisin pieces. These fruits are high in vitamin C and if this malady is a virus, I hope it might help the ants' immune systems.   I’ve also reduced hydration to a minimum in case it is a fungus.

 

2023-09-19 002.JPG

This photo shows the worker losses from one Myrmica colony that was thriving in spring with many workers and brood, and you can see the devastating effect of this disease. This colony is large enough it still has a significant number of living workers and is still raising brood, but they continue to lose workers daily.  This is my Tree Frog colony, there are nesting chambers in the stump and frog as well as the base.  

 

 

IMG_3599.JPG

This is a photo of the mites that are affecting my colonies. The marks on the scale are 2.5 mm apart.  I'm not sure what these mites are or if they're directly affecting the ants. I've never seen them on an ant. They do like trash.  I’ve been removing them from colonies by using pieces of freeze-dried brine shrimp as bait to attract them and when they’re all dug in, I remove them from the colony to the compactor (my thumb and forefinger).

 

 

I probably added to the spread of the disease by using the same pooter to remove trash and dead ants that I used to collect flies for ant food.  I now use two pooters, one for trash and one for food insects.

 

As I was writing this over a number of days, I was never sure as to the cause of these problems but lately in a related post there were reports of colonies with similar symptoms and the pathogen was diagnosed by Manitobant as “aspergillus flavus, a type of fungus.”  He continued to say that “Unlike some other molds, this stuff is far from harmless, and can quickly ravage a colony if it’s allowed to spread. It usually first appears on dead workers or other things in the trash pile, but can then infect live ones especially if your colony is kept in a small space such as a test tube. “

 

I think mold may be the cause of the problems with my colonies.  This makes a lot of sense to me as my colonies’ problems started after I was away.  Before I left, I well hydrated my colonies, packed them in sealed tubs and put them in a cool place to sit out my absence.  I was afraid they would dry out, but they might have been too wet.  I stored them in the perfect conditions for mold to grow, although I only ever saw mold once on a few dead ants.  My workshop isn’t very well ventilated as I had all the windows closed to keep in the heat during this cool summer and poor air circulation promotes mold growth.  My ants languished all summer in the cool temperatures as it seldom got above 30 deg C and they never really kicked into high gear. 

 

I lost a lot of founding and small colonies this summer.  I also lost a lot of ants from the medium and large-sized colonies, but they seem to have been able to outgrow the mold and are making a comeback.  I’ve managed to keep a few founding colonies alive and disease free, so all is not lost.  I fear though, that some colonies may have a tough time getting through diapause in a weakened condition.   I also worry about the long-term effects.  Will my ants and I have to constantly battle mold, or can it be managed for and hopefully eradicated?

 

You probably realize that this has been a pretty discouraging summer for me.  It’s hard to watch colonies dwindle despite my best efforts to save them.  The next installment of this Journal will include some suggestions, from what I’ve learned so far, to help you avoid these types of problems in your own colonies.  Please feel free to comment or add any suggestions you may have to help me and others who are dealing with colony problems, especially mold.

 

Enjoy your time.

RPT


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#2 Offline ANTdrew - Posted September 25 2023 - 2:39 AM

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I’m extremely sorry to hear about your awful time with this malady. I really hope your colonies can recover. As to mites, I recommend buying predatory mites and releasing them into your setup. They will quickly decimate trash mites, then dwindle away once their food source is gone.
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#3 Offline Ernteameise - Posted September 25 2023 - 3:08 AM

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Hmm.

As a vet, I usually NEVER think of mold as the primary cause of a problem.

Aspergillus flavus is a known OPPORTUNISTIC pathogen- meaning, yes, it can kill and it will kill (even immune-deficient humans!), but in most cases, it only does so when there are other issues at work.

An example.

Birds are HIGHLY susceptible to the toxin that Aspergillus flavus produces. It produces are very potent toxin "Aflatoxin" which is pretty bad news. Several parrot species and especially penguins are at risk with Aspergillus.

Why is that?

These birds are kept under wrong conditions. This is of course a no-brainer with penguins in our zoo climates.

But parrots kept at home are usually kept with too dry air, they get insufficient nutrition with vitamin imbalance and many do not have access to fresh air and sunlight. All of this gives a SEVERE hit to the immune system. As an opportunistic pathogen, A. flavus jumps at the chance- these are ideal conditions for it to attack.

 

I literally cannot believe that this mold is a primary pathogen in ants.

Honestly, A. flavus spores are everywhere in the air. You breathe them in with every breath you take.

Clients at my lab often ask us if we offer a PCR test for A. flavus. Because it is such an issue in birds (I am a bird vet).

I just laugh at the question.

We could offer a test.

But there is a serious flaw- since the spores are EVERYWHERE, and we do not have a high security lab with security air filters, EVERY PCR we would do would be positive.

 

So if A. flavus was a primary pathogen for ants, then ants would have gone extinct ages ago.

 

Nah.

There must be other problems.

Very likely conditions are not right or not perfect, or, and this is my suspicion as a vet, there are viruses involved.

Several members have reported these die-offs, and the reports about using the same cleaning materials or same pincers for all the colonies and having the issue in several colonies at any given time points very much to an infectious agent.

Not much is known about ant viruses at all.

I already looked for some scientific publications and I am actually playing with the idea of establishing some PCR tests at my lab (if I ever can get my boss on board).

So I very much suspect that primary causes are not optimal conditions and a virus that was introduced with feeder insects.

And this created the perfect route of attack for Aspergillus flavus.

 

Oh, and of course mites are also excellent carrier vectors for virus transmission.

 

Just my two cents on the topic.

 

However, I am very happy that we start to discuss these issues and that we create these threads and that we collect information.

That is EXTREMELY valuable.


Edited by Ernteameise, September 25 2023 - 3:12 AM.

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#4 Offline Ernteameise - Posted September 25 2023 - 3:17 AM

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My suggestions would be, if you start new and re-use your old stuff, get hold of a good disinfectant that also removes viruses.

Get a good medical grade disinfectant.

Alcohol will not cut it.

Clean it well, use VERY hot water, let it dry, and then use the disinfectant.

Not sure however how well certain materials will survive this treatments, so maybe tubing and plaster and some plastic might suffer or get damaged.

But I know of not much else you could do to get rid of these viruses.

 

I would not worry too much about Aspergillus- as I said, the spores are everywhere and it will be impossible to remove.

Against Aspergillus, the BEST you can do is got ventilation, avoid too dry air and regular cleaning and avoid built up of trash and refuse.


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#5 Offline Leo - Posted September 25 2023 - 3:54 AM

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I'd agree with Ernteameise here, there are many pathogenic fungi out there but usually what I've observed is that captive colonies are more suceptible to the fungi due to an external reason such as stress or conditions which favor mold growth. In the wild, there are also lots of microorganisms, fungi and small critters (e.g. springtails) which fight the mold for food or outright consume it, and so in a more sterile condition without these challenges for the mold, it is far easier for mold to grab a foothold if the ants are already suffering from a viral infection. If you really want to see if your ants are suffering from a fungal infection, just take a few of the corpses and place it in a humid environment for a while and see what sprouts from the body. If the problem is fungal, you should see some mycelium or fruiting bodies emerge from the corpse in a few days.


Edited by Leo, September 25 2023 - 3:55 AM.


#6 Offline rptraut - Posted September 25 2023 - 10:56 AM

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In his post located here, Watch out for Flea Medicine! - General Ant Keeping - Ants & Myrmecology Forum (formiculture.com), M Ants describes his experiences with Flea and Tick pesticide collars for pets and the effect on ants.  He warns about the dangers of accidentally poisoning ants and I wonder if this could have been part of the problem with my ants.  This was my response to his post.  

 

Hello M Ants;

 

Recently I've been writing about similar die-offs in my colonies.  You'll find it here Journal of My Afflicted Colonies - Ant Keeping Journals - Ants & Myrmecology Forum (formiculture.com).  Thanks for your suggestion about the flea killer and its effect on ants.  As a matter of fact, I had a dog that wore a flea and tick collar all summer.  Unfortunately, he died last week, (this has been a bad summer) so in a way I will have a pre flea collar and post flea collar situation that I can monitor.  I was aware that the flea pesticide might affect ants and tried to be vigilant about washing my hands before feeding them or after petting my dog.  But, like all dogs, mine always needed attention and I can't honestly say that I was always able to tend my ants with clean hands.  Also, he was a large collie/shepherd cross and shed fur at all times of the year.  His fur is ever-present in the workshop where I keep my ants, as that was also the room where he lived in the house.  I'm sure that there is also the equivalent of "dog dandruff" floating around in the air.  It may carry pesticide as well.  Thanks for enlightening us about the flea and tick pesticide and its dangers for ants.  I will spread the word.

RPT


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#7 Offline M_Ants - Posted September 25 2023 - 10:56 AM

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Can you describe how they die? Do they just show up dead in a pile or have you seen workers struggling with symptoms? 


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#8 Offline rptraut - Posted September 25 2023 - 11:15 AM

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Hello M Ants;

I never noticed any symptoms in living ants.  Simply dead ants being carried around by other ants and the dead ant pile growing larger every day.  It did seem that only foraging workers were the ones that died, but it could be that after the dead had been cleaned away, all that remained were the queen, brood and nurse ants.

RPT


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#9 Offline M_Ants - Posted September 25 2023 - 11:22 AM

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Hello M Ants;

I never noticed any symptoms in living ants.  Simply dead ants being carried around by other ants and the dead ant pile growing larger every day.  It did seem that only foraging workers were the ones that died, but it could be that after the dead had been cleaned away, all that remained were the queen, brood and nurse ants.

RPT

Interesting. In that case it may not have been related to flea medicine. In my case at least, workers were usually visibly effected and took some time to die. 


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Veromessor pergandei

Veromessor andrei

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Pogonomyrmex cf cali and rugosus

Various Pheidole

C. yogi 

https://www.youtube....FG7utFVBA/about


#10 Offline Ernteameise - Posted September 25 2023 - 11:35 AM

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Hello M Ants;

I never noticed any symptoms in living ants.  Simply dead ants being carried around by other ants and the dead ant pile growing larger every day.  It did seem that only foraging workers were the ones that died, but it could be that after the dead had been cleaned away, all that remained were the queen, brood and nurse ants.

RPT

Interesting. In that case it may not have been related to flea medicine. In my case at least, workers were usually visibly effected and took some time to die. 

 

I agree with you.

The poison in flea medicine is deadly to ants, yes, but they will show symptoms and suffering before dying. Have you ever watched fleas die from flea poison?

They become sluggish, show central nervous symptoms (loss of coordination, seizures and such) and will take a while to die.

 

The observation by RPT however that only the foragers died, while queen, brood and nurses survived is an interesting one.

Because it could mean two things:

a) yes, it was a toxic agent because it killed the outdoor ants and the ants inside were not or less affected because they had less contact to the toxic agent

or

b ) For some reason all the OLD ants died while all the youngsters and the queen survived. Because, nurses usually (with some exceptions) are the young ants and foragers are the older ants. Which, again, could point to two things:

- a toxic agent that takes time to accumulate in the bodies (but then, why did the queen survive? She will be the oldest in the colony!)

- an infectious agent like a virus (which has a certain incubation period and only starts to kill after some time, when the viruses have replicated enough to cause damage; incubation periods in different viruses vary very wildly, and it can be between a couple of days up to several years- in birds and mammals at least).

I have read some studies that for several reasons, the immune system of a queen is much more robust than that of normal worker ants- so again, this might also point to a virus?

 

I am just speculating here and trying to put these observation in context with what I know from birds and mammals and the few papers I read on insects.

I am by no means an expert.

But still, interesting.


Edited by Ernteameise, September 25 2023 - 11:36 AM.

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#11 Offline rptraut - Posted September 25 2023 - 11:32 PM

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Hello Ernteameise:

 

I was remiss not mentioning your comments in the thread "Ant Talk at Vet Conference" where you suggested that a virus might be the problem with my colonies.  Everyone should read the entire post.  It's very informative.  In that post you listed the things I should do to begin to address the problem. You said:

 

"This is basically all you can do against infections in general (and viruses especially):

Hygiene, hygiene, and have I mentioned hygiene?

Best separate utensils for each colony, and if not possible, disinfect in between using them in different colonies.

In-out system.

Good sanitation.

Regular cleaning.

Do not let waste pile up.

Keep temperatures and humidity at optimum.

Feed the best quality foods".

 

I've implemented these steps in my ant tending routine along with a few others and these measures seem to have helped stabilize the condition of my colonies.  Most of them have slowed down now in preparation for diapause.  Many of them are finishing their brood or have their brood at the right stage for their winter rest. 

 

I do have a few more questions.

Is hand sanitizer a satisfactory disinfectant for my feeding tools to kill viruses, like it was supposed to for Covid?

Is chlorinated tap water strong enough to disinfect a used formicarium for reuse?  It's supposed to kill bacteria, will it disinfect viruses too?

Thanks again for all your help.

RPT

   


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#12 Offline PurdueEntomology - Posted September 26 2023 - 3:46 AM

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Hmm.

As a vet, I usually NEVER think of mold as the primary cause of a problem.

Aspergillus flavus is a known OPPORTUNISTIC pathogen- meaning, yes, it can kill and it will kill (even immune-deficient humans!), but in most cases, it only does so when there are other issues at work.

An example.

Birds are HIGHLY susceptible to the toxin that Aspergillus flavus produces. It produces are very potent toxin "Aflatoxin" which is pretty bad news. Several parrot species and especially penguins are at risk with Aspergillus.

Why is that?

These birds are kept under wrong conditions. This is of course a no-brainer with penguins in our zoo climates.

But parrots kept at home are usually kept with too dry air, they get insufficient nutrition with vitamin imbalance and many do not have access to fresh air and sunlight. All of this gives a SEVERE hit to the immune system. As an opportunistic pathogen, A. flavus jumps at the chance- these are ideal conditions for it to attack.

 

I literally cannot believe that this mold is a primary pathogen in ants.

Honestly, A. flavus spores are everywhere in the air. You breathe them in with every breath you take.

Clients at my lab often ask us if we offer a PCR test for A. flavus. Because it is such an issue in birds (I am a bird vet).

I just laugh at the question.

We could offer a test.

But there is a serious flaw- since the spores are EVERYWHERE, and we do not have a high security lab with security air filters, EVERY PCR we would do would be positive.

 

So if A. flavus was a primary pathogen for ants, then ants would have gone extinct ages ago.

 

Nah.

There must be other problems.

Very likely conditions are not right or not perfect, or, and this is my suspicion as a vet, there are viruses involved.

Several members have reported these die-offs, and the reports about using the same cleaning materials or same pincers for all the colonies and having the issue in several colonies at any given time points very much to an infectious agent.

Not much is known about ant viruses at all.

I already looked for some scientific publications and I am actually playing with the idea of establishing some PCR tests at my lab (if I ever can get my boss on board).

So I very much suspect that primary causes are not optimal conditions and a virus that was introduced with feeder insects.

And this created the perfect route of attack for Aspergillus flavus.

 

Oh, and of course mites are also excellent carrier vectors for virus transmission.

 

Just my two cents on the topic.

 

However, I am very happy that we start to discuss these issues and that we create these threads and that we collect information.

That is EXTREMELY valuable.

Examples from honey bees:  some mites of course are vectors but if these mites are NOT an external parasite like Varroa spp. or tracheal as in Acarapis woodi  (not necessarily a vector)as an example (which would be so small that visual detection even with a hand lands would be extremely difficult) assuming the mite is a vector would in my opinion not be top on my list.  When I kept Neivamyrmex colonies in its natural state already had ectoparasitic mites and containerization just created an environment for the mites to flourish and weaken the colonies, this was a consistent problem.   The ectoparasitic mites should be easily seen on the ants here but  here it seems you simply have an opportunistic  mite that is NOT feeding on the ants but on other  food sources I would therefore rule out the mite identified in the photo above.  It is possible a gut related fungus/bacteria is at play here and if it is like Nosema in honeybees it can bee transmitted through trophallaxis and cleaning since it may be present in fecal deposits as spores etc. Again since this is an area of little scientific reporting it may currently be difficult to ascertain.  I had a Camponotus colony that had a die off.  I transferred the colony to a new sanitized container and they recovered even though I lost about 60% of workers. I chalked that one up to a possible bacteria in the carbohydrate food source.  Most die offs from my culturing experience are due to low moisture and humidity. If we take honeybees as a hymenopteran analog for a possible virus issue then usually for viruses some type of morphological change or aberration takes place or a behavior change:  sluggishness, discoloration, physical deformity (K wing holding for example in honey bees, darker body colors, loss of body setae), and since you have not reported such, I would be cautious of a viral source.  


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#13 Offline Ernteameise - Posted September 26 2023 - 10:45 AM

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Hello Ernteameise:

 

I was remiss not mentioning your comments in the thread "Ant Talk at Vet Conference" where you suggested that a virus might be the problem with my colonies.  Everyone should read the entire post.  It's very informative.  In that post you listed the things I should do to begin to address the problem. You said:

 

"This is basically all you can do against infections in general (and viruses especially):

Hygiene, hygiene, and have I mentioned hygiene?

Best separate utensils for each colony, and if not possible, disinfect in between using them in different colonies.

In-out system.

Good sanitation.

Regular cleaning.

Do not let waste pile up.

Keep temperatures and humidity at optimum.

Feed the best quality foods".

 

I've implemented these steps in my ant tending routine along with a few others and these measures seem to have helped stabilize the condition of my colonies.  Most of them have slowed down now in preparation for diapause.  Many of them are finishing their brood or have their brood at the right stage for their winter rest. 

 

I do have a few more questions.

Is hand sanitizer a satisfactory disinfectant for my feeding tools to kill viruses, like it was supposed to for Covid?

Is chlorinated tap water strong enough to disinfect a used formicarium for reuse?  It's supposed to kill bacteria, will it disinfect viruses too?

Thanks again for all your help.

RPT

Well, as I said above, you will need a MEDICAL GRADE (= more expensive) disinfectant.

Pretty much all hand sanitizers are alcohol based.

This is NOT sufficient to kill certain types of viruses (like parvovirus, a severe diarrhea causing virus in dogs and cause of panleucemia in cats).

Covid and HIV viruses are a joke, they are no comparison to the "tough" viruses. HIV basically dies if you look at it in an angry way, and COVID dissolves in normal standard soap.

Other viruses, like Parvo, are there to stay and will laugh at alcohol and soap. Chlorinated water will just make them shrug.

 

Plus- hand sanitizers, as the name says, are made to work on organic tissue. Like hands.

It is NOT effective on surface areas- you need a special surface disinfectant!

 

We do NOT know which virus is involved- so you might have to take the plunge and buy a high grade disinfectant.

 

Yes, normal household bleach CAN be efficient, but it is very aggressive. You also better wear protective clothing.

In veterinary practice, something like Virkon S is recommended.

 

Suggestion-

If you have other animals, you could ask your vet at the next visit to buy a small measure of Virkon S or similar.

Or maybe you know a pharmacy where you can buy small measures.

No use for you to buy a gallon bucket for hundreds of dollars!

 

And as I said before-

these substances are aggressive and can damage your nests and equipment. You will have to check first if any of that stuff will survive.

Or if it will be worth the risk for you to put new colonies into contaminated housing.


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#14 Offline rptraut - Posted September 27 2023 - 11:58 PM

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Thanks everyone for your input and suggestions as to the cause and cure for the disease affecting my colonies.  Regardless of the cause, it seems basic husbandry standards of cleanliness, sanitation, food safety, and disease containment will be my best approach to dealing with this problem.  I can get Virkon S or equivalent at my local vet and food safety has become my top priority.  Since I began this Journal, my colonies have stabilized.  The daily loss of workers is still happening to a couple of Myrmica colonies, the others seem to have turned the corner and are finishing their larvae or have them at the right stage for diapause and death losses are minimal.  They still have very few foraging workers, but all are slowing down for their winter rest.  Thankfully I do have colonies that have been unaffected, and they give me hope that I won't lose them all.  

 

In a future post I will try to summarize, from this experience, the precautions and safety measures that will help avoid disease problems in your ant colonies.  

RPT


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#15 Offline Leo - Posted September 28 2023 - 10:35 PM

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I mean you can also sterilize your tools with heat. I myself just run my tweezers and such through a flame for like 10ish seconds and then just dunk them into some RO water to sterilize my stuff after dealing with fungi and dead ants
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#16 Offline rptraut - Posted October 6 2023 - 11:28 PM

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Thanks everyone for all your comments and suggestions.  As a result of these discussions, I have created an "Ant Keeping Health Care Guide" you can find here Ant Keeping Health Guide - General Ant Keeping - Ants & Myrmecology Forum (formiculture.com).  I would appreciate your feedback on the Guide and together we can make ant keeping safer for the keeper and the ants!

RPT


  • Ernteameise and 100lols like this
My father always said I had ants in my pants.





Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: dead ants, mold, fungus, colony collapse

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