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antkeeping guide - ant health issues

ant health guide mold fungus raid; care mites;

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#1 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 2:27 PM


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@Ernteameise It's finally done!



During their endeavors antkeepers may encounter a variety of health issues their ants are struggling with.
This is a broad but not entirely comprehensive list on these problems – there are just too many specialized issues with certain uncommonly kept ants to mention them all here, and the specific requirements of many of those species are also still poorly understood.

1. Antkeeping issues

This chapter is about problems that can arise due to how the ants are handled, kept and fed.

1.1 Care issues
Inadequate care can lead to a number of problems mostly affecting the growth of a colony.

- Disturbance
Ants do not like to be disturbed. Broad daylight suddenly shining into the nest usually means the nest has been broken up by some disaster or a hungry predator and the ants must fight for the continued existence of their colony.
Single queens are exceptionally vulnerable to this and will often eat their brood if disturbed too often (Camponotus and Messor queens in particular have a reputation for eating all of their eggs when checked too frequently) but also small colonies of more sensitive species (Harpegnathos sp) can be affected very badly.
Generally single queens and small colonies should only be checked once a week, very sensitive queens are better left alone for a full month.

Ants also generally don’t like strong vibrations. Queens again are the most sensitive and should be kept in a test tube/nest in a place that experiences as few vibrations as possible – like high up on a shelf or in a rarely used drawer. Putting a towel under the test tube can act as a buffer against ground vibrations. If you have an extremely sensitive queen you should refrain from playing very loud music as well, at least until she has her first workers.
Over time colonies will get used to reoccurring vibrations like people walking around in the room, machines running and even loud music.

- Trash buildup
While ant setups do not have to be perfectly clean, larger trash piles should regularly be removed, especially the ones with food leftovers, as they are perfect breeding grounds for all sorts of nasty things. Roaches and crickets can also smell particularly bad if the ants didn’t fully eat them out.

Larger chunks (like the dorsal shell of a roach or the hollowed-out thorax of a locust) can be removed with pincers or forceps. Smaller debris is easily picked up with a flat brush, 20mm width (size 20) is about perfect. More settled piles may require the use of a spoon.

Piles that consist mostly of discarded cocoon hulls are of less consideration as they offer no food for mites or mold, however they often double up as ant toilets and thus should be removed when they grow too big or start to smell bad.

- Lack of hibernation
This is one of the more common pitfalls for inexperienced antkeepers. Most ants from temperate and subpolar climate zones experience some sort of winter hibernation (it is not technically hibernation, but the term has more or less established itself in the antkeeping community – the correct term is diapause).
The typical minimum duration for this diapause is 3 months, in which the ants have to experience significantly lower temperatures than usual. The specific temperature requirements roughly depend on the climate zone the ant originated from - for Mediterranean ants it is around 15°C, for central and northern European ants it is more like 5-10°C. Freezing temperatures are usually not required.

If the diapause period is too short or temperatures have been too high the ant colony will not properly “reset” its behavior and enter a permanent pre-diapause “standby” state which is characterized by low overall activity and little brood growth (particularly very few pupations and thus very few new workers being born), also newborn workers might be smaller than usual. The only solution is to properly hibernate the ants at the required temperatures.

- Pre-hibernation issues when heating temperate Camponotus
This is a special issue affecting large slow-growing Camponotus species from temperate regions, like C. herculeanus and C. ligniperda.
These ants essentially have a one-year-plan. The queen lays eggs in spring and in summer, and only the spring batch will develop into workers the same year - the summer batch ones will go through winter as larvae and pupate in the following spring.
If these ants are taken out of hibernation relatively early (late March/early April) and have their nest permanently heated, they may finish their year’s work very quickly and go into pre-hibernation “standby mode” as early as June.
This isn’t really a problem, you just won’t see much of your ants until after their next winter break.

You may however send them into diapause early (given you can provide a place that is cold enough) and take them out 3-4 months later. This will essentially allow you to go through two growth periods a year and accelerate their development, which is not the worst thing considering these ants grow very slowly during their first 2-3 years.

- Special behavioral patterns
Some ant species have special quirks that require specific attention. These quirks are often unique to a single genus or even just a single species, underpinning the importance of antkeepers making themselves knowledgeable about the species they keep.

One such example is summer estivation in Prenolepis imparis, the so-called “winter ant”. These ants go through a period of summer estivation and will almost entirely stop foraging when temperatures go above 25°C. They thus spend almost the entire summer underground, raising new ants purely from the reserves they built up during spring. If they were not fed properly during the colder spring days, the colony will fail to grow or may even collapse entirely. Adding food to the nest sometimes help but sadly it is not uncommon for colonies to perish.


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#2 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 2:30 PM


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1.2 Setup issues
Creating a decent setup for ants is not really a difficult task once you know what you are doing, however there is a number of easy-to-avoid but very pitfalls that really throw off new antkeepers.

- Toxic substrate
Most substrate offered by pet shops and hobby stores can be used for ants without problems.
Playground sand however is occasionally treated with pesticides that will make quick work of any ants that come into contact with it (ask the seller if the sand is treated with any chemicals).
Bird sand (for bird cages) is often mixed with pesticides to avoid mite infestations and is very unhealthy for ants.

Attention has to be paid when using colored sand – colored sand for aquariums is usually fine (fish are extremely sensitive to aggressive chemicals), colored sand from crafting stores and supermarkets however may contain chemicals that are toxic to ants.

- Diatomaceous earth (kills ants)
Diatomaceous earth is a sort of fine sand comprised of the calcified shells of aquatic organisms. It is commonly used as a chemical-free pesticide and will absolutely kill ants that come into prolonged contact with it.

- Dry nest (crippled new workers)
Humidity (air wetness) is very important to ants, especially their brood, with some ants requiring much higher humidity than others.
A lack of humidity is most problematic inside the nest. Workers of most species are fairly resistant to dry environments, but larvae can quickly dry out and die, or not pupate correctly leading to crippled workers that are unable to move their legs.
If you encounter damaged newborn workers with twisted legs and antennae the first thing you should do is putting more water into your nest’s hydration chamber or switching to another nest type or a test tube setup (tubs & tubes) if necessary.

Unfortunately this issue s rather common with small colonies in poorly designed “founding nests”.
It rarely ever arises in test tube setups as the air close to the wet cotton is always very humid (>80%), no matter whether the tube is closed or open – closed tube setups (or tubes with a cotton plug and a plastic straw as entrance) just last a lot longer as their water reservoir evaporates at a much slower rate.

- Lack of humidity
Setups for ants from very wet environments like tropical rainforests may need additional equipment like a fogger to provide the proper humidity. With these species even the workers may dry out and die at the average room humidity in countries outside their native range.

- Lack of heat
Ants from Mediterranean, tropical and desert ecosystems often require their nest significantly warmer than normal room temperature.
These ants may appear active but will not show any significant brood development until their temperature requirements are met. For most Mediterranean ants the limit is around 24°C, some desert ants may need up to 28°C to really thrive.

There are various heat sources available in the form of heat mats, heating cables, infrared lamps and ceramic radiators.

- Deep nest issues with clumsy ants
Some ants can be rather clumsy and struggle with climbing, especially if workers are still young and inexperienced. This can cause problems when they are put into a vertical nest with multiple layers of chambers. Workers may fall into deeper chamber and die, as they find themselves unable to climb back out. There are reports of this happening with Messor ants (Messor barbarus is one of the most kept ants in Europe) but other ants that are naturally bad at climbing might encounter this problem as well.
Generally, ants that are bad climbers should not be put into vertical nests as these are likely to have much steeper pathways than their natural nest environments.
There are a lot of flat nest nest designs available for sale, and most ants can also easily nest in a large outworld filled with sand-clay mix or a similarly diggable substrate.

- U-turn issues (with sun-navigating ants like Messor)
While most ants use pheromone trails, many also use the sun (and occasionally other light sources like lamps) for orientation. This may cause a very specific problem when tubing parts of their setup describe a 180° u-turn.
There is at least one reported case of Messor ants being confused by such a sharp turn, workers running back and forth around the corner until they gave up and dropped the seeds they were trying to bring back to the colony. Ants from genera like Cataglyphis which rely even less on pheromone trails are likely to be affected in the same way.

The solution is easy though, just cover either the tubing part before or after the u-turn. No light, no more navigation problems.

- Open water areas (with ants like Messor)
Tropical rainforest ants like Solenopsis geminata fire ants are very adept at handling water surfaces and can even form living rafts with their own bodies. For many ants however open water areas are a death trap and should be avoided.
Ants from desert and arid regions seem most vulnerable, especially if their workers are a bit clumsy (Messor barbarus workers are famous for drowning in reptile water bowls).

Any ants that have a habit of drowning themselves should have their water supplied via test tube setups, bird water feeders or specialized liquid feeders made specifically for ants.

Edited by Serafine, October 28 2023 - 2:32 PM.

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#3 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 2:38 PM


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1.3 Food-related issues
Ants need to eat and drink, and there’s quite a few things that can go wrong there, from malnutrition to poisoned food.

- Food poisoning
Sometimes fruits and honey can contain pesticides which can affect your ants. The effects should be visible within hours, a few days at most. Ants may spaz out, fall over, or become unresponsive, and finally die.
Grass seeds may also be treated, so seed eaters aren’t entirely safe from this either.

Be careful when buying new food items for your ants and check on them a day later, to see if they are fine. Large colonies can usually survive poisonous food with acceptable losses, small colonies are in much more immediate danger of being wiped out.

Products containing caffein are also not suitable for insects.

 - Bad diet/nutritional deficit
This is one of the more… inconsistent items on this list. There are people who have fed their colonies purely with self-bred mealworms for years and those colonies are doing great – however most ants benefit from a broad diet.
Offering the same food all the time poses a risk of malnutrition (the food may lack certain nutrients and there is nothing to compensate), and often the ants’ enthusiasm when discovering the same stuff again and again may start to slip.

Most ants will accept a large variety of food items such as fruit flies, flies, mealworms, crickets, locusts, roaches, spiders, waxworms, beetle grubs, bloodworms, mosquitos and their larvae.
More unusual items may be accepted as well, for example: fish food, wet cat food, minced meat, ham*, boiled eggs/boiled egg yolk, frozen untreated shrimps, pieces of fruit, bee larvae, fruit juice and many more.

If your ants are not doing and their diet is very limited, try to mix things up a bit. Some new and exciting food may be just what they need.

*Processed meat is often very salty and thus should only be offered as an occasional supplement.
Not all ants will accept all of the items listed - seed eaters generally do better with dry foods, while normal scavenger ants tend to ignore them.
Milk is not suitable for ants, as they cannot digest lactose (milk sugar).

- Sugar-protein mixes
Some studies found an oversaturation on protein can be detrimental to the health of worker ants. However, these studies were conducted with workers ants that had no brood, so it’s hard to call them conclusive in any way.

The general consensus in antkeeping is to feed sugars and protein separately and avoid items like protein jellies and insect jelly for reptiles.

This effect may also vary between different ant species – personally I stopped feeding my Solenopis fugax sugar water entirely after they repeatedly buried their feeder, which caused it to leak and lead to mold outbreaks. They did well with a diet of purely insects and water, but then they are thief ants and in the wild mostly eat brood of other ants.

- Food going bad in the setup
It is recommended to remove any leftovers after 2-3 days, with the exceptions of seeds for harvester ants. This can become kind of a problem with ants that love to bury all their food items (like the aforementioned thief ants).
Food going bad may lead to mold outbreaks, mite infestations and other issues that can negatively affect or even kill off parts of the colony, especially in moist setups.

Sugar water should also be replaced after around week, 3-4 days during high summer temperatures. Honey/honey water in particular tends to go bad really fast during summer, which will lead to issues with gravity-assisted feeders as the gases produced by bacteria during the fermentation process will press the honey out of the feeder. Smaller ants may get stuck in the leaking goo and die.

- Too much ammonia?
This point is based mostly on anecdotal reports.
Some antkeepers who self-breed roaches have reported of death waves or workers with shaking legs after providing their roaches with a protein-heavy diet. Roaches can store vast amounts of nitrogen (the main component of protein) as ureic acid and are known to cause gout and even death in reptiles when fed too much protein.
So far there are no studies to back up this effect with ants but personally I can confirm both the shaking leg syndrome in Camponotus, as well as ants preferring roaches that have been kept on a low-protein diet (apples, vegetables, some seeds).

- Antibiotics
Many ants possess symbiotic gut bacteria, with Wolbachia, Spiroplasma and Asaia being the most widespread groups, prevalent in at least some species across most ant genera. It is still poorly understood what these gut bacteria actually do and if/how they are important for the ants, but it’s probably best to not feed ants meat that is heavily treated with antibiotics (like chicken meat) and could negatively affect their gut symbionts.


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#4 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 2:45 PM


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2. External issues
This chapter talks about issues caused by other organisms, from bacterial mold to wild ants raiding captive setups.

2.1 Mold and fungi
Mold is one of the most common issues plaguing antkeepers. As bacterial and fungal spores are everywhere in the air, there is no way to escape it. There are also a few special fungi, targeting ants specifically.

- Bacterial mold
The most common form of mold encountered in antkeeping. It is the mold that turns cotton in test tubes black (sometimes yellow, green or even red), it is what grows on garbage piles and shows up as small dark sprinkles in moist nests.
Ants are very well equipped to deal with bacterial mold and unless it is absolutely taking over a nesting space, it is usually of little concern. As long as the ants have a separate water source and do not need to drink from the moldy cotton surface they can pretty much ignore it.

If the mold appears to affect the ants it is usually best to just settle them over into a new test tube or a new nest and thoroughly clean the old nest/tube, or in case of extreme mold throw it away.

Dry conditions can help a lot to prevent mold from spreading, so if your ants can deal with dry conditions (like most Camponotus and Temnothorax species) it is best to water the nest sparsely and avoid much condensation.

- Fungal mold
Fungal mold, much like bacterial mold, can be found on dirty cotton (especially if the ants stick garbage to it) and on trash piles. Most of it is harmless, however when it gets to a point where tiny mushroom-like fruit bodies can be seen things can go bad very quickly.
Fungal mold is a much greater threat to ants if it starts to take over a nest as fungi often produce toxins and the spores can be toxic to the ants as well.

It occasionally may crop up in nests that are put into cool cellars or basements for hibernation, so it’s best to quickly check the nest every few weeks to make sure everything is fine.

Like with bacterial mold dry conditions are the best way to prevent the spread of fungi.
As fungal spores are very resilient and fungi often leave behind toxins in whatever materials they grow on/within, throwing away heavily infested nests is usually the only safe way to deal with them.

Worth mentioning there seems to be a very aggressive type of fungus reported by multiple US users on Formiculture.com that is known for quickly destroying entire colonies, sometimes even spreading to neighboring setups. The species of this fungus is unknown, but it can be easily identified by its bright yellow color and broccoli-like little fruit bodies. Ant colonies infested with this fungus should be carefully disposed in their entirety, including their complete setup, to protect other colonies in the same house/room.
- Parasitic leafcutter fungus

While a specific species of fungus that preys on the fungus leafcutter ants raise exists, chances to encounter this fungus in antkeeping are very low, and in countries where leafcutters aren’t native basically null. However, the leafcutter’s fungus can also be attacked by more mundane bacteria and fungi, especially if the setup is too wet or temperatures to low. Ground puddles in the fungus chambers should be avoided at all costs, as they are the perfect breeding ground for all sorts of harmful germs.

There is little antkeepers can do besides trying their best to provide ideal conditions – the ants themselves have powerful antibiotics and fungicides to protect their fungus gardens, and if all goes wrong some shops offer replacement fungus so the colony can start from scratch.

- Cordiceps
The only feasible way to encounter this specific type of parasite, also known as the ant zombie fungus, is to obtain an ant colony with workers that are already infected, or – if you live within its native range - to feed your ants with wild insects that are covered in its spores.

Unlike many other parasites the Cordyceps doesn’t just affect its victim’s brain, the fungus actually spreads through the ants body and attaches to muscle fibers, so it can drive the ant like a six-legged car. It will force the ant to move to a high-up place and lock itself in place with its mandibles. The fungus will then break out of the ant’s body (usually at the neck) and grow into something that looks like a tiny mushroom or a mass of tentacles.

There are different species of Cordyceps that can infect various arthropods, from ants to beetles to spiders, but most of them are fairly host-specific and can’t just jump over from one kind of insect to a completely different one.

If you ever encounter this parasite in your ant colony remove the infected ants as quickly as possible and completely clean out the outworld. If afterwards any worker shows signs of exceptionally strange behavior remove them as well.[/size]

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#5 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 2:56 PM


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2.2 Mites
In antkeeping mites are almost as common as mold. Most of them are harmless, but there are also a few that can quickly wipe out entire colonies.

2.2.1 Food mites
This chapter covers food mites and dirt mites. These usually do not damage the ants, unless they appear in extreme numbers.

- Grain mites and trash-eating mites (aka normal standard mites)
These white-greyish tiny mites are the most common and every antkeeper with a large colony will likely encounter them at some point. They usually appear on garbage piles and sometimes inside the nest if the ants are rather messy. As long as they are not too numerous and stick to specific areas they are not a problem, though if conditions for them are great and there is an abundance of ant garbage or food leftovers to chew on, mite populations can absolutely explode.

Generally keeping the setup mostly clean and dry will help a lot to prevent mite outbreaks.
You can also place a wet sponge in the middle of your outworld. If the outworld and the nest are kept rather dry, many of the mites will gather on the sponge and can be removed with it. This won’t remove them entirely but will help to reduce their population and keep it low.

- Grain mites and trash-eating mites, intermediate states
Most of the time grain/food mites harmless, however some of them can develop intermediate forms that cling to the ants in the hope their travels will lead them to a place with more favorable conditions.
In this case it is often enough to add a new container with soil and some leaflitter – when the workers travel to the new box the mites will detach from the ants and move into the soil. Be aware though that if the ants deem the soil box more favorable than their current nest, they may move in there as well.

Intermediate states will typically attach themselves to the thorax and abdomen of the ants but may appear in other spots as well. Since most of them do not suck liquid from the ants they can often be found clinging to the hard surfaces of segment plates, in contrast to parasitic mites which will attach themselves in between segment plates and at weak points like leg joints.

Should the mites attach to the ants in greater numbers and refuse to drop off there are more direct ways to remove them, described in the next chapter about parasitic mites.


2.2.2 Parasitic mites

Parasitic mites can be split in two groups, with one actively damaging the ants and the other impacting the colony by draining its food supplies.

- Blood-sucking mites
Most of these mites are fairly easy to spot. They often sit at exposed spots like leg joints or between body segment plates and many of them are brightly colored – red, orange, yellow are typical colors for parasitic mites, although there are also some with the more traditional white-greyish paint job.
These mites suck “blood” (hemolymph fluids) from the ant and too many of them can actually kill it.

No amount of dryness or cleanliness will help with these mites. They also don’t suddenly appear out of thin are like trash mites tend to do, either the colony is already infested, or they get transferred from feeder insects (this rarely happens with decent sellers, in over a decade I only had parasitic mites once, in a cup of flies with dung). Obviously arthropods carrying parasitic mites should not be fed to any ants.

If there’s only a few of them and physical removal like brushing them off with a small brush or picking them of with pincers is possible, that’s probably the best way to go.
Other options for more severe infestations are Hypoaspis predatory mites – these can be bought on the internet and once released in the setup will hunt down and eat the parasitic mites. Once all parasitic mites have been killed the Hypoaspis mites will perish due to a lack of food. Hypoaspis mites need high humidity which can cause mold outbreaks, so you need to frequently monitor the colony during treatment and keep everything extra clean.

There’s also various options used by beekeepers, like fogging the colony with diluted formic acid or mixing anti-mite medicine into their food – however there is no information for dosage when used to treat ants and bees weight considerably more than ants, so this should only be tried when the colony would be doomed otherwise.

- Food-stealing mites
These mites are big. Like the head of a large ant big. They can easily be spotted with the naked eye. They are also very able to move on their own, and while nowhere near as fast as the ants they like to grab onto, they are not exactly slow either.

Usually only 2-3 mites will sit on an individual ant and use their specialized long forelimbs to beg other ants for food. The ants suffer no damage in this exchange except for the colony’s food stocks getting depleted, however this isn’t really an issue as food supply for captive ants is usually unlimited.

There is no way of these mites getting accidentally introduced into the colony via feeder insects or food – if they’re present, they came with the colony itself.
Since these mites are so big, the adults can be removed rather easily by just brushing or picking them off with pincers - if the ants cooperate. Ants from temperate and mediterranean regions can be put into the fridge (lowest setting for mediterranean ants), to slow them and the mites down.
Ants that had their mites removed should be placed in a fresh test tube, replacing the old nest tube. If they were in a nest, clean the nest thoroughly before putting the ants back into it.

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#6 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 2:59 PM


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2.3 Harmless/useful guests

This might seem like an odd insert, but it is really important to highlight that not all guests in an ant setup are bad. Some of them are actually useful by eating away the food sources for other, more harmful creatures.

- Isopods
Isopods, white isopods in particular, are often used as cleanup-crews in soil setups. They eat decomposing plant matter as well as leftovers the ants didn’t consume and thus can prevent mold and mites from getting a foothold. Most ants ignore the smaller white isopods, and the larger species are armored well-enough to shrug off most attacks.
Isopods usually need above-room humidity, so don’t do well in dry sand-clay or grout setups.

- Springtails
Springtails feed on food leftovers and even mold. They are tiny white creatures with a special spring-loaded tail fork that allows them to catapult themselves out of harm’s way. Unlike mites, they have a visible head, only six legs and move around fast.
Most ants will ignore them, some however have evolved long trapjaw-like mandibles that allowed them to specialize in hunting springtails and other skittish arthropods. Usually, springtails multiply fast enough for this to not be an issue, but if your ants ever manage to deplete their population you can always buy more at a local pet store.
Springtails need high humidity and only work well in soil setups.

- Booklice/Dustlice
Dustlice are small almost transparent creatures that look like really tiny bugs. They mostly appear on ant trash piles and around the nest, as they feed on food leftovers the ants didn’t consume as well as their trash and excrements.
Unlike isopods and springtails, dustlice can live in almost bone-dry setups and their adult stages are capable of flight.


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#7 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 3:04 PM


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2.4 Specialized parasites

- Worms
Tapeworms (Cestoda) and roundworms (Nematoda) are among the world’s most widespread parasites, so it comes at no surprise that there’s some species that infect ants.

Three examples shall be mentioned here.

The european acorn ant Temnothorax nylanderi can become the intermediate host to the tapeworm Anomotaenia brevis, with woodpeckers being the final host. Infected workers appear brighter in color with yellow gasters, tend to stay in the nest more often and have a vastly increased lifespan, rivaling that of their queen (possibly at the cost of their own fertility).

The south-american rainforest turtle ant Cephalotes astratum is the intermediate host of the nematode Myrmeconema neotropicum with about 5% of examined workers being infected.
The worm causes the host ant’s black abdomen to change to a dark red, possibly trying to imitate berries in an effort to get birds – it’s presumed final host – to eat the ant.

Serviformica species can act as the intermediate host for Dicrocoelium dendriticum, the lancet liver fluke, a parasite of sheep. The parasite spreads its eggs via sheep poop, the eggs are eaten by snails, which then "cough up" a slime sack filled with parasites that is eaten by ants.
The parasite causes infected ants to climb upwards when it gets cold during the evening hours and then forces their mandibles to lock into a blade of grass, hoping that in the morning a sheep will eat the ant while grazing. If the ant is not eaten and temperatures rise the parasite allows the ant to open its mandibles and the ant will go back to work as if nothing happened (until the next evening).
This parasite can also end up in other grazing mammals like cows, and there is at least one case of a human getting it after drinking water from a bottle contaminated with infected ants.

Unfortunately, no treatment suggestions can be offered here.

- Phorid flies
The fly genus Phoridae is a large group of humpback flies feeding on plants, mushrooms and the carcasses of dead animals. Some are specialist parasites to bees and ants, for example on Solenopsis invicta and Lasius niger. Solenopsis fire ants are known to completely stop foraging if lots of phorid flies are present, and Lasius niger workers build dirt covers over their highly frequented ant trails.

The parasitic fly lays an egg onto an ant and the hatching larva then carves into the ant, eating it from the inside. The process ends with the ants getting decapitated and the fly larva emerging from the body of the dead ant.

There is no treatment for infected ants but some creative attempts like putting sticky fly-paper used for aphids and white flies into the setup, dangling from the ceiling (somewhere the ants can’t reach), might help. The pheromones on the sticky paper won’t work with the phorid flies but they have to sit down somewhere, and chances are they’ll choose the glue trap.

- Nest parasites
There are various beetles, moths and butterflies who’s adults or larvae love the company of ants. They usually use chemical mimicry so the ants will accept them as their own. Some parasites just munch on the colony’s food stores, the larvae of many however prefer to munch on ant brood.

In a large captive colony this usually isn’t a problem as most of these guests cannot complete their lifecycle inside the colony (they need to mate outside) and thus will leave the colony (usually in spring or early summer) or get eaten if they can’t.
When they appear in a small colony, they should be removed (picked up with tweezers) as there may not be enough ant brood around to feed them and the colony’s development might be seriously impacted.

- Parasitic flies that infect queens during their flights
There is a particularly nasty type of parasitic fly which lays its eggs not onto worker ants but onto queens during their nuptial flight.
An infected queen does not lay eggs but one day seemingly out of the blue a massive cocoon will appear, almost as large as her abdomen. The queen will die shortly after. A few days later a new fly will emerge from the cocoon.

There is no treatment, and the queen is doomed as the parasite ate the inside of her gaster before emerging to pupate.


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#8 Offline Serafine - Posted October 28 2023 - 3:07 PM


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3 Other external issues
This chapter covers the remaining external issues that did not fit into the above categories.

3.1 Toxins
There are many pesticides and insecticides around in our modern world and under certain circumstances ants may come into contact with them, negatively affecting their health.

- Area spraying of pesticides
This usually is only an issue if you live in large apartment complexes or gated communities. In some areas landlords or local authorities may spray airborne pesticides, normally to kill mosquitos or invasive ants on the property.
You can ask your landlord or local office for spraying dates and keep windows closed and AC turned off on that day.
Normal plant control spraying (to keep plants from growing on pathways and in wall cracks) should not affect your pet ants.

- Plug-in anti-mosquito devices
Depending on the chemicals they use this ultrasound dispenser may either do nothing or end up killing every arthropod in the room, including your ants.
If you have to use them, make sure they’re not using pesticides but scent repellants tailored specifically to mosquitoes.

- Contact toxins
While you touching an apple that got sprayed when it was still hanging on a tree will probably not affect your ants, other contact toxins might. Take particular care when using anti-flea and anti-tick creams or sprays for larger pets like dogs and cats. Not only may it be transferred from your hands to the food you prepare for your ants, it may even become airborne when your cat sheds its hair (cat hair is very fine and gets into places you won’t believe). If this turns out to be an issue a lid for your ant container might become a necessity.

3.2 Ants
This might look like an odd section but any antkeeper living in a place with aggressive ants, particularly of the invasive kind, can likely recount at least one incident where pet ants got attacked or even killed by wild ants from the outside.



- Feral ant raids
This is mostly an issue for people living in areas with invasive species that thrive in environments disturbed by human activity – the most common offenders are species like Pharao ants (Monomorium pharaonis), red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta), african bigheaded ants (Pheidole megacephala), black crazy ants (Paratrechina longicornis) and argentine ants (Linepithema humile).

In some areas local species, like a particular large and aggressive colony of Lasius niger or Formica fuscocinerea, may also attempt to attack a pet ant colony, especially if it’s a small one.

There are various measures to stop feral ant raids, some preemptive and some very direct ones.

First, if this is an option make it as hard as possible for wild ants to get into your living area in the first place, and at the same time make it as unrewarding as possible. This ranges from checking for cracks in the house walls to cleaning floors regularly. Even a few cookie crumbs on the floor can attract wild ants, and once they found some food they usually start looking for more.

Vinegar-based cleaners destroy existing ant trails and effectively blind the wild ants, wiping out their previous scouting efforts and signposts.

Clove oil can be applied as a deterrent to points of entry, but be careful – clove oil has a very intense scent and a few drops too many can make a room uninhabitable for days.

Ant bait might be enough to reduce the wild ants to bearable numbers, but it is often only a symptoms cure as it usually doesn’t wipe out large colonies, especially with invasive multi-queen species like Pharao ants or Argentines which can have hundreds if not thousands of queens.

Double-sided sticky tapes can be applied to the feet of drawers and shelves but these need regular replacement and invasive supercolony-species like Argentines can quickly render them useless by simply sacrificing a few hundred workers.

Fluon barriers are less prone to attacks by ants but over time dust will reduce their effectiveness, and near the bottom of the floor they likely won’t last for long.

If all else fails you can create a moat by simply putting your entire ant setup into a large flat tub filled with oil. There is special anti-ant oil available for hummingbird feeders but any vegetable or paraffine-based oil that doesn’t start to smell after a few days will do.
Water is not recommended for use in motes as it will not just evaporate much quicker but dust settling on the water surface can actually make the moat nonfunctional. Also some ants (Solenopsis fire ants in particular) can build floating bridges with their own bodies.

- Pet ants raids
If you keep other ants alongside a very aggressive species like Lasius niger or Solenopsis fire ants, then feral ants will not be your only worry - the biggest threat to your other ants might already be in the same room.
Even the more clumsy seed-eaters like Messor or Pogonomyrmex often display a surprising hostility towards other ant colonies, especially ones of their own species.

Ant rooms with multiple large colonies of different species thus need to be secured both ways – not only should your ants not get out of their respective setups, they should also not be able to just casually walking into the setup of another colony next to theirs.

As such large ant colonies should not be placed directly next to each other (like not on the same table or shelf, if possible not even in the same room) and feature basic intruder protection like tight lids and if necessary additional measures like the sticky tape, fluon barriers or – in particularly bad cases – oil moats as mentioned in the section about feral ants.



Edited by Serafine, October 29 2023 - 3:08 PM.

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Welcome to Lazy Tube - My Camponotus Journal

#9 Offline ANTdrew - Posted October 28 2023 - 3:33 PM


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Wonderful advice here. Thank you, Serafine!
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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.

#10 Offline Canadian anter - Posted October 29 2023 - 2:21 PM

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This is an awesome guide, I just wanted to add, though, that a limited range of horsehair worms can also infect ants. In those cases, they are usually done for and there is no treatment.

Visit us at www.canada-ant-colony.com !

#11 Offline Ernteameise - Posted October 30 2023 - 2:07 AM


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This is great work!

#12 Offline rptraut - Posted February 2 2024 - 9:49 PM


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Hello Serafine;


Great guide, thanks for taking the time to write it.  


Additional ant and human health information gained from my experiences can be found at   Ant Keeping Health Guide - General Ant Keeping - Ants & Myrmecology Forum (formiculture.com)

Comments are welcome.


My father always said I had ants in my pants.

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