It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere and for many that means that flying ant day, also known as ant nuptial flight season, is coming. For newbies and seasoned pros alike, this is a time of excitement and glee as we prepare our test tubes ready for some queen catching.
Queen hunting is easy, cheap and doesn’t require very much equipment at all. In fact, for just a few pounds/Euros/dollars, you can be on your way to starting your very own colony from scratch!
Water, test tubes and cotton wool are all you need to get started
Use filtered or boiled water where possible as you need this to be as clean as possible for your ants. Mould can become a real issue if the cotton wool becomes contaminated, so make sure you start off with equipment that is as clean as you can get it.
Cotton wool balls are readily and cheaply available from pharmacists, general stores or online. Look for the round ones from the baby section of shops as that tends to be cheaper than the balls you find in the makeup section! Don’t use the pressed makeup pads as you will be using these to create plugs in the test tube and the pads don’t work well for this purpose.
Choosing Your Test Tubes
Test tubes come in different sizes, colours and materials
The test tubes are the most complicated part of this set up as there are so many different variations in terms of size, materials and even colour! Perhaps the easiest and certainly the cheapest type of test tube are plastic ones, however glass test tubes can be sterilised and washed in the dishwasher, which makes them easy to reuse. Choosing plastic is also handy if you’re ant keeping with children – we’ve had a few instances of broken glass test tubes while chasing queens! Most of the ant shops supply their ants in plastic tubes.
A commonly used size is a 16 mm (5/8 inches) diameter, which refers to the diameter of the circle the forms the mouth of the test tube. This is a good size for most species, but if you’re after larger or much smaller species then by all means size up or down to suit. Do bear in mind that many of your favourite or soon-to-be-favourite ant nest manufacturers are likely to have a specific size of port they use, so it’s a good idea to see what they use to make it easier later on when you need to connect up your test tube to a nest!
You can also select from different lengths of test tube. In the 16 mm, you’ll often find 100 mm (10 cm/4”) or 150 mm (15 cm/6”) lengths. I usually choose the longer ones as it means I can store more water for the founding queen. This means it’ll last longer and hopefully put less pressure on you as the keeper to have to move the colony.
Most test tubes are clear and transparent, although you can purchase other colours if you like. Covering nests or test tubes with red acetate or foil seems to keep most species of ant calmer and can, especially at the beginning, make a queen more likely to be relaxed enough to lay her eggs. Ants do prefer to nest in dark places and it is widely believed that they cannot see light in the red part of the spectrum, hence the use of red acetate and acrylic covers on nests. So you can purchase red test tubes if you'd like to avoid that, although this does mean that it may be harder to get your ants to move when it's time to upgrade their nest. Taking photos may also prove more challenging.
Setting up Your Tubes
Tweezers are a really useful tool in ant keeping
Setting up your foundation tubes takes a bit of practice to ensure that you don’t trap any air bubbles with the water (this can cause flooding, which is bad news for the ants). Make sure you wash your hands beforehand and work at a clean, dry table or countertop so that you keep the set up as clean as possible to minimise mould growth later on.
I like to use a chopstick or my beloved long-handled stainless steel tweezers (seriously, get a set of these, they’re invaluable for feeding, clean up, set up, you name it!) to push the cotton wool in, and I also have a squeezy bottle to make it easier to add the water to the test tubes.
Step 1: Add the Water
I like to fill the test tube at least halfway full. If you add too little, your ants will run out of water too quickly and you’ll be forced to move them, which puts strain on the young colony. Add too much and there won’t be much room for the ants – don’t forget, you need to add the plug between the water and the chamber, then another plug at the mouth of the test tube to keep the ants in (hopefully!). So, between half to two-thirds full is about right.
Step 2: Add the First Plug
Pull off about a third to half of a cotton ball and squish it a bit to ensure it is compacted. Then, using a chopstick, tweezers or other long, thin (clean!) object, gently push your ball into the tube until it comes in contact with the water. I generally aim to half submerge it so the water is soaked up into the fibres. Do this bit carefully as pushing to vigorously can mean your cotton wool goes all the way into the water and you have to start again. Not pushing it far enough in can mean that the water doesn’t soak through properly and your ants won’t be able to access the water.
Watch out for air bubbles and make sure you don’t use too much cotton wool for this plug as doing so will prevent the water from soaking through at a reasonable rate and your ants will suffer from lack of water. Check to see that the plus is damp but not soaking or leaking.
Step 3: Adding the Capping Plug
Using another ball of cotton about the same size as the first plug, simply stopper up the test tube. If this ball is a bit bigger, that’s not a problem. You want to make sure that it is compacted enough and big enough that there are no gaps that the ants can get out of once tubed up.
Although many test tubes come with caps, don’t use them for your founding colonies! They do have their uses, but as they do ensure an airtight seal on the tube, they will lead to the rapid demise of your queens.
Watching for the Nuptial Flights
This Lasius flavus pupae were being warmed up under a child's outdoor toy. These were just a few short weeks from launch!
Once you have your test tubes ready, you need to keep an eye out for the next nuptial flights in your area. The time of year these happen will depend on where you are in the world. In some warm climates, flights can happen throughout the year! However, most happen during the summer months. The period between June and August are some of the busiest for nuptial flights in genera such as Aphaenogaster, Camponotus, Formica, Lasius, Pheidole, Pogonomyrmex, Solenopsis, Temnothorax, Tetramorium and more.
There are several sites that have information on when the nuptial flights are in your locality, and if there are any particular native species you’re on the lookout for, it’s work checking on when these fly and see if you can track down any likely nests beforehand so you know where and when to have your tubes ready. Ant Keeping Info (https://antkeeping.info) is a good source of data on nuptial flights, sorted by country and species.
Nuptial flights often occur in the late afternoon/early evenings, particularly if there has been recent rain. Many swarms are very obvious, with “Flying Ant Day” being a well-known phenomenon. It is worth having test tubes at the ready in preparation for the big day/s. I like to keep small padded bags containing a few prepped test tubes in my bag and my car as well as by the back door.
This alate hasn't yet shed her wings (to become a delate or queen). Choosing queens without wings means you're more likely to achieve success!
When the big day arrives, it will be obvious that both alates and workers are getting ready. The alates will start gathering outside the nest entrance in large quantities and the workers will be dashing around, no doubt fluffing the royals for their big exit. Sometimes, there will be some false starts as conditions are not deemed quite right for launch. However, once they go, they take off in droves!
Make sure you have your catchy kits ready!
This queen is ready to start a new colony
Catching the mothers of your future colonies is quite simple, or is it? You’ll find that the now delates rush around quite a bit and may be hard to catch. As the adrenaline flows (in you!), it might be hard to quite get them in time. Take a deep breath, take your time and be careful! Try not to get lots of debris in with the queen as this will increase the likelihood of the cotton in the test tube getting mouldy. Pick a target, follow her with the test tube and use the cotton ball you put in as the capping plug to gently usher her into the tube.
Got it? Got your ants? Now, how many should you catch? Well, how many do you need? How many can you realistically care for? It’s all too easy getting excited about catching queens, and it IS curiously addictive. However, by acting responsibly and just catching a few, you have more time to devote to those you have caught, improving their chances of survival. This said, it is worth catching a few extras as insurance. If you catch a few extras and end up with spares, you can always release the spares or even give them to friends. Go on, bring them over to the dark chitin side!
The next step is the wait and see game. You should already have a general idea of the species prevalent in your area, but it’s worth checking the species ID for your ant queens and find out what their colony structure and founding strategy is. Are they monogyne (single queen) or polygyne (multiple queen) species? Are the claustral or semi-claustral? These will impact how you look after them both in the initial weeks and on an ongoing basis.
There are a number of great Facebook groups full of enthusiastic and supportive members, many of whom are myrmecologists or experienced keepers. Try searching for groups from your region or country as they’ll have a good idea of the species local to you.
You will need to keep your queens in a dark, warm and quiet place undisturbed. Although you are likely to be super excited (who isn’t?) about your new pets, you must resist the urge to check on them too regularly as this is a very common cause of foundation failure in fledgling queens. Check on them once a week to ensure they have sufficient water, but otherwise leave them to it. If they are claustral species, you don’t need to feed them at all until the first worker emerges. Semi-claustral queens will need some feeding, but a tiny amount of protein from pre-killed insects or other animal protein sources or a minute piece of fruit once a week at the weekly check will be sufficient.
Depending on the species, you can expect eggs as early as the next day, if they’re happy and settled. Fully-fledged first workers – called nanitics – will hopefully emerge within a few weeks. Once they arrive, feed your ants on tiny amounts of protein (tiny fruit flies or the equivalent amount of other animal protein are perfect) and sugars (tiny pieces of apple or just a dab of honey from the tip of a toothpick) every few days.
You can keep your ants in a test tube until there are around 20 workers, but if you’re nervous about trying to feed them without workers escaping, you can either connect your test tube to a feeding chamber or put them in a tub, similar to a takeaway container for feeding. Be careful not to move them to a new or big nest too soon as ants love being crowded in a nest and too-big nests are another leading cause of foundation failure.
I hope that you’ve found this brief guide to starting a new colony right from catching your own queen helpful. Good luck in the 2020 hunt!
Disclaimer: We have included some links to products that we think will help you in your ant keeping. By clicking on these links, if you purchase them, we will receive a very small amount of revenue at no cost to yourself.
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