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What you need to start an ant farm

Ant colonies in the wild may seem like an unwanted infestation at times, but in reality they represent a complex insect society worthy of study. Although scientific ant habitats called formicaria can be traced back to the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1956 that a California businessman and ant enthusiast introduced the first consumer-friendly ant farm. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm was heavily promoted in comic books, and teachers were encouraged to set up their own versions in classrooms.

In ease of use and level of financial investment, ant farms are still one of the best ways to set up a living display in a home or classroom. The largest expenses are the ants, which should be purchased from authorized vendors. Everything else, from the formicarium to the medium and food, can be ordered online or at scientific supply outlets.

Preparing for a new ant farm

Types of ant farms

sandwich style ant farm

There are essentially two types of ant farms in the consumer market. The original Uncle Milton’s ant farm was considered “sandwich-style,” meaning the transparent plastic container has two narrow sides. The ants and media are sandwiched between them, which creates tunnels and nesting areas that can be easily observed. A sandwich-style ant farm is ideal for home use and most classroom settings.

formicarium ant farm

A larger form of ant farm would be considered a true formicarium, designed to simulate the natural environment surrounding an ant colony. The ants and media (typically silica or loose soil) are placed in a terrarium with vegetation and water. This is a better fit for dedicated science classrooms because of its size and maintenance.

Site preparation

Decide the ant farm’s location before you buy it. The area should not experience direct sunlight or extreme swings in temperature. The display should be elevated enough for comfortable observation, but not close to a high-traffic area where accidents are possible. Lighting should be strong enough to view the ants but not generate excessive heat. While escapes are rare, the site should also have some sort of containment field to keep escapees in check.

Types of ants

There are hundreds of ant species, but only a handful are recommended for setting up an ant colony. The most common are red harvester ants and carpenter ants. Both species are noted for non-aggressive behavior and natural socializing skills. Their larger size also makes them easier to observe.

While other species of ants can often be found in the wild, it is not a good idea to transplant them directly into an ant farm. Some ants can be aggressive and destructive, while others do not perform well in captivity, especially without their queen. Live ants suitable for ant farms can be shipped through the mail from special supply stores, although a number of states prohibit their transportation across state lines. 

Setting up an ant farm

Decide on a medium

Traditional ant farms in the Uncle Milton sandwich style often use a mix of organic ingredients, primarily silica sand, soil, mineral fragment and vermiculite. This is a good choice for smaller ant farms because the ants are familiar with it and will construct stable tunnels and nesting areas. The soil and minerals also provide nutrients for the colony.

Modern ant farms have largely replaced the sand/soil mix with a water-based gel. This gel is transparent enough to observe the ants, especially with LED lighting. The ants can usually form tunnels and nests, although some colonies may not survive as long in the gel. They can derive moisture and nutrients from it, however. 

Introduce the ants to the container

Once the medium has been added to the tank or terrarium, it’s time to add the ants. If they have been refrigerated for shipping, they may appear sluggish at first, but should begin the task of setting up a colony within an hour of introduction. If a queen is included, the workers will create a series of nests for her to lay her eggs. A queen-less colony will spend its time digging tunnels and locating sources of food and water.

Queen or no queen?

In an ant society, much like a bee society, workers and drones instinctively serve a dominant queen. They feed her, guard her nests and fertilize her eggs. However, you can install an ant colony without a queen. The colony will not reproduce, but it will perform many of the same duties. 

Some ant farm owners opt for a colony with a queen so they can observe the colony’s entire life cycle. Others choose not to include a queen in order to keep the colony at a manageable size, replacing ants as necessary. There is no right answer, but the ant farm’s purpose may point in one direction or the other.

Maintaining an ant farm

Provide food and water

In the wild, ant colonies send workers to gather sources of sugar and protein, such as leaves, berries, fruits and insects. However, in an ant farm this task falls on humans. Ants in captivity do not require large amounts of food or water to survive, but they still need nutrition.

There are commercial ant food blends, but for the most part ant farm owners can supply their own sugar sources such as sliced apples, grapes, nontoxic plant leaves and sugar cubes.  Protein sources include mealworms, crickets, cockroaches or pieces of cooked egg.

A water source could be created from a bottle cap or other small container. Ants can also derive some moisture from the gel medium or natural condensation. Be sure to remove any uneaten food to avoid mold growth.  Many ants will create their own site for garbage disposal and burial of the dead.

Replace medium and ants as necessary

The fill medium in an ant farm generally has a long shelf life, but it can become contaminated from rotting food. You may need to transfer the ants to another vessel temporarily while you replace it. Consider this carefully if the colony has a queen and active nests.

The ants will probably need to be replaced periodically as workers die or there is no reproduction cycle. Carefully remove as many dead ants as possible, then order live replacements of the same species. Mixing different ant species can be dangerous, because some are notably more aggressive than others. A mixed colony could terminate itself quickly or pose a stinging or biting threat to young observers.

What you need to buy to start an ant farm

Nature Gift Store 2 Tubes Live Ant Farm Ants Plus Ant Book

Nature Gift Store 2 Tubes Live Ant Farm Ants Plus Ant Book 

This ant farm started kit includes two tubes of live ants (a total of 60) and a bonus guide to the world of ants and ant farms.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Dan & Darci Gel Refill for Ant Habitat

Dan & Darci Gel Refill for Ant Habitat

This nutrient-rich gel medium is ideal for modern ant farms with LED lighting and a larger capacity than sandwich-style sand-filled ant farms.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Crazy Stuff Ant Food

Crazy Stuff Ant Food 

An organic mix of seeds and grains, this supplemental ant food is ideal for harvester ants, a recommended species for ant farms. 

Where to buy: Amazon

Safari Life Cycle Of An Ant

Safari Life Cycle Of An Ant

For ant farms in classroom environments, this visual representation of an ant’s life cycle is an ideal educational companion for students.

Where to buy: Amazon


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