Confession: I am not much of an ant-keeper. In spite of my myrmecophilic appearance, I prefer to watch ants in their natural habitat.

Still, I pay attention to online fora where ant-keepers hang out to exchange the latest husbandry tips. I like people’s enthusiasm for the little animals. The best materials for artificial nests. Nutrition. Hibernation protocols. And many, many questions about why the insects are or are not behaving in particular ways.

It’s easy to get frustrated when a queen ant doesn’t lay eggs for months, or when a supposedly granivorous species doesn’t take the seeds offered, or when a colony sets up shop in the wrong part of the ant farm. Ants don’t always do what ant-keepers want or expect of them. Yet the failure of ants to thrive in ant farms shouldn’t make an aspiring ant keeper feel bad, because of this:

Ants are wild animals.

This observation is worth remembering. Livestock, dogs, cats, hamsters, even many pet store lizards are human inventions, molded by artificial selection for success in captivity. Ants aren’t at all like these familiar domesticated creations. While some species survive in artificial nests by way of latent ecological flexibility, others are as ill-adapted to a test tube life as a wolf is to a New York apartment. Without just the right food sources, or temperature regimens, or humidity, colonies of many species wilt. Ants weren’t designed to live in ant farms, that some can is a sort of lucky coincidence. So remember the wildness of ants, and marvel when they succeed indoors.