Ants are wild animals


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.

6 thoughts on “Ants are wild animals”

  1. Anthony Trench-Ugly

    I think: it is an lower animal, it does not feel anything. I can do all, but…
    Perhaps we do not feel, perhaps we do not … (say the ants)

  2. People should learn that all living things need to be respected and protected, from whales and lions to ants and flies, from oaks to mosses, from mushrooms to bacteria,… And if we can keep them in boxes or cages, care for them and know what you are doing. And if you have problems, try to find someone who can help you or can take care of them. If that’s not possible, try to get them back where they belong and don’t throw them out where they don’t belong! So, whatever you do, think long and be careful before you do something stupid!!!

  3. I’m an avid ant keeper, and until I’m more experienced, I’ve been keeping the easier ones. I think that people just get too greedy, and try to start with species that SEEM “cool”. Many of these, like the Ponerines and the Attines, can be really difficult for an inexperienced keeper to keep. This is part of the problem. But, I think your observation is valid.
    Recently, I had a Camponotus queen that died for no particular reason after being caught. She did not even lay eggs. I don’t blame myself or get mad, because I know that foundress queens have an exceptionally high failure rate. My guess was that if I managed to keep her alive, or even let her die in my care, she would not be as stressed or endangered as she’d be in the wild, with spiders and other ants and snakes and birds and other critters trying to eat her!
    I’d suggest that inexperienced ant keepers remember that a very low percentage of wild queens are successful, so that they are willing to accept the loss of a queen.

  4. I’m an ant keeper as well and I agree with Alexander Mohn: if you decide to start keeping ants you shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of some species, but rather start with commonly kept easy species to make sure you have enough experience when switching to more picky species. I have been keeping ants for more than three years now and I still don’t own an Atta or Acromyrmex colony, even though I really would love to.
    The ant keeper should not catch nor keep endangered species, and especially not pest species. He or she should have enough experience and sense of responsibility before starting to keep non-native species,
    However, having said that, I find the hobby of ant keeping very rewarding. Especially because the fail rate is rather high. I don’t see that as a con. It keeps the hobby challenging, thus making it fun. It’s always rewarding when something difficult finally succeeds, like founding a colony of social parasites.
    But yes, you have to be patient and optimistic if you are willing to keep ants. And in the meanwhile, one could observe them in their natural habitat, just as you said you prefer. So you miss nothing!

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