Guide for Beginners - More In-Depth Info

From Ant Keeping Wiki

This is a more detailed guide. If you are just looking for quick info, head over to Guide for Beginners. Or if you are ready to get started, we also have a guide to help Starting Your Own Colony.

More In-Depth Info[edit]

Ant Housing[edit]

This part of the guide will go over Formicariums, hydration, heating, and escape barriers.


It is easy to make your own ant formicarium and outworld.

Formicariums can be built from many different materials such as Firebrick, Grout, Ytong (AAC), gypsum, hydrostone, and others.  They offer a high visibility view of your ant colony.

Plaster can be used, but it molds very quickly, often within weeks.

 There are step-by-step guides on how to build Formicariums out of different types of materials in this forum.

 There are some companies that sell formicariums that are designed around long term ant care if you don’t wish to build your own.


There are hobbyists around the world who sell nests and outworlds.


A quick note about Uncle Milton and Gel farms.  They are designed to hold worker ants for 2-6 months.  Due to lack of humidity control, problems with collapsing tunnels, sanitation problems, and similar issues a queen and brood (ant young) will not survive for more than a few months.  Many of those ant farms are just for observing the workers during their life span, not to hold an actual functioning colony with queen, eggs, larvae, pupae, and workers. 



How much room?[edit]

If there is too much space, ants may start dumping garbage into the unused, empty chambers.  Many people keep upgrading the nest as the colony grows.  Many colonies with less than 50 workers only need 3-4 chambers.  It is also possible to use sand to fill in the excess rooms to prevent the ants from using them until the colony grows more and empties the tunnels on their own.



Moving colonies[edit]

When the colony runs out of space and you need to expand or move them into a new nest.  Connect the two nests together and wait, it may take a day or so for them to explore the new nest and think about moving. There are several ways to convince the colony to move if they don’t move themselves in a day or so.  

Different species react differently to different methods. Typically changes heat, moisture, or light get them motivated into finding a new nesting site.  For example, Camponotus (Carpenter ants) are easy to move simply by placing the heating cable on the new nest and cooling the old nest slightly.  They will follow the heat. 

Some species will follow the heat, or move away from it.  Careful not to use too much heat or you could kill your ants.

Stop watering the old nest as it dries out the ants will likely move to the new nest as it has the humidity that they prefer.

If you cover the new nest, some species will move to the cover of darkness.




Nest Design[edit]

Many people love to design their own nest.  It is fun to build or carve your design, whether they are tunnels or a completely different design.

Keep in mind certain aspects such as nest hydration, ventilation, and connecting the outworld.



Ants don’t live in bone dry locations.  Some ant species prefer more moisture than others as well.

There are several ways to add water to your formicarium. 


  • If the nest is vertical or under a 45 degree angle, a reservoir molded, or carved into the formicarium would work
  • If you use a method that involves pouring, you can make a chamber separate from the others and use a piece of 1/4” tubing to allow water to enter the chamber.  Or you can drill a hole in the glass.
  • Some nest materials such as ytong or firebrick rapidly absorb water and don’t require a water tunnel




In smaller nests the tubing leading the outworld provides sufficient ventilation.  Some types of nest medium allow small amounts of air to pass, such as firebrick and Ytong.

For large nests, an opening with fine stainless steel mesh will be needed.  The opening is often on a side of the nest or in the glass.  The mesh is epoxied or siliconed on so there is no chance of escape.


How to connect the Formicarium and Outworld[edit]

Clear vinyl tubing like you see in plumbing is used to connect the formicarium to the outworld.  The Formicarium and outworld each have their own piece of tubing that is connected in the middle with a larger piece of tubing. 

Usually, a drill is used to drill a hole the same width as the vinyl.  The hole is carefully dusted out and lightly moistened with water.  Use 2-part epoxy as silicone has too much “give”, and push the tubing as far into the hole as you can.  Add another layer of epoxy on the outside around the tubing/nest joint.

Use the same size of vinyl tubing for the outworld and the formicarium.  Then you can use a wider piece of vinyl to connect the two.  Water and/or heat may help in connecting the ends, although it will probably take scissors to get them apart again.

            For example, I use 5/16” x 7/16” on my formicarium and outworld, and I use a 3/8” x 1/2” piece of vinyl as a connector.

You can also buy a plastic connector.




Tunnel depth[edit]

Ants come in many different sizes, so the tunnels they make also vary.

The tunnels should be wide enough for 3 workers side by side and about twice their height.  The chambers should be at least twice as long as the queen and as wide as the queen is long.  Try not to go over twice the queen’s length for the width of the chambers or the ants may not feel secure.  The chambers can be as long as you want.  They can be square, rectangular, oval, curved, or any shape.

The chambers should be twice as deep as the queen is tall.  Even 3x her height will work as this will allow the ants to pile brood high, sit on top of it, while leaving plenty of space to move around.





If your house is under 22° C then your colony will likely need additional heating.   Some species need more heat than others.  Myrmica are heat lovers, while some species of Lasius place their brood in moderate heat and excess workers hang out in cooler areas.

The best heating method is to use a heating cable, or a heating pad meant for reptiles.  Place it under one corner/side of the formicarium.  This will create a heat gradient with heat on one side and cooler locations on the other side.  This will allow the ants to choose what temperature they want.

Use a heating cable no hotter than a 15 watt.  You can leave them plugged in all of the time, or place them on a timer to mimic the suns heat.

You can place the heating cable/mat under the nest, or on the glass.

If the ants are as far as possible from the heat, then it is too warm.  Move it further away from the center of the nest and reduce the time it is on. 


Heating lamps have been used in the past with success (and some failure).   You can try using a ceramic heat emitter or a darkly colored bulb, perhaps the infrared night bulbs for reptiles, to prevent your colony from stressing over the light while providing heat. 

Observe your colony carefully for any indications of stress due to overheating.





Outworlds are necessary for the ants to keep the nest clean, to allow the ants some area to explore, and to make things easier for you when feeding and cleaning.  Some people go all out with their outworlds and decorate them, or even grow plants in them.  You can, however, just use a simple, empty plastic box.  

Mini food dishes make feeding and cleaning up easier.  The inserts inside some pop bottles or aluminum foil work well for dishes for feeding.

 Most outworlds have secure lids with ventilation holes, but others are left open.  Regardless of which method you choose, you should have a barrier to prevent your ants from escaping.





Olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil is probably the most used.  Take some paper towel or a cotton ball, dab it in the oil, and “paint” a light sheen about an inch wide along the top rim of the outworld.  Even just using your finger to wipe it on will work. Allow it to settle for a few hours before use since it tends to drip for a while and can drown ants caught in it.  If it drips, just wipe up the excess with a clean paper towel.  It holds some species with ease, such as Myrmica and Formica. Although there are some ants who have no trouble walking over it.  The oil has to be re-applied every 2-3 weeks.


Talcum powder

A homemade barrier uses baby powder (those made from talcum powder) and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.  Mix it together to make a paste, paint an inch-thick band along the top and allow it to dry.  Alcohol evaporates quickly so it shouldn’t be long until the powder is stuck to the side.  The particles of the powder aren’t stuck on there very well and even an ant’s weight will cause them to fall off.  This is temporary, as well, and some ants don’t seem to have an issue walking over it.   Be careful as the more ants trying to cross it, the faster it deteriorates.   If you have a large colony it won’t be long before the ants clear a path.


 Fluon or Insect-a-slip

Insect-a-slip, or liquid Teflon, is one of the best barriers out there.  It comes in a small bottle and is pretty pricey for the amount you get.  Before you let that deter you, though, consider that one layer uses only a fraction of the bottle and lasts at the very least for some months.  It does degrade faster with higher humidity or at low temperatures.   Each application should last around six months.  If you can bring yourself to spend $20 for a small bottle of the stuff, it is well worth it.







Freezing before feeding

Insects and arthropods can carry mites, diseases, or parasites that can be harmful to your queen/colony.  It is highly recommended to freeze any food for a few hours at least before feeding.  Many people store insects in the freezer until it is feeding time.  They will last for a long time in there, but like other foods, freezing and thawing repeatedly can cause them to spoil

Feeding live insects that you yourself have raised is acceptable.  Flightless fruit flies are commonly dumped into an outworld to let the ants hunt.  Store bought insects may carry mites, crickets are well known to carry mites.


Feeding Dishes

Using feeding plates or containers minimizes the cleanup and chances of mold.  Feeding plates can be made from anything from tinfoil, pieces of cardboard, or the inserts in some pop bottle lids.      

Another alternative is to soak cotton balls in food such as sugar water when offering it to prevent drowning.

Waterers are excellent ways to water, or offer liquid food.  Easily made or bought.      

They can be bought from

Link on how to make them:


Offer A Varied Diet

Ants like a varied diet.  If you are only giving them crickets day in and day out you may find that don’t accept them as easily or at all after a while.  This is because, as with all foods, each individual type of arthropod has its own nutritional content and a varied diet gives them more of the nutrients they need. 

It is highly recommended to offer your ants a varied and balanced diet for your ant colony.  Some good sources of sugar are honey, hummingbird nectar, table sugar, potentially fruits (careful of pesticides), and maple syrup.      


Tear the body and trim wings

I find it’s also a good idea, especially with young colonies, to cut up or tear open any insect prey before feeding.  It gives the smaller, weaker nanitic workers an easier way inside to the good stuff.  This is especially true for harder bodied insects such as beetles  Trimming off any wings or spindly legs (like those on crane flies) prior to feeding can help prevent a mess in the outworld. 


Test tubes/tubing as feeding tubes

Utilizing unused test tubes or lengths of aquarium tubing, you can effectively create a feeding bottle.  Simply fill the tube with your liquid food, plug the open ends with cotton, and voila, the ants can drink without drowning, and you don’t have to worry about replacing it any time soon unless it molds.  If your honey or syrup is too thick to do this with, thinning it out with some water is effective.


Over feeding and under feeding

Be advised that it is possible to over- or under-feed your ants.  Over-feeding might give them too much food, which they will store, and it may go moldy in the nest.  If the ants remove it, great, but sometimes they don’t.  Under-feeding isn’t generally a huge problem, but if you are under-feeding you may notice your newest workers being smaller than usual.  This is because the larvae are underfed, just like the queen’s first brood, don’t get enough of the stuff they need to grow to normal size.  

Underfeeding is usually not a fatal error for your ants, unless you forget to feed them for a month or so. Ants are hardy creatures with rather small stomachs and the ability to store food in their second stomach.  Ants are marvelously efficient creatures.

Most ants will collect as much as they need and dump the excess in the outworld.

            Note: if the colony has too much room in the nest, they may use a spare chamber as a garbage heap.  As the colony grows they will likely empty it out.


Preferred foods

Like people, ants have preferred foods.  It varies from species to species, and even season by season or with the stage their brood is in.

Link to a list of preferred foods by species:







In the winter in temperate locations there are often no ants active in the wild.  It is a time when ants rest and re-energize themselves.

Generally, in the wild, a colony will store food, then sometime in the fall or early winter, seal off the nest.  No foraging takes place, brood stop developing, the queen stops laying eggs, and everyone seems to go to sleep; but what about in captivity?  What happens if you don’t let them hibernate?  Where can you place them for the winter?  What kind of environment do they need?  


What about in captivity?

In captivity, the same thing happens as in the wild.  It’s a natural cycle ants go through whether you hibernate them or not.  If you choose to keep them heated and lit up during the winter, you’ll likely notice less activity, no or slow brood development, no egg laying, and less foraging.  It’s probably best for their health if you just let them sleep.


What happens if I don’t allow them to hibernate or keep them heated over the winter?

If you don’t let them hibernate, then there is a chance they will suffer for it.  Some colonies stay perfectly healthy, others start having increased worker deaths, and all around poor colony health.  The queen tends to lead a much shorter life without hibernation.  It is strongly recommended to let them hibernate for at least 2 months, although 3 months is preferable.


How do I put them into hibernation?

There are several ways to hibernate your ants.  They require a temperature between 2-8 °C.

An unheated room in a cool basement will work, and many people put their ants in the fridge.  Coolers can be used with success, either the electric version or using bottles of ice to keep the temperature low.  It is strongly suggested to place a thermometer on top of the nest to monitor it.

Check them once a week or so to ensure they have adequate water and that they aren’t freezing to death, but otherwise leave them alone.  

If you have an insulated/heated garage or shed, put a thermometer in it to monitor the temperate over the winter; anything lower than 0°C may be hazardous to their health.  The temperature shouldn’t get above 8° C


What do I do for them during hibernation?

You should offer some sweets during the hibernation period just in case anyone wakes up and goes foraging.  It’s not all that common, but not completely unheard of either.  The thing you need to be most concerned with is water.  If they run out and the nest dries up, they can die very quickly.  Make sure they stay moist and have access to water at all times.

Some ants may appear to be dead during hibernation, but they may just be sleeping.  If you’re concerned, you can remove the ant, warm it up, and check it.  If it appears dead, place it on a wet paper towel for a few hours.  While it is possible for ants to die during hibernation, I wouldn’t really worry myself over it until spring.  It can take a day or so for the ant to wake up.


If you are ready to get started, we also have a guide to help Starting Your Own Colony.