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A very popular question this time of year is, "How do I find an ant queen?"

As with many things, finding an ant queen requires work, patience and sometimes a bit of good luck.

1. The very first step is to make sure you can identify an ant queen from a worker ant when you see one.

(Note:  the middle section in ants is not technically a thorax as it is called in other insects, but is now called a "mesosoma." Alex Wild in his article at Myrmecos calls it a thorax to avoid confusing beginners, I believe. I originally used an older term "trunk" in some of the figures.)

camponotus-pennsylvanicus-queenThis carpenter ant queen formed a small chamber under the loose bark of a log.

2. You also need to understand the colony cycle in ants.

There are many variations, but in general the colony is founded by a single queen or group of queens. The queen(s) lay eggs that hatch into larvae. Once the larvae are mature, they pupate, sometimes within cocoons (See eggs versus pupae ). The first adults to emerge will be the wingless worker ants.

ant-life-cycle

When the colony conditions are right, the queen lays some eggs that will become new queens and males. The adults will have wings. They are called "alates."

Camponotus-pennsylvanicus-3-alatesAlex Wild calls the females with wings that have not gone on their mating or nuptial flight "princesses."  They may stay in the nest for weeks until conditions are just right.

When the winged ants are flying out of the nest in order to mate and start new colonies, it can be called "swarming," the "nuptial flight" or simply "mating flight." Unfortunately swarming is also used to describe mass movements of ants, so it can be a confusing word. Generally the workers ants are rushing about in great numbers protecting the emerging males and princesses as they prepare to fly off.

Nuptial flights or swarms of ants

Once they have mated, the "princesses" generally pull off their wings and are ready to start new colonies. This is an optimal time to find new wingless queen ants.

3. Next, learn something about what kind of ants you might find in your area. If you have one or two species in mind (I would recommend larger-sized ants that don't sting for a first ant farm), then you can look up when queens are likely to be active in your area.

How do you do find out what kinds of ants are in your area? One place to start is AntWeb, which has ants identified by region. See that tab at the top of this page that says Ant-Related Websites, Forums and Blogs? There are a number of blogs that specialize on ants in a given region. (Please let me know if you have one to add.)  You can also search the ant forums by the name of your state or country for more information. You might consider joining an ant forum or social media group to learn more about the hobby, as well.

4. In general, ants tend to swarm associated with certain environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, time of day, and precipitation. For example, in New England, you can be sure to find carpenter ant queens running on the ground the morning after the first spring thundershowers, likely in May. Here in the Southwest, harvester ants swarm after the summer rains in July called monsoons. Learn what conditions the ants you are looking for prefer and watch the weather!

Swarming in winter ants at Myrmecos

More about ant queens and new colonies

5. Finally, nothing beats getting outside and searching around (just be sure you have permission to collect where you search.) Look under stones, sticks or near where lights are left on all night. I found some queens near tennis courts, which have bright lights on at night. Others have found queens that have fallen into pools. Good luck!

You also might be interested in:

Beginners Guide to Ant Keeping

Does anyone have anything to add?

2

What is this ant doing out and about this time of year? It is December, after all.

There hasn't been rain for weeks.

My son found her walking on the driveway.

She's definitely a Solenopsis because the antennal club is two segments, not three. It seems rather odd, but other species of fire ants are thought to have nuptial flights throughout the year, not just the typical ones that occur on warm, humid days in the spring or summer.

Looking back, I see that I found a single queen that was probably the same species under a rock in November of 2009 (see, blog posts are useful sometimes).

They both look like Solenopsis amblychila based on Trager's (1991) description:  the queen has no clypeal teeth and the shape of the head is cordate when viewed face on.

As to what she is doing, my best guess that a mated queen would be trying to enter an established nest this time of year.  What do you think?

Trager, J. C. 1991. A revision of the fire ants, Solenopsis geminata group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrmicinae). Journal of the New York Entomological Society, 99:141-198. (.pdf available here)

Some recent shots from my travels:

First of all, for the person who asked about the red spots in their ant farm. Do the spots look anything like the red dot on the middle leg on the left side of this photograph?  That is a mite.

The ant is a winged Camponotus pennsylvanicus "princess."

I don't usually manipulate the ants I photograph, but these were in a log that had been split for firewood, so I thought I'd play around with holding them in and under glass.

Camponotus pennsylvanicus ants are more cooperative than most.

I kind of like the results.

What do you think?