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I have an ant question! We just got an ant farm and I think they are soldier ants and they just sit on the surface of the sand all day.  What should I feed them and water them?  Will they ever tunnel?

Thank you,

Heather

If you got a standard commercial ant farm, the ants you have are worker ants. This just means that you don't have a queen ant. Soldiers are extra big workers, which often perform special tasks.

Usually the type of ants sold with commercial ant farms are harvester ants, because their large size and tendency to tunnel makes them fun to watch. They are also relatively easy to collect.

Have you ever made a sand castle? If so, you have probably found out that if the sand is too dry it simply falls down when you try to build with it. If the sand is too wet, it is like mud and you can't shape it properly. The sand has to have the right amount of water in it to build a good castle.

Ants have the same requirements. They prefer their sand to be a bit moist. If your sand is too dry or too wet, however, they won't be able to tunnel in it.

Try adding some water to the farm with an eye dropper. Add a small amount at a time to dampen the sand a bit. Be careful, because too much water and food can make it moldy.

Another reason that ants won't move around much is if they are too cold. Do you have your ant farm indoors? Is it warm enough for you to visit them without a sweater? If not, you might try moving them to somewhere a bit warmer.

As for food, adult worker ants mostly drink liquids. Mix a bit of honey or sugar with about the same amount of water in a small container. Soak the sweet-water mixture into a bit of paper towel rolled up into a ball or a piece of cotton ball. Make sure it is small enough so it will fit into the opening of the ant farm. Place it on the surface of the sand near the ants. Be sure to change the food often, as it might get moldy and/or dry out.

Please let me know if you still have further questions. You might also be interested in the posts on answers to questions from fourth graders, and the Ant Facts or Fiction quiz.

(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)

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(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)

Question:  Hi, I am a reading teacher in an elementary school.  We are reading a book about ants.  My students wanted to know what would happen to an ant colony if their queen died.  I was able to find the answers.  One of the answers was that the workers would choose a larva or larvae to feed a special diet to enable it (them) to become a queen(s).  What does that special diet consist of?

Is there any other way for an existing worker to become a queen if the colony's queen dies?  Can she eat a special diet to stimulate hormones that would change her into a queen?

First of all, thank you for being willing to look for answers to your students' questions. I'm sure they appreciate your effort.

These are actually difficult questions, and scientists are still finding out some of the answers. The information you found about workers being able to rear a new queen is definitely true for honey bees.  The worker honey bees feed the larvae (young grubs) destined to become queens a formula called "royal jelly." Larvae fed regular food turn into workers. The composition of royal jelly has been studied extensively, and you can buy it over the Internet.

Because there are over 12,000 different kinds of ants, however, how an egg becomes a queen varies considerably between species. Ants were long assumed to have the same food-based system as the honey bees, but now that research techniques are more advanced, it seems that at least in some kinds of ants the eggs laid by the queen are predestined to be either workers or queens. No matter how much food it is given,  queen egg becomes a queen ant and a worker egg becomes a worker ant. This is found to be the case in harvester ants and big-headed ants (See references below.) When food makes a difference, such as determining whether a worker becomes  a big worker (major) or not, it seems to be the amount of food rather than the quality.

In ant species with a single queen, generally the workers will not accept a new queen and the colony dies out when the queen dies. In ant species with many queens per colony, however, such as the Argentine ant, the workers may accept new queens. How many queens a colony will accept may be influenced by how highly related the workers are, as well as environmental factors.

As for a worker being able to become a queen, once again it depends on what kind of ant you study. In ants with a separate queen "caste," with a queen that is bigger and structurally different, a worker can never become a queen. Once a worker ant becomes an adult, it can not change its form. A worker ant does not have wings necessary for going on a mating flight, for example, and can not grow them. When the queen dies, because the workers are females they may be able to lay eggs, but the eggs are unfertilized and result in male ants.

Other ants are more like wasps. All the ants within a single colony look pretty much alike with no physically different queen, and one worker acts as a queen (it has a special name, called a "gamergate"). In this case, when the queen-worker dies, another worker can assume her role. The queen-workers' hormone levels do change and her sisters can detect the changes. One species with this type of queen-worker is the jumping ant, Harpegnathos saltator.

Harpegnathos_saltator_brh
(Photo: Harpegnathos saltator from the BR hills, November 2006, Author=L. Shyamal WikiMedia Commons)

I know that is all probably as clear as mud. 🙂 Please let me know if you still have further questions. You might also be interested in the posts on answers to questions from fourth graders, and the Ant Facts or Fiction quiz.

And if anyone has more information pertaining to these questions or knows of more recent research, I would love to learn more.

References:

Holldobler, B. and E.O. Wilson. (1990). The ants. Cambridge MA:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

A recent article in ScienceDaily about harvester ants.

Abstract about research on big-headed ants (Pheidole).

(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. Karen has been graciously putting the answers on her website for some time, but now I felt it was time to relieve that burden from her. From now on I will post the answers here, and when she has time she will also post the answers on her site.

Question:

I hope you take questions from those who are not students, such as myself. (Although I think I am a "student" even though I'm 56 and not officially enrolled at a place of learning.)

I also hope that getting help from you is a free service...I believe it is. If not, please disregard this e-mail. Thanks.

One of my grandsons and I would like to have an ant farm. He's had one prevoiusly, and I had one when I was a kid. They are quite interesting! I want to get a queen ant, so that there will be more longevity to our ant farm.

We may even try to have the ants be able to go outside as well through tubing or whatever...but I'm not sure if we'll do that or not. The idea seems interesting to me. (I appreciate what I read from your writings about adopting the beekeepers method of having the exit too small for the queen to fit through.)

Do you know where we might purchase one in Oregon? It's my understanding that we can't purchase one out of state. I suppose we could go up in the woods and look in and or under fallen, rotting trees or whatever...but I don't know if it's legal to take ants from the forest or not.

Answer:
First of all, I apologize for the lateness of my response.

As for your question about queen harvesting, I do not know your local Oregon regulations, but in most areas it is okay to collect insects on your own property. It is not okay, however, on many state and federal lands where wildlife is protected. If you are going to be on public lands, I would carefully check their regulations.

Often the best time to look for queens is when they are swarming. 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 they are likely to swarm in your area.

Please let me know if you have any further questions, and I'll promise to answer more promptly.

-The Consult-Ant