Reader Question About Harvester Ants Eating Ant Farm Gel

We have a question for the Consult-Ant today:


I wanted to ask you if wild Harvester ants, will learn to eat the gel in a antworks gel farm.

I have an empty one and put about 30 wild, I’m pretty sure they are harvester ants, same size same color, but I am guessing of course. But my main concern is if they will learn to eat the gel or will I have to feed them. Its real nice of you to answer ? from us newbies.
Thank you very much.


Dear Ron,

I am glad to hear about your interest in ants. You are correct to be concerned about whether your harvester ants will eat the gel supplied with your ant farm.

The blue gel used in ant farms was originally put together for a short science experiment designed by students. The students were sending ants up on the Space Shuttle for a few days and they needed something that they could see the ants through and that would stay in place with no gravity. Obviously, sand would not work.  They came up with the blue gel and it worked well for their experiment.

The problem is, it was never meant to be used to keep ants for a long time. Although it will keep the ants alive and they will tunnel in it, it isn’t the best food for them. However, if you put a bunch of food into the gel habitat, there is a good chance you will get mold and bacteria growth, which will harm the ants.

In the video below, you can see how the person places the food on a small bit of aluminum foil. That would be a helpful way to feed your ants in the gel ant farm. Try to keep the food on the foil and replace it once a day.

Also, your harvester ants can eat the same sorts of things as shown in the video. They will accept a bit of dead insect, such as a small cricket and/or a few drops of honey and water mixed together. You can soak the honey and water into a bit of cotton or paper towel so it won’t drip as much.

Here’s an excellent video that shows some basic information about how to feed and keep ants:

I know it isn’t as cool to look at as the gel, but people who are serious about raising ants use a test tube nest (the link shows you how to make one).

This link has a lot information about how to build/make several different kinds of ant farms, in case you want to try another kind.

It’s great that you have decided to find out more about keeping ants. It can be a very interesting hobby. Let me know if you have any other questions.

(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.)

Reader Question: Ants for Ant Farms in Australia

Just had a question come in from a young ant enthusiast (edited):

If you have heard of an Ant-O-Sphere(eight pods) I’m trying to make a colony in there but so far the bulldog ants are too big and the Argentine ants are too small.

I don’t know what other ants I can find in Australia (where I live) Victoria Mornington.

I wonder is there an ant shop in Victoria?

I’m not familar with Australian ants at all, so I’m going to put this out to you the reader. Do you have any helpful suggestions?

It is easy to imagine that neither bull ants nor Argentine ants would be really the best choices for an ant farm. It also seems likely the Argentine ants are probably chasing out the local species of ants (see reference below), like they have done in California.

Does anyone out there have any ideas of suitable Australian ants that might be available and good for use in an ant farm?


Argentine ants give weeds a boost at ABC Science

Ants of Australia

Reader Question About Ants Indoors


I have a colony of miniscule black ants living in a large potted Jade plant which I keep on my kitchen counter in the winter and outside in the summer.  I let them live inside for the last 2 winters because they’re miniscule, and aren’t at all invasive in terms of getting into food and were contained to a small area.  Recently they’re just starting to get out of hand, traveling further along the counters than before and they’ve expanded to a second, small potted plant on the window sill.  I realized this when I picked up the pot one day and there were several bigger ants (queens?) under there and some eggs which the tiny ants quickly started moving about.  They settled down after I replaced the pot.

My main question is about something going on this morning. There was a huge highway of ants going from one pot to the other, appearing to be ushering along one of these queen ants, and also some were carrying eggs.  I cruelly killed the queen and some of the surrounding ants.  Ok, well I figured I was either doing crowd control or helping them get rid of an invader ant.  My main objective was to clear away the majority of ants before my monthly house cleaners arrived, and would surely kill the whole highway if they saw them (normally I try to clean the counters really well before the cleaners arrive, so minimal ants will be out and about).  But a half hour later, the highway was still in full force, ushering another one of these big ants.  I ended up putting up a sign asking the cleaners not to kill them.  But do you have any idea what was going on in this scenario?

Any info or guesses would be very appreciated!


First of all, I am impressed that you have been so tolerant of these little creatures. That’s wonderful! Also, I am sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. The consult-ant e-mails got eaten in a computer snafu.

If you are still curious about your ants, I am going to go out on a limb and guess they might be rover ants. Some of the clues are your use of the term “miniscule,” because these ants definitely seem like walking dust specks. Also, the fact they are living in a potted plant is a tipoff, because that is a common behavior of rover ants. The third clue is that they were tolerable, for the most part, because they don’t really get into stuff in an aggressive way.

What probably caused them to tip towards nuisance status is that the new queens and males were getting ready to swarm. The new queens were the bigger ants you noticed. Simplifying a bit, swarming is when the queens and males fly up into the air, mate, and then the queens fly off to find a place to start a new colony.

The colony often gets super active around the time of swarming. Because they are indoors, they are likely to parade around and then go back into the flower pot, because they can’t get away to fly. This might go on for a couple of weeks, until the ants find a way out.

The good news is that swarming is temporary. Once the queens and males have flown away, the colony should return to its usual docile behavior.

If you click on the tags rover ants or Brachymyrmex in the sidebar of the blog, you can see several other posts I have written about these ants.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any other questions, or if you think you have a different kind of ant. Good luck with your ant watching!

Rover ants (Brachymyrmex sp.)

Rover ant reproductives milling about on a windowsill, getting ready to swarm.

Rover ant reproductive (virgin queen)

A tiny male rover ant trying to launch himself from my keyboard.

(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.)

Reader Question About the Origin of Ants

Dear Consult-Ant,

A couple of students and I are researching ants.
We have a series of questions we would like to know answers to and we were wondering if you could help us?
Our questions are:

  • – Where do ants come from?
  • – What was the first ant species discovered?
  • – What did the first  ant species look like?
  • – What did the first ants eat?
  • – Is there an ant species that are extinct?
  • – How and when were ants created?

It would be appreciated if you could help us.

Yours sincerely


Your questions are great ones, and it turns out that we are getting more and more information to help answer them all the time. I am no expert in this area, however. I will start the conversation and perhaps someone more current in the topic will stop by and clarify.

1. Where do ants come from?

From your other questions, I assume you mean where did the first ants come from, and not where do new ants colonies that show up in your backyard come from. If I have misread your question, please let me know.

To answer, it is helpful to look at the “family tree” of the Order Hymenoptera.

(Note:  This is a roughly-drawn family tree for the layperson to show the relationships between major groups of Hymenoptera. If you are unfamiliar with sawflies, here is a brief overview.)

As you can see from this illustration, the ants are smack-dab in the middle of the wasps. Ants are essentially wasps with wingless workers that live in social groups.

2. What was the first ant species discovered?

The first ants are thought to have shown up during the Cretaceous period, the time when the land was dominated by dinosaurs.

Scientists examine fossils to piece together details of prehistoric life. It isn’t all that easy to find insect fossils, however, so they have to rely on insects trapped in deposits of amber (hardened tree resin).

This lovely photograph of ants trapped in amber was taken by Mila Zinkova at Wikimedia.

E.O. Wilson, Frank Carpenter and William L. Brown, Jr. (1967) described the first wasp-ant from mid-Cretaceous amber as the extinct species, Sphecomyrma freyi. They were not completely sure it was an ant because they couldn’t see whether it had a metapleural gland (a gland ants have on the sides of their mid-sections, but which wasps lack). Dave Grimaldi took up the challenge, and he and his colleagues verified Specomyrma freyi did have a metapleural gland and was indeed an ant. They also found a total of four genera and eight species in the extinct ant subfamily, Sphecomyrminae. The earliest are from French and Burmese amber.

Since that time other ant species, both extinct and living have been found. It seems like they are all jockeying for position to be the “first ant.”

The other contenders:

  • Nothomyrmecia macrops – an early favorite, this living species from Australia shows transitional features of ants and wasps
  • Cariridus – an extinct ant found in Brazilian amber, assigned to the subfamily Myrmecinae (same as Nothomyrmecia)
  • Armaniinae or Armaniidae – Extinct. Are they wasps or are they ants? No one knows for sure yet.
  • Martialis heureka – A newly discovered living species of ant from the Amazonian rainforest, it was so different it rated its own subfamily, Martialinae

As more early ants are found in amber, the beginnings of the Formicidae (ant family) will become clearer.

3. What did the first ant species look like?

As alluded to above, the first ants most likely looked like wingless wasps. There are photographs of Sphecomyrma freyi available on the Internet, for example at The Ant Farm and Myrmecology Forum. Even if it isn’t the first ant, it was probably similar.

Sphecomyrma freyi has characteristics of both ants and wasps.
Ant characteristics:

  • metapleural gland present
  • structure of petiole (waist)

Wasp charactistics:

  • mandible structure
  • tibial spurs wasp-like

Ants are known for having “elbowed” antennae, that is the first segment attached to the head is long, forming the scape. The first segment of the antennae of Sphecomyrma freyi are slightly longer than in wasps, but not as long as that of modern ants.

You can also see a drawing of Cariridus by downloading the full text of:  Carlos Roberto F. Brandão, Rafael G. Martins-Neto, and M. Aparecida Vulcano. 1989. The earliest known fossil ant (first southern hemisphere Mesozoic record) (Hymenoptera; Formicidae: Myrmeciinae. Psyche 96:195-208 here.

4. What did the first ants eat?

Most likely the first adult worker ants ate what wasps and adult worker ants eat these days, which is liquids. The presence of the thin “waist” makes it impossible for adult ants to eat solid foods. However, they would not have eaten nectar, at least at first, because flowering plants arose a bit later.

The workers were likely predators that captured arthropods to feed to their larvae. The larvae may have given liquid food back to the adults once they had processed it. The adults might also have taken fluids from the prey.

5. Is there an ant species that are extinct?

Yes, many of the species found in amber (question 2) are extinct, as far as we know.

6. How and when were ants created?

Oh boy, that’s a tough question. When? The oldest fossils right now are from early to mid-Cretaceous, about 130 million years ago. How? Probably genetic modification from wasps already present. There are definitely people working on these sorts of questions. I’m not sure that what we know about the earliest ants is hard and fast yet.

I hope this helps, and that the answer arrives in time to help with your project.


Carlos Roberto F. Brandão, Rafael G. Martins-Neto, and M. Aparecida Vulcano. 1989. The earliest known fossil ant (first southern hemisphere Mesozoic record) (Hymenoptera; Formicidae: Myrmeciinae. Psyche 96:195-208. Can download here.

Michael S. Engel and David A. Grimaldi. (2005). Primitive New Ants in Cretaceous Amber from Myanmar, New Jersey, and Canada (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). American Museum Novitates Number 3485 :1-24.

Holldobler, B. and E. O. Wilson. 1990. The Ants. The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Excerpt.

Ted R. Schultz. (2000). In search of ant ancestors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 97(26): 14028-14029. (full text online)

New Ant Species Discovered In The Amazon Likely Represents Oldest Living Lineage Of Ants. Science News. 2008.

Lori Lach, Catherine Parr, and Kirsti Abbott, eds. 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press, USA, particularly chapters 1 and 2.

(Affiliate link)

(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.)