Ant Farmer

Insider Info

For most people, it would be hard to love an ant. That's why ant farmers are such special people. To feel an affinity for these -- let's face it -- unattractive creatures that bite and invade our homes takes someone truly attuned to nature. Someone like Christina Kwapich, for example, who is 13.

"Why, you ask, did I take an interest in ants? Because they are wonderful beautiful complex creatures, in my opinion not lesser beings than ourselves. This is the point I have been trying to prove for eight years!"

Myrmecologists are people who study ants, which are complex creatures indeed. Says Melanie Typaldos of Texas, "I have a background in computer science and in biochemistry, and the combination leads me to some interesting questions about ant behavior and artificial intelligence."

While more than 4,500 species of ants are known, current worries are that many more will never be known because of the destruction of the rain forests.

Ants are categorized as social insects because they live in organized colonies. They are avidly studied for insights into animal behavior and ecology. Along with bees and termites, ants are important to our ecosystem.

Performing separate functions, they turn the soil, pollinate flowers, and breakdown dead plants. They can even impact history. "Ants can and do change the vertical and horizontal distribution of very small artifacts -- they do the same thing to very small fossils that paleontologists study," said William Lane-Shields, an Iowa archeologist.

Edward O. Wilson is a famous Harvard entomologist who has devoted much of his research to the social behavior of ants. Harvard University's Museum of Natural History devoted an entire exhibition to Wilson's ants a couple years ago.

Ants have four stages of existence: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The queens lay the eggs and the males die after mating. The wingless, infertile females serve as the utility workers, defending the nest, providing food, and raising the young.

Ants live in female colonies and it is these that are studied through ant farms. There are many different kinds of ants and colonies. A common species is the harvester ant, which works in daylight.

Different types of ants, such as leafcutters or those living in trees, need different types of homes in which to nest. Scientific labs have developed materials that can be more appropriately used in artificial nests. The setups can be quite elaborate. Some incorporate such elements as climate control and corridors that allow the ants to reach their food and water.

Kwapich says, "I have a farm of pogonomyrmex [harvester ants] now. The container is both disgusting and demeaning to the creatures living inside. I am working on the completion of a large wall-sized glass, four-sided ant farm. It's frustrating to have a queen and a dinky plastic ant farm for her growing colony. The release of winged ants is even more difficult."

Queens can be hard to come by as they are not allowed to be sent through the mail. Fertilized queens can be recognized by their broken wings. Ants for your colony can be found outdoors in mounds, near fruit trees, in decaying trees, and under stones. Watch out for the red ones!

Wilson found the first colonies of ferocious red imported fire ants in 1942 when he was 13. They had been accidentally introduced into the port near his home in Mobile, Alabama, several years before.

You may not be thrilled to hear what ants eat. Hunting ants eat mealworms, flies, raw meat, and the larvae and pupae of other ants. In the wild, they may kill young birds or other small animals. Others grow their own fungus gardens.

So why do people keep ants? Says Phillip T. Pi, who still likes ants as an adult, "I enjoyed watching the little critters work and grow [if there was a queen]. The difficult part is finding the queen ants, keeping the colony clean, keeping other ant colonies out, and keeping them in a nice room."

Adds Jeremy Edwards, "I would definitely recommend this hobby for anyone who likes science and insects. It will be a really good experience and who knows -- you may end up discovering a new species of ant some day."

That's not far off the mark, according to Linda Gilkeson, who works for the environment department of the government. "Those particularly interested in entomology as a career may find the field includes jobs as researchers in a variety of sectors [like forestry and agriculture], as professional practitioners or as regulatory or advisory staff," she explains.

"In recent years, with reductions in funds for research at universities and government research stations, finding a research job in entomology has been quite difficult -- on the other hand, there has been some expansion in the need for IPM practitioners. And for those with broader interests in environmental quality and monitoring, [there is] even more potential for jobs."

Entomologists perform important functions. They can teach, solve insect-related veterinary problems, develop drugs, work with computer software for farmers, or conduct genetic research.

But don't expect to make a lot of money in entomology. The Entomological Society of America's survey reported that 10 percent of entomologists make less than $26,000, and only 25 percent make more than $60,000.

Jeremy Edwards plans to become a professional myrmecologist someday. "Since I started studying, it became addictive. I just love to watch them scurry around and go about their daily business."

Getting Started

You can buy an ant farm in many toy departments or through the mail, although you'll have to order or find the ants separately. Phillip T. Pi (whose nickname is "Ant") says, "Kids love them! [Buying them] commercially is quicker, but you have to wait for ants to be ordered. The commercial ones tend to be childish. Making your own is more complex and tedious."

Ants tend to live only a few months in the commercial farms because there is no queen involved.

Ant fan Melanie Typaldos doesn't recommend ant farms. "I don't think the ants live for long and I'm not sure that I agree with the collecting techniques used for the commercially available ones."

She adds, "However, some people apparently have setups where the ants are basically 'wild,' but have their nest in a container where it is visible. That sort of setup would seem to be a good learning environment."

To make the traditional-style ant farm, which looks something like a very thin aquarium, you need supplies such as wood, acrylic, mesh, glue, and tape, as well as heavy-duty tools. There are sites on the Internet which show exactly what you'll need and how to do it.


Entomological Society of America
9301 Annapolis Rd.
Lanham , MD   20706-3115
E-mail :


The scientific study of ants

The Antics of Ants!
Links to articles, stories, websites, games, and animation

Interesting Facts About Ants
Lots of links here

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