Myrmecology and ants’ breeding at home are becoming more and more fascinating. Why? What do ants and observing their colonies teach us? Interview with Piotr Rachwał from AntCenter.
What is the job of a professional ant breeder?
We collect, breed and finally sell ants to growers, both beginners and advanced. Our model of operation is as follows: we collect swarming queens, i.e. young queens going on a mating flight with a drone. During this flight, the queen is inseminated, which then lands on the ground, sheds its wings and looks for a place for a new anthill. However, not all queens become fertilized, and not all those that have become fertilized will survive until they have the opportunity to create an anthill. It may seem that growers are disturbing nature in this way. Meanwhile, it can be said that we save them from being run over by a car, trampled on or other types of death, because very often such a swarm landing takes place on the pavement, road or in places sprayed with insecticides. After collecting such a swarming queen, we place it in a tube with cotton wool and access to moisture. For several months (or weeks for some species) we breed the queen until she lays the first eggs, which will eventually hatch the workers. These are the colonies we offer to a wider group of customers: younger and older breeders, who can already let such colonies into the formicarium, i.e. the house for ants.
What do the ants teach us?
Usually I compare that with ants it is like the human brain. We have a lot of information about its functioning, but we do not know whether we know more or less. It is similar with the life of an adult ant colony. At the breeders’ stands at various zoological fairs and exhibitions, you can see, for example, a colony of the species Messor barbarus (reaper ant) in the formicarium, consisting of approximately 900-1000 workers. Most of the people who visit our stands and watch this colony ask questions: why are these ants walking all the time, doing something, where is the point, logic and what follows from it? We all know that this leads to truly orderly teamwork. And in the case of ants, it leads to success because they thrive. When observing the formicarium for a minute or two, it is difficult to discern the logic. However, dedicating to observing more time causes us to see certain patterns of ant behavior. Especially in the case of young myrmecology students, because that is what the science of ants is called, it leads to the development of various creative ways of thinking. As a result, young people are able to scale the macro-scale look at elephants, people, giraffes and what is large, not to mention the Internet, something to focus on, often use a magnifying glass and try to look for logic in ant behavior. It is fascinating and engaging. It happens that long-term breeders from the zoological industry start their adventure with animals anew, because they have never bred ants. This is the fascination of most people who come and watch ants live as they develop.
Is growing ants at home a novelty?
In Western countries it is quite a popular hobby, while in Poland it is something absolutely new. A few years ago there was an attempt to make an ant farming an alternative to having other animals. Although there were mixed feelings at the time, the ants are now storming back. The growing interest in myrmecology is visible especially in social media: YouTube channels, Facebook and the Antmania online forum (forum associating ant breeders and anyone else interested in starting such breeding). This is an expression that it is worth starting your adventure with ants. I recommend these three social media, you can find there a lot of information on how to start breeding, and on the AntCenter YouTube channel I provide advice and answer any questions.
Is Ant Farming Difficult?
Ant breeding for beginners is generally not difficult, but basic conditions must be met. First of all, you need to be careful about the moment when we set up the formicarium. You can of course make a formicarium yourself, you can buy it, for example, at AntCenter, but there are some limitations. You have to be careful what materials they are built of. I would like to point out that there are gel formicaria available on the Internet. It is a Chinese idea, unfortunately not very successful. Often in such formicaria, ants die, die, and breeders call me for help: what happened, why? There is only one answer to this question: is there a gel in the forest where the ants usually live? And then such a farmer grabs his head: actually, how could I be argued and let ants into the gel?
If we make our own formicarium, we must remember that the nest in which we breed ants should be sterile, i.e. free from microorganisms, parasites and bacteria. They are dangerous to ants, especially in the early stages. Nest infection not necessarily be the death of the ants, but there will be a visible stagnation in their development, that is, they will be sitting somewhere in a corner, as if frightened. This is due precisely to the unfavorable conditions in the nest itself. I pay attention to this. However, if we have a source of already grown ants, we let them into the formicarium and if we provide them with a minimum of moisture and food adapted to the needs of a given colony, the breeding itself does not cause any major problems.
Often in the summer period you can meet such swarming queens after a mating flight on sidewalks or walls of buildings. Is setting up a formicarium more difficult than capturing the queen yourself than buying a ready-made colony, started by someone else?
It is not more difficult, but requires a bit of effort and creativity when we are on vacation. Mating flights usually take place in July – August, before the storm, i.e. when it is hot, hot and steamy. Then few people think of looking for swarming queens. But if we already have this enthusiasm, the greatest fun is that we can catch the queen by ourselves. If we are lucky, the queen will be inseminated and will produce offspring in our test tube, already at home. Yes, it is easier to buy a ready-made colony, because such a process takes several months. So technically it’s easier to buy a formicarium with accessories and a ready-made colony, but I encourage everyone to catch the queens themselves.
I recommend breeding ants to everyone. I want myrmecology to become common knowledge and this hobby will go under the roof. So I encourage everyone to take a closer look at the ants.