Seriously, “Pet” Ants?
Ants are usually viewed as pests with the potential to swarm, bite, sting and wreak havoc by infiltrating tiny spaces and multiplying into the tens of thousands. They also ruin picnics.
Still, they have one redeeming feature: they resemble humans. Ants wage wars, enslave their captives, raise and keep other creatures, farm, and demonstrate complex communication systems.
Myrmecologists (scientists who study ants) have gained invaluable insights into traffic flow patterns and adaptive social mechanisms. The study of ant behavior is likely to be one factor in building effective self-driving cars.
If you live in Arizona, your dream of becoming an ant keeper can easily become a reality, because this desert state has more ant species than any other state in the Union.
Arizona Is an Ant Keeper’s Paradise
Roughly 12,000 species of ants are known to exist; in the US, species number around 1,000. Scientists have identified a jaw-dropping 352 ant species in Arizona.
In the Chiricahua Mountains, 187 species of ants are thriving – or at least living reasonably comfortable lives. The sky islands provide huge insect diversity, while desert ants have evolved to survive both cold nights and scorching days.
Other desert states have their share of interesting ants, but in Arizona several species with unique adaptive traits are abundant – largely because desert life is harsh and our statewide topography so varied.
Ants are an exemplar of social insect behavior, but don’t get the affection garnered by bees, or respect earned by wasps. They do seem to rate a little higher than termites - another highly social, den-dwelling insect.
Ant keepers care for ant colonies as a pastime. Ant hunting (“anting”) is the process of capturing a queen. Often, the two pastimes – ant keeping and anting – go hand-in-hand: the first step to raising an ant colony is to locate a fertile queen.
Humans are naturally intrigued by the extreme “sociability” of ants. These six-legged creatures are like us, although as insects they use what is termed “distributed intelligence”; they work more like the cells in a human body than individual human beings.
Whatever you name it, ant intelligence has allowed ants to multiply into huge numbers and sometimes create local ecological crises by destroying resources; they can explode into supercolonies housing millions of residents.
Their adaptive mechanisms (like ours) are, arguably, almost too successful.
Ants evolved from another swarming insect, wasps, but developed running and climbing skills over the eons. They rule terrestrial worlds through numbers, adaptability and dedicated, organized caretaking for their young.
Ants possess a splendid system for multiplying.
Queens and Sisters
Many ant species still fly, but only some of the colony members (queens and reproductive male drones) get wings, and only for mating purposes.
Once fertilized during nuptial flight, a queen wanders in search of the ideal patch of ground for her future colony.
She finds a suitable spot, digs, and lays eggs underground. Queen ants have been observed to live over twenty years, and they are fertile throughout their lives. Her job is to be an egg-laying machine, while her workers make sure she is protected.
The workers (all female, all genetic sisters) spend their time caring for the eggs, grooming the queen, building, and procuring food and water. The colony works as a team, a single organism with many parts. They march, communicate, cohabitate, and construct—and multiply.
Science has a name for such teamwork: distributed intelligence.
Scavengers, Prey and Apex Predators
Ants are decomposers, gobbling up waste of all kinds and therefore serving as key scavengers on the forest – or desert – floor. They dig, and by doing so aerate soil to support plant growth. Several species consume and transport seeds, spreading plant life. They also serve as a desirable food source for other creatures, chiefly reptiles.
Some biologists propose that ants are not only predators but apex predators, keeping other insect populations under control.
Ant keepers enjoy cultivating their colony into a thriving society. Beekeepers get honey and help pollinate crops, but ant keepers are satisfied to observe, study and appreciate ant behavior.
To start an ant colony, an ant keeper must ensure the fertile queen is safe, warm and in the right environment while she raises her brood from a few eggs to tens of thousands of workers.
The reasons for ant keeping, like the motivation for any hobby, range from species identification to colony care to creating elaborate housing set-ups. Anting in itself is a challenge, and ant keepers may trade or sell colonies.
Ant keepers have formed tight-knit online communities, where they can geek out to photos, videos, journals, and anecdotes about colony antics through online forums.
Ant websites represent several countries. Members narrate colony life, help identify queens, and sell ant keeping supplies—propelling old-school ant keeping (remember Uncle Milton’s mail-order ant farms?) into the realm of amateur myrmecology.
Capturing a Queen to Raise a Colony
Nuptial flights usually happen during Arizona's monsoon season, a day or two after heavy desert rains. Anting requires finding queens shortly after flight, when they are often still winged but newly fertilized and crawling above ground.
Ant keepers can grow a healthy colony from a lone queen, but ant hunters usually collect a dozen or more specimens since some queens will not survive.
Once a queen is caught, the ant keeper sets up a founding chamber – the simplest is a test tube with filtered water that is plugged by a cottonball. Queen ants like darkness, heat, and moisture: a test tube provides all three, plus a source for drinking water, a passageway for oxygen (through the cotton), and a cozy space.
Within the founding chamber, the queen is likely to lay eggs within a few weeks or months. Many ant species hibernate in winter, but most desert species do not.
Common Species with Uncommon Traits
Deserts spawn survival skills. In ants, the desert has made an already adaptive creature a mistress of innovation. We describe four species that are easy to find; each has traits that make it a good choice for hobbyists. The species described below avoid invading homes and aren’t usually at the top of the “pest” list (C. cerasi is the exception).
Novomessor Cockerelli (Seed Harvesters)
The Novomessor genus has only two species: cockerelli and albisetosus. Novomessor are often seen wandering outside nests of hard, packed earth with a large crack for an entrance. They usually surround nest entrances with pebbles. They are long, slender, and glossy black to deep red.
Novomessor use their size and attitude to boss around other ants in their vicinity. For example, N. Cockerelli will emerge above ground early in the day and plug up anthill entrances of nearby colonies to gain a competitive advantage. It’s not unusual to find them nesting in areas where other aggressive genuses, such as Pogonomyrmex, live.
With humans, they are aggressive and will bite but not sting. Typically, their temperament is curious, bold, and (some ant keepers say) playful. They are slow moving, and N. cockerelli are never spotted marching in file.
N. Cockerelli has adapted to desert life by finding homes in rocky, sandy environments, surviving with little water, and consuming whatever they come across. Although seed harvesters, they are omnivorous and also consume insects.
Myrmecocystus Mendax (Honey Pot Ants)
The genus myrmecocystus is one of the most fascinating in Arizona. They live in dry environments, are often nocturnal, and store up liquid within their distended abdomens.
The term “honey pot” describes how some colony members appear when they are full of sugar water.
M. mendax are medium-sized and plentiful in southern Arizona. They have smallish red heads and large black gasters. One species (M. mexicanus) is a nearly translucent honey-orange color. M. mendax is difficult to distinguish from some of the other myrmecocystus species.
Their colonies are not usually large, and these ants tend to scurry in an erratic pattern if they sense disturbance. Some M. mendax are polygonous (a colony with multiple queens).
M. mendax live in elevations from Tucson (around 2,000 feet) up to nearly 7,000 feet, and prefer hard packed earth and rocks for colony nests.
This species is non-aggressive with humans. They spend as much time underground as possible, and often forage for insects after dark. They also gather, eat and store naturally sweet foods.
Some colony members are destined to become “repletes” who fill their gasters with so much sweet liquid that they swell up to tiny balloons and become living pantries for the rest of the colony. Repletes barely move, clinging to rock (or, if in captivity, to their glass enclosures), and enjoy high status in the colony.
Ants require both protein and carbohydrates to survive, but can live for a long time with just water and some type of sugar.
Their unique storage system gives Myrmecocystus ready access to sugar, nectar or honey.
Crematogastor Cerasi (Acrobat Ants)
This genus is popular among ant keepers because C. cerasi reproduces very quickly. A new ant keeper can find a queen and have a few dozen workers within three months. Within six months, a colony of this species can easily grow to 200 workers.
Their quick movements also make them fun to observe. They are known to be excellent climbers and escape artists.
C. cerasi workers are small but easily identified by their heart-shaped gasters. Their abdomens come to a point, and the cerasi species also have a striped or striated gaster. This genus ranges throughout the US and into Canada.
Acrobat ants have a range of colors, but most appear reddish brown to black.
In the wild, C. cerasi makes homes in branches and logs. In captivity, they prefer heat and like humidity above 80%. They are so adept at climbing they will store their “brood” (eggs, pupae and larvae) on vertical surfaces.
This species loves crickets, anything sweet (honey, sugar, maple syrup, fruit), and fruit flies. They have also been known to eat tuna fish. Of the four species on this list, C. cerasi has the most potential as an invading pest.
Although they rarely sting or bite, C. cerasi will spray formic acid, which can be a lung irritant. Acrobat ants are lightning fast and tiny, so pose an escape risk.
Typically shortened to “pogos” by ant keepers, these are among the more aggressive desert ants. Pogos are common, large, and easy to spot but distinguishing between their various species takes some practice. Their colonies sprawl, with cone-shape mounds several inches high. Common species include Rugosus, Californicus, Maricopa and Comanche.
They range throughout northern Mexico, the southwest US, and California.
Known as “red harvester ants” this genus has large, somewhat boxy heads and wide set, smallish eyes. Many Pogo species (but not all) will charge when encountering a human and not back down. They are typically colored light red or redheaded with brown or black gasters.
Pogos proliferate everywhere, including vacant lots, and amass colonies that disappear into holes on either hard-packed earth or mounds of loose, sandy soil.
Their powerful jaws make for a nasty bite, although humans are rarely bitten.
The species P. Maricopa has one of the more painful known insect stings, and the most toxic venom of any insect in north America – although they won’t bite unless provoked.
Ant keepers are careful when collecting and handling P. Maricopa (or any Pogo species, as they are hard to tell apart). This ant bite can be fatal for people who are allergic to the venom – although other ants such as solenopsis, tetramorium, and formica can also cause anaphylactic (allergic) reactions.
Human deaths from ant stings are rare, as a lethal dose requires hundreds of stings.
Although this genus requires caution, Pogos are popular because they are easy to find, active and hardy. Due to their relatively large size, their colonies are great for observation.
Pogos are primarily seed harvesters, but will scavenge insects and fruit. They often live among other types of ants, such as leafcutters and Novomessor.
Impatient? Don’t Keep Ants!
One last note about ants: they aren’t always the best hobby for kids. Raising and keeping ants requires considerable patience as the colony slowly grows. Like keeping an exotic plant, amateur myrmecologists must understand how to care for whichever species they obtain.
Ants add a dose of nature to your world and don’t require much attention beyond watering every few days and feeding every week or two. As social creatures, they always have a project going and are fascinating to observe.
Since we are blessed with insect variety in the desert, Arizona ant enthusiasts find themselves quickly learning how to identify common species.
One colony is all it takes to be bitten by the ant keeping bug.
The author is a freelancer based in Tucson. She is currently at work on an ant-based blog called wholeworldkin.com and writes on the outdoors, natural science, and medicine.
Harvester Ants Video3 Piece Band, Ant Garden Art
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