Ant Farm Questions
Q. I have recently started an ant farm and was wondering how to tell if I have captured the queen ant and, if not, how I can find it?
A. A queen ant will be larger and thicker in the body than other members of her colony. It is easier to tell whether or not an ant is a queen if you know roughly what kind of ant you have. For example, carpenter ants are much bigger than sidewalk ants. If you have some feel for the size of the ants in your area, you can immediately spot one who is larger than normal.
Remember too, that some ants have what are called soldier ants, which are larger than a typical worker of their species. Soldier ants have large heads and jaws, but their mid-section (thorax) and rear section will be more streamlined or narrow than a queen’s. Look at some pictures in books. Drawing pictures of the workers, soldiers, and queens yourself may help you establish the differences in proportions in your mind.
Queens are most abundant during the time of year when colonies are producing what are called swarms. During the late spring or summer the colony will suddenly show an intense flurry of activity. Worker and soldier ants will run around outside the nest. Within hours, new queens and males from the colony will arrive at the surface and begin climbing nearby objects. They will take off and fly in a mating flight with males and queens from other colonies. Then the queens return to the ground (the males die) and look for a new place to start a colony. If you are looking for queens when this happens, you might spot several in one day.
Otherwise, you may look for ants by turning over stones and logs. Typically in older colonies the queen is quickly hidden, but a small, new colony may be a great find for you. Be prepared to scoop her up quickly. And remember to turn over rocks carefully if you live in an area with poisonous creatures such as snakes, spiders, or scorpions. Return them to their original position when done, if possible.
Q. I have a carpenter ant queen. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. She hasn’t laid any eggs nor has she eaten anything (at least not to my knowledge).
A. Once you have a queen, the first thing you need to determine is whether she has mated or not. This would be easy if you could just ask her, but since you can’t you have to look for clues. Does she still have wings? Typically, if she has wings then she hasn’t mated. She sheds them once she mates. Did she have eggs or workers with her when you found her? That’s a good sign she’s mated. Otherwise you just have to sit and wait and see what happens. Even an unmated queen can lay eggs, but they will become male ants instead of workers.
When a new queen flies and looks for a new place to start a colony, her life is full of dangers. Birds, frogs, toads, etc. are all looking for a tasty meal and she has no sisters or daughters to defend her. So, once a queen has found a snug hiding place, she usually stays put and does not venture out for food. Instead, she uses the proteins from her disintegrating flight muscles, which she will no longer need, as a food reserve. Once her new daughters arrive, they will venture out to retrieve food for her and her brood. So don’t worry if she doesn’t eat, it’s normal.
Q. My queen had eggs in the summer, but now she isn’t laying any more. What’s wrong?
A. Ants and other insects in temperate climates must have a way to get through the cold winter. Ants enter a state called diapause where they no longer eat, don’t move much, and may even look sick or dead. Somehow, ants far underground or inside warm laboratories still can tell that it is fall and time to go into diapause. Some species will not come back out until they have been exposed to a cold period of five or six weeks. A month and a half in a standard refrigerator should do the trick. But do not put them in until it looks like they are in diapause and do not freeze them.
Q. My ant farm is in my room and I play a lot of loud music. Will this harm my ants?
A. Carpenter ants do signal each other of danger by tapping the surface of their wooden nests. These vibrations are detected by other ants, spreading the alarm. The vibrations of a stereo or household machines could potentially disturb ants. Placing a thick pad of fabric or felt under the nest may absorb some of the vibrations, or move them to a quieter location.
Q. Are ants good for anything?
A. Yes, ants do a lot of important things for us, from easy to see things like eating insect pests, providing food for wildlife, and improving the soil, to hidden and complex things like planting wildflower seeds. By studying them, you may learn more than you realize.
Copyright February 2002
Originally published in March/April 2002 issue of HELM (Home Education Learning Magazine).