Choosing your Ant Habitat…
The first choice you'll want to start with when planning your ant habitat is what type of ant habitat to use. Habitats come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, but for the beginning ant enthusiast they can be separated into two main categories, purchased or enthusiast built.
Purchased habitats typically come either in slim or novelty models, examples of both styles can be found on Ant Farm Universe's Ant Habitats page. The primary advantaged of purchased habitats is that they allow an enthusiast to begin an ant habitat with a minimal investment of time, money and space. This makes them ideal for beginning enthusiasts, or for more experienced enthusiasts with colonies that are still very small and which consequently don't justify larger, homemade habitats.
Slim models consist of two planes of flat, or slightly curved glass or clear plastic spaced closely together inside a frame. The primary advantage of a slim model is that a much higher percentage of your fill material is next to the glass and consequently, your ants will be forced to build more of their tunnels where you can easily see them.
Novelty models often times come in irregular shapes, sizes or colors, as a result they can offer a more esthetically pleasing addition to your house or desk, something that can either blend into your décor or standout depending on your preferences. The primary advantage of novelty habitats is that they allow much more flexibility with regards to where you can place them, and they are often more appealing to children.
Enthusiast who have larger colonies will often create their own habitats, usually by partially filling an aquarium tank with sand or dirt, but some especially inventive individuals will construct hand built habitats to meet either some special need with regards to aesthetics or space.
Habitat Fill Materials
Once you have your habitat picked out, the next question becomes what to fill it with. Traditional ant habitat have typically used sand, or dirt from the same area where the enthusiast obtained his or her ants. It is best if you can find a light-colored fill material for habitats hosting dark colored ants, or a dark-colored material for habitats with light-colored ants. You will find that you are able to see your ants better, but aside from the contrast consideration, it is rather hard to make a wrong decision regarding your habitat fill material. Although, your particular species of ants may prefer one type of material slightly over another, they are by and large able to adapt to most natural materials. (Tip, if you live in a particularly arid region, you may find it helpful to your ants to occasionally simulate rain inside your habitat as this will make the tunneling process easier for them.)
An exciting alternative to the traditional types of habitat material is to use the special nutrient-rich gel, developed by scientists at NASA. There is an informative article abut Ants in Space located in the Ant University. This space age gel serves as both a home and a food source for your ants. In addition, this translucent medium lets you observe more of your ant colony' s activities than you can with traditional habitat fill. Yet another benefit to going this route for your habitat fill is that the gel is much more resistant to vibrations than normal sand or dirt, so although you still won't want to shake your habitat, you shouldn't have to worry as much that the ants' tunnels will collapse if the habitat is accidentally subject to slight vibrations.
Populating Your Habitat
When it comes to filling your new habitat with ants, you can either capture your own ants, purchase ants (typically either on-line or through the mail), or if you know an ant enthusiast who lives nearby, you may be able to acquire a limited number of ants from them.
Inside the United States, U.S. Law currently prohibits shipping queen ants across state lines, but there are companies from which you can purchase worker ants for your habitat. Individuals outside of the U.S. can find companies that will ship queens and workers directly to the consumer.
If you decide to capture your own ants, you once again have to decide whether you are after workers (which can often times be captured from an existing colony using honey or another sweet substance as bait), or whether you would like your colony to include a queen. Colonies without queens will function in much the same manner as a wild colony, but will decrease in size as workers die without being replaced. Colonies with a queen will grow in size and endure for many years if they are properly taken care of. Whichever route you choose to pursue remember that ants from different colonies will almost always fight and kill each other, so it is important to gather all of the ants for your habitat from the same colony. Once you've captured your ants, it is a good idea to stick them in the refrigerator (but not the freezer) for 10-15 minutes before you go to put them in your habitat. This will slow them down so that they are easier to get into their new home.
One of the easiest ways to acquire a queen of your own is to watch for the various species' mating flights when drones and young queens leave the colony. Drones and immature queens are easily identified by their wings. Drones typically die shortly after their mating flight, while queens return to the ground, shed their wings and then look for a suitable location for their new colony. Once you find a queen who has shed her wings and place her in you habitat, don't be surprised if it is a while before you see any activity out of the colony, depending on the species of ant in question, it isn't uncommon for several weeks to pass before the first workers appear above ground. This is the preferred method of beginning an ant colony for most enthusiasts as it doesn't result in the disruption and possible destruction of an existing colony.
The other way in which to acquire a queen for your colony is capture one from an existing colony. Overturning rocks or other natural barriers will sometimes reveal large colonies where you can catch a queen. The queen can be recognized by her larger than normal thorax (the middle part of the ant) but you'll probably have to be quick as most queens become adverse to sunlight after they begin their colony. Once you have your queen make sure that you also capture enough workers to take care of her, or she probably won't survive long enough to see another generation of workers mature.
Alternatively, you can find a small colony and use a shovel to dig up the entire colony much like you would if you were transplanting a small tree. From there, you'll want to carefully sift out the queen and workers from the dirt so that they can be placed in your habitat.
Setting up the Habitat
Once you have your ants, make sure that you place the habitat in a location where they won't be disturbed by excessive vibrations or knocked over. Taping something opaque around the bottom of the habitat will encourage the ants to do more of their tunneling near the glass walls of the habitat and allow you to see a larger portion of their network of tunnels.
Feeding Your Colony
Just like people, ants need both food and water. Water can be supplied through any of a number of commercial feeders, or through something as simple as a couple of cotton balls that you keep moist, as long as you monitor the area to ensure that mold doesn't occur.
Various ant enthusiasts use a large variety of substances to feed their ants, but assuming that you don't have a special subspecies like the leaf cutter ant, any of the commercial ant foods should work. Alternatively you can always feed your ants small insects like fruit flies, or meal worms, or even a sugary substance like syrup as long as you include some ground up multivitamins in the latter to keep you ants healthy.
A useful tip regarding feeding and watering you ants is to provide them with a separate foraging area so that if problems such as mold begin to develop you can clean the foraging area without having to disturb the main part of your habitat.
The Life Cycle of Your Colony
Once your queen is established and lays eggs, they will develop into larvae which look very much like tiny maggots. As the larvae grow, they shed their skin several times and then in most species eventually they become a pupae, which looks like a tiny white, waxy ant. The final stage of growth is the familiar six-legged insect most of us think of as being an ant.
It isn't uncommon for the earliest generations of a new colony to be considerably smaller than latter generations, so don't be surprised if your ants initially are quite a bit smaller than ones of the same species that you've observed in the wild.
Expanding the Size of Your Colony
If you take good care of your colony, don't be surprised if at some point your ants need more room, especially if you started off with a smaller habitat. If this occurs, simply provide a way from your ants to get to the newer, larger habitat, and they will often times move on their own.
This tutorial should provide you with the basic information you'll need to get started with your own ant habitat. While somewhat lengthy, we've really just scratched the surface of what there is to know about ants. Fortunately, there are an incredible number of resources both here on the Ant Farm Universe, as well as other online resources that can teach you most anything you need to know about ants, myrmecology (the study of ants) and establishing your own ant colony.
We wish you the best of luck in your new hobby!