Tue, Aug 13, 2019 - Page 4 News List

Ants can make tiny but rewarding pets

HOBBY IDEA:Ant keeping is not a short-term project, as ant queens can live 10 to 20 years, but the colony must be kept in a habitat with a humidity of 60 to 80 percent

By Lai Peng-hsiang and Jonathan Chin  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Worker and soldier ants drink liquid feed from a bowl in Taipei on May 28.

Photo: Chen Yu-jui, Taipei Times

Keeping ants as pets is like having an aquarium, as its main purpose is for viewing pleasure, but it is less work, said Sun Huai-yi (孫懷義), creative director of start-up Empire of Ants.

Ants do not need to have fresh air and water pumped into their tank and keepers have little to worry about other than environmental humidity and temperature, Sun said.

Having a formicarium is a hobby that appeals to children, office workers who want something different to decorate their cubicles and curious people who like to spend time observing ants, he said.

The joy of ant-keeping is watching the complex social life of ants and gaining a sense of achievement when a colony is thriving, Sun said, adding that he hopes the market for Taiwan’s indigenous ants will grow among hobbyists.

Governed by a clearly defined social hierarchy, each ant in a colony has a specific task, ranging from guarding the colony, maintaining the habitat’s hygiene, foraging, or caring for the grubs and the queen, he said.

An ant colony is viable as long as the queen is alive, as the queen replenishes the colony’s ranks of soldier and worker ants throughout her life, Sun said.

By insect standards, ant queens have a long life of 10 to 20 years, so unless she has a congenital disease or develops a fungal infection — most commonly caused by leaving too much food with the colony — most ant-keepers could expect to keep their ant farm for that long, he said.

However, ant-keepers are advised not to leave dead cockroaches for their pet ants, as pesticide residue could kill all of the ants, he said.

For legal and environmental reasons, people should avoid buying alien ant species, Sun added.

While ants are mostly omnivores, different species lean toward a more carnivorous or herbivorous diet, he said, adding that different food mixes and live insect prey can be obtained from Empire of Ants.

For beginners, he recommends Camponotus variegatus dulcis, a hardy Taiwanese carpenter ant with a vegetable-heavy diet, Sun said.

When worker ants forage, they gorge on any food they encounter, which they regurgitate after returning to the nest, he said, adding that the process is fun to watch with Camponotus variegatus dulcis, because the workers bloat after ingesting food and their light-colored carapace makes it more obvious.

Huang Yi-hao (黃奕豪), the company’s product director, said that beginners could also consider other members of the carpenter ant family, such as Camponotus albosparsus, friedae and irritans, as they are easy to keep alive.

Ants are limited to living in an environment with a humidity of 60 to 80 percent, he said, adding that formicariums are constructed with a water-absorbent casing, which allows added water to permeate through the walls to enter the internal space as vapor, thereby maintaining the humidity in the habitat.

Ant farm hobbyist Lin Yu-heng (林佑衡) said that a physical nest, anti-escape oils, ant food and feeding equipment are the essentials of a formicarium.

Newcomers to the hobby should consider limiting their purchase to a manageable size of about one queen and 10 to 20 workers, he said.

Ants detect each other by scent and instinctively avoid ants from a different colony, so prospective ant-keepers do not have to worry about a formicarium attracting unwanted ants to their homes, he added.

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