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A formicarium is an ant farm. I played with these as
a child and so in May 2004 thought it worth resurrecting to amuse Hazel and Leo.
The initial attempt is at the bottom of the page, attempt
two is here, attempt three here and the page is
otherwise in chronological order with the most recent entry at the
The queen is dead, long live the Queen. She's not been moving when we've added water to the lower chamber for the last week, though we've not actually opened the nest up yet to do a final check. We suspect that, although she did return to the lower chamber, it was mould that got to the eggs at about the time that she wandered up into the middle chamber. As Thomas McElroy hinted, it is difficult to keep the Plaster Of Paris Formicarium humid without also having the eggs placed on a mouldy substrate. Something to think about for the next attempt,
Slightly worryingly, the queen has stopped tending her eggs and decided to move out to the middle chamber (the red oval in the previous entry). We can see that the eggs are still there in the lower chamber, though not in one group anymore. According to Thomas McElroy there should still be a few more weeks to go before hatching; fingers are crossed.
We carefully moved the eggs into a chamber in the Plaster Of Paris Formicarium. We chose a chamber with tunnels direct to both the reservoirs so as to be as humid as possible (the red circle below). On inserting the queen, she wandered around and became quite excited when she found the eggs. She appeared to pick them up and place them on the wall at the back of the chamber.
However, this obviously wasn't humid enough as by morning she had taken residence in the lower water reservoir (blue circle). We had left the bodies of the previous queens in the water reservoir chamber to provide a source of protein and you can see that she's moved these bodies out to the left and to the right. She's moved the eggs in with her and is busy tending to them.
On the food front, we're going to use a mixture of 1 part honey to 2 parts oil to 4 parts egg white, all diluted with as much again of water. We will put 50 ml of this per day into the central reservoir, along with 25 ml of [RO filtered] water into the lower water reservoir.
Fourteen days after finding our queen, we have eggs! Here are the best pictures we could get of them. Now to prepare the formicarium and effect a transfer.
Walking back home from the shops today we happened to spot a queen ant wandering along the pavement. It's not been incredibly hot and we haven't been aware of any ant mating flights, but we suppose one must have occurred. We have caught the queen and put her in a test tube as described below. We will see if she lays.
We received an e-mail a few days ago from Thomas McElroy who offered some excellent tips on how to make a success of keeping an ant colony. Here are his suggestions:
He also advises that queens don't over-winter before laying and can be made to lay as follows:
If they are fertile and in the correct conditions most begin to lay in the first two days; some take up to two weeks. The best place to keep them is in a test tube specially made:
Thanks for the advice Tom, we'll use all that when we try again, probably next year now.
We've been worried that nothing much is happening in the Formicarium. One, possibly two, of the queens have died but the other two queens, which have congregated in the lower-right water sponge, are moving about a little but not laying eggs or anything. Then Alice had a brain-wave and read one of our insect books: turns out that the queens over-winter, feeding on the fat in their bodies plus the now useless wing muscles, and then lay their eggs in the spring. We'll have to keep watering them periodically to make sure they don't dry out, but otherwise we have to play the waiting game.
[Post script: the queens didn't last and no eggs were produced].
Well, either our queen was barren or the environment in the Plaster of Paris Formicarium isn't conducive to birth because she'd slowed to a near stop as of a few days ago. Over the weekend we happened to be visiting in South Wales and found that the ants there were flying so we bagged four of them for another attempt. When we returned home the queen was definitely dead so we removed her, put some sand into the larger pockets to act as good hiding/digging spots and then added all four new queens. As Jo, a friend of the family, commented, we're going to take the IVF approach. If more than one turns out to give birth and we get competing nests then so be it.
The interior filler took about a week to dry out properly. We tested the water/food chambers of the Plaster of Paris Formicarium and found our first mistake - plaster is porous. A spot of sealing inside those chambers with clear glue seemed to do the trick. Then we thought about the front and decided that actually Cling Film would be ideal if it would seal properly. We put some Cling Film across the front of the nest and secured it with an elastic band all-round, then put in a few ants from the garden to see if they could escape. A few days of imprisonment proved it would work. In order that the water/food chambers would be enclosed we glued some pieces of stiff transparent plastic, cut from some old packaging, to the front of them, ensuring that this process didn't cause any bumps to appear on the front surface. We shoved a few pieces of foam into the reservoirs to prevent ants drowning and put the Cling Film over the front, securing it with two elastic bands for a bit of security. Finally, since ants obviously like it dark, we cut some see-through red plastic film and attached it to the the top of the formicarium so that it would normally lie flat over the front but could be hinged up. Oh, and do make sure you have bungs for all the tubes (an old felt-tip pen top and two rawlplugs did it for us). Here's the finished thing.
Separately, we've also made a wooden stand for it to stop us having to prop it up in an adhoc way.
Fortuitously, with the day-time temperature in the high 20's Celsius today, the ants decided to swarm in Cambridge. Having an empty food container with us, we caught one of the females who'd rubbed their wings off after the mating flight and was obviously looking for a place to setup home. So we have ant insertion: here is our queen at home. Let's hope she (a) mated successfully and (b) likes her home. We're feeding her on the same mixture of honey, oil and egg white (for protein) in water as we used for Plan A.
We began Plaster of Paris Formicarium construction today. Since we didn't have any perspex to hand, we took a stiff cardboard sheet and covered it in foil to act as the surface on which to sculpt the Plasticine. We then found a stiff, shallow cardboard box (the kind that posh chocolates might arrive in) and marked the size of that on the foil. We then made the Plasticine forms on the foil. Our plan is to have a water chamber at the very bottom and a food chamber somewhere in the middle with lengths of flexible plastic tubing going down to each and exiting upwards through the wall of the box. We cut a hole in the back of the cardboard box so that we could pour on the plaster, and then placed it over the patterns, sealing around the outside edges with Plasticine just in case.
Our local DIY shop didn't have plaster but instead had "interior filler" (the stuff that will do for holes up to 50 mm) which we decided to try. Buy the dry form so that you can get the consistency right - it needs to just be falling-off the stirring implement. Pour this in through the hole in the back of the box, making sure to push it into place to avoid air bubbles, and leave overnight. In the morning the whole can be turned over and the foiled board carefully lifted away, then the Plasticine equally carefully removed (the cardboard box remains in place holding the plaster).
An unexpected advantage of using interior filler rather than plaster is that it will not yet have set so that if, like us, you realise that you've forgotten to add a larger "ant entry" tube, you can easily push a hole though the mix and insert it. In fact, you can further sculpt the runs and chambers to give them extra depth and even create new chambers if you wish.
Of course we now need to leave it to dry out completely, which may take a while. Then we need to make a stand for it and hold a perspex front in position somehow. More later...
Yvonne Newman from Australia contacted us at the weekend to ask about our formicarium progress. This has triggered Plan B - a Plaster of Paris-based formicarium. Take a sheet of perspex, make a pattern of tunnels using strips of Plasticine, put a low wall around the edge of this and then pour in Plaster of Paris. When it sets you turn it upside down, lift off the perspex, pull out the pieces of Plasticine, then replace the perspex and hey presto - ready made tunnels right next to a see-through surface. Doesn't matter how few ants you put into this, you can see them running around all the time. Need to figure out how to feed them as well. We'll buy the material this weekend.
Yvonne will let us know how her formicarium progresses and we'll pass on any relevant links here.
We decided to buy a set of ants, including a queen, from www.buyants.co.uk. Unfortunately this has turned out to be the sole occasion when we have been ripped-off over the internet. We paid £35ish via a debit card and they never sent us any ants. Our attempts to contact them via their website, through their ISP and by snail-mail all failed. Since we paid by debit card rather than a credit card, we weren't protected either. Gave up for this year.
One year on and what did we see? We kept the farm going for about 6 months. The ants seemed happy and survived well, though the lid wasn't properly ant-tight so they tended to come out for walks collecting stuff. They weren't as active as we'd liked though, possibly because we didn't put enough in (50ish?). We certainly didn't put a queen in so they couldn't make any more. Now wondering whether to try again this year with a queen as well, cheating this time by going out and buying one. More later.
A formicarium is made by sandwiching two panes of glass or perspex together leaving a small gap between them (a centimetre or so). I made a wooden frame to do this (see picture below) and glued the perspex into the frame. Use sealant both inside and outside to make sure it's ant-tight . Make sure that the top fits tightly. You should make two holes in the sides through which some large plastic drinking straws can be inserted - one for water, the other for food. Place a sponge inside the frame in the bottom corner against the watering straw to act as a reservoir. Food is a mixture of honey, oil or butter and egg white (for protein) in water. You can use clothes pegs to close off the straws and prevent ants escaping. You'll also need some deep red cellophane underneath black cloth to put over the nest to keep the ants in the dark. You can then lift just the black cloth and watch them through the red cellophane. If you don't do this they won't make their tunnels near the perspex and it will all be very boring.
Now fill the gap two-thirds full with sand. Sand is best since it makes it easy to see the ants. Next, you need ants. Actually, you really need a queen ant to begin the nest. We tried digging up a large ants nest and searching for the queen, but to be honest it's very unlikely that you'll find one. You can just collect a lot of workers and eggs, though the nest won't last for more than a few months. Alternatively, there are places that will sell you queen ants and even whole colonies by mail order - this seems too much like cheating.
After spending a few hours sifting through an enormous ants nest from our compost heap, we decided to just put in some workers along with loads of eggs to last us until later in the year when the ants all take their mating flight. We then plan to pluck up a queen off the floor and start the nest properly.
We put the ants in; below is the "before" picture. Now we wait and see...
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