Feeding Ant Queens

Mike wrote to the “Consult-Ant” with a number of questions about ants. I am going to try to answer each one in a separate post. For the original list of questions and links to all answers, visit here.

Question 8. If I were to catch a queen ant, would it be recommended to feed her some protein as well as sugary foods like honey? I was thinking about this because I’ve read that the eggs and larvae would need protein to grow properly (I’m guessing for muscle development and such). So is peanut butter a good protein choice, in substitute of other insects? I’m worried that peanut butter wouldn’t have all the essential amino acids because peanut butter is an incomplete protein. But I’m not sure about ant development and physiology, so I’m curious.

The answer to this question depends on what kind of ant queen you find. In many temperate ant species, the queen starts a colony via what is called “claustral” founding. In this case, she seals herself off from the world as much as possible, often forming a special chamber. Then the queen lays her first batch of eggs. Until those eggs complete development and eclose into worker ants, it is likely the queen will not feed at all. Usually a queen in this case is surviving on the fat reserves she stored while in her natal colony, as well as the breakdown products from the deterioration of her flight muscles. The queen has no further use for her flight muscles once she has removed her wings, so the muscles break down.

Carpenter ant queens have claustral founding.

You might want to give new queens a bit of honey- or sugar-water solution absorbed into a piece of cotton ball or paper towel wad. Just so you know, adding any food always increases the chance of introducing unwanted molds or bacteria.

Once the little colony is underway, you can start feeding. To figure out the best foods, do some research on your particular species. Many scientists prepare a general diet useful for a variety of species. One of the earliest is known as the Bhatkar diet, named for the scientist who developed it. Hoelldobler and Wilson have a section on culturing ants in the back of their book, The Ants. It gives the recipe for Bhatkar diet. (Try Google Books). The Myrmecology Forum also has a link to a .pdf file of the original paper with the recipe. Basically it is honey, an egg, vitamins and agar (available online). You mix it up, cook it to get the agar to thicken, and then cool.

Supplement the diet of predator or scavenger ants with small amounts of freshly killed insects, such as mealworms or crickets, both available at many pet stores. You can also maintain mealworm/cricket cultures of your own. I have used tuna in a pinch. I’ve never tried peanut butter. It might be a bit sticky and the ants could get stuck in it, depending again on what kind of ants you have.

The maker of this video has some good ideas, such as putting the food on a bit of foil, to help with clean up. I would also soak it into cotton or paper towel to prevent workers getting stuck and drowning, but this person didn’t find that necessary.

For more information:

BHATKAR, A. P., AND W. H. WHITCOMB. (1970). Artificial diet for rearing various species of ants. Florida Entomol. 53: 229-232.

COHEN, A. C., AND L. K. SMITH. (1998). A new concept in artificial diets for Chrysoperla rufilabris: The efficacy of solid diets. Biol. Control. 13: 49-54. This diet has been used for fire ants successfully.

Ant Cam website has many FAQ’s useful for ant farms. Try What is good food for ants in my ant farm? for two different diets and advice.

Does anyone have any other great websites or papers with useful information on feeding queen ants and new colonies?

Question 3 Ant Queens and Pheromones

Mike wrote to the “Consult-Ant” with a number of questions about ants. I am going to try to answer each one in a separate post. For the original list of questions and links to all answers, visit here.

3)      I’ve been meaning to catch an ant queen, but I’ve been curious about other methods of catching one. Are there ant pheromones that can basically attract queen ants to come out of the colony? I assume that each ant species would probably have their own type of pheromones, so I’ll have to find out which species I’m planning to catch, which leads me to the next question: Where can I get these pheromones? Can I synthetically make them on my own? What differentiates certain pheromones from another? Subtleties in molecular structure?

That’s an interesting idea, Mike, but it actually works in reverse. The queen produces pheromones to attract males during the mating flight (although some species have other signals, like harvester ant queens stridulate). Once she has started a colony, usually the pheromones she produces regulate the behavior of the workers, attracting them to her. She is the most important member of the colony after all. I guess it is possible that wafting an alarm pheromone into a nest might drive out the queen, but your chances of finding her amidst the other ants? I’m not sure.

Chemists have definitely synthesized pheromones for insects, usually for those with economic importance, for example gypsy moths. The chemistry is often quite complex. The chemical structure may vary by something as simple as chirality or as complex as being a totally different molecule.

If you want to catch a queen, nothing beats learning all you can about the life history of the species you are interested in and then going out when at the time of year when swarms occur (often depends on the weather) and look for mated queens. I find queens all the time because I’m looking for ants, and queens start their colonies where other ants are successful.


Anyone else out there have any ideas for Mike?

Edit: In researching your next question I did find evidence that in carpenter ants, the males release a pheromone from their mandibular glands that signals to the female reproductives that it is time to fly from the nest and join the mating swarm. (Holldobler and Maschwitz 1965, as cited in LD Hansen and JH Klotz, Carpenter Ants of The United States and Canada). Although they would be unmated, that might be a way to entice them from the nest. The other problem I foresee is that the unmated queens would need to be physiologically ready to go on their mating flight or the pheromone wouldn’t work.

See the next post for more information on pheromones.

New Carpenter Ant Queen Question

I have an ant question!

Hi I’ve been trying to start an ant colony and haven’t had much luck but
the other day i found a queen in the yard while mowing. She still has
her wings i put her i my farm but don’t know if she has already mated or
not. If i can find a winged male of the same species will they mate in
the farm? I know they mate in flight but thought maybe they would mate
in the farm to?

She is about 3/4 of an inch long. I live in eastern Tennessee. I was
also curious what species this is?
Any help would be appreciated thanks.ant-queen-photo

Well, you are in luck with identification. Based on your estimate of her size, I think I can safely say your queen is a carpenter ant, genus Camponotus. I can’t be sure about the species.

Has she taken her wings off yet? I once had a queen that delayed taking her wings off until she had laid her first batch of eggs (which became workers, so she was mated), but usually they come right off. It’s a bit early to be seeing mated queens, but possible.

As for putting a male in the ant farm, it’s not likely to work, plus it is hard to find males of the correct species. Why don’t you hold her for a few weeks and she what she does?

You might want to look at the links in this post too.

Now you know there are ants in the area, chances are good you will find another. Good luck and let me know what happens.

(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)

Ant Queens and New Colonies

When I am acting as the “Consult-Ant” and answering questions about ant farms, people are generally interested in finding out more about ant queens.

When an ant colony is ready to branch out, the current queen lays eggs that develop into males or new queens instead of workers. Adult male ants are winged, and have small heads and slender bodies. They can easily be mistaken for wasps.


Newly emerged queens are larger than both males and workers, and have four wings.


When conditions are just right, such as after a summer thundershower, the males and new queens fly from the nest. The whole colony is in a tizzy when this happens. Worker ants gush from the nest entrance and mill around. Winged males and queens climb up on grass stalks, trees, or anything tall in the area.


In many species, the winged queens and males fly to meet with males and queens of the same species of ant from other nests. They enter what is called a mating swarm, a swirling cloud of flying and mating insects.

After mating, the males drop to the ground and soon die. The new queens, the ones that escape being eaten that is, also drop to the ground. The queens quickly pull off their wings by rubbing them between the back of their body and their hind legs, twisting and tugging. Once the wings are off, they quickly hide themselves. Ground-nesting ant queens tunnel into the soil while other types of queens may slip into cracks in the bark of logs or creep under nearby rocks. There a queen makes a safe chamber to start her new colony.


You can tell she’s a queen because of the scars on her trunk (middle section) where her wings were.

The queen will lay eggs that develop into tiny worker ants, and a new colony is born.

Have you ever seen swarming ants?

The theme today for Life Photo Meme at Adventures of a Free Range Urban Primate blog is “reproduction.”