Ant Farm Question

I have an ant question! We just got an ant farm and I think they are soldier ants and they just sit on the surface of the sand all day.  What should I feed them and water them?  Will they ever tunnel?

Thank you,


If you got a standard commercial ant farm, the ants you have are worker ants. This just means that you don’t have a queen ant. Soldiers are extra big workers, which often perform special tasks.

Usually the type of ants sold with commercial ant farms are harvester ants, because their large size and tendency to tunnel makes them fun to watch. They are also relatively easy to collect.

Have you ever made a sand castle? If so, you have probably found out that if the sand is too dry it simply falls down when you try to build with it. If the sand is too wet, it is like mud and you can’t shape it properly. The sand has to have the right amount of water in it to build a good castle.

Ants have the same requirements. They prefer their sand to be a bit moist. If your sand is too dry or too wet, however, they won’t be able to tunnel in it.

Try adding some water to the farm with an eye dropper. Add a small amount at a time to dampen the sand a bit. Be careful, because too much water and food can make it moldy.

Another reason that ants won’t move around much is if they are too cold. Do you have your ant farm indoors? Is it warm enough for you to visit them without a sweater? If not, you might try moving them to somewhere a bit warmer.

As for food, adult worker ants mostly drink liquids. Mix a bit of honey or sugar with about the same amount of water in a small container. Soak the sweet-water mixture into a bit of paper towel rolled up into a ball or a piece of cotton ball. Make sure it is small enough so it will fit into the opening of the ant farm. Place it on the surface of the sand near the ants. Be sure to change the food often, as it might get moldy and/or dry out.

Please let me know if you still have further questions. You might also be interested in the posts on answers to questions from fourth graders, and the Ant Facts or Fiction quiz.

(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.)

Development of Ant Queens

(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.)

Question:  Hi, I am a reading teacher in an elementary school.  We are reading a book about ants.  My students wanted to know what would happen to an ant colony if their queen died.  I was able to find the answers.  One of the answers was that the workers would choose a larva or larvae to feed a special diet to enable it (them) to become a queen(s).  What does that special diet consist of?

Is there any other way for an existing worker to become a queen if the colony’s queen dies?  Can she eat a special diet to stimulate hormones that would change her into a queen?

First of all, thank you for being willing to look for answers to your students’ questions. I’m sure they appreciate your effort.

These are actually difficult questions, and scientists are still finding out some of the answers. The information you found about workers being able to rear a new queen is definitely true for honey bees.  The worker honey bees feed the larvae (young grubs) destined to become queens a formula called “royal jelly.” Larvae fed regular food turn into workers. The composition of royal jelly has been studied extensively, and you can buy it over the Internet.

Because there are over 12,000 different kinds of ants, however, how an egg becomes a queen varies considerably between species. Ants were long assumed to have the same food-based system as the honey bees, but now that research techniques are more advanced, it seems that at least in some kinds of ants the eggs laid by the queen are predestined to be either workers or queens. No matter how much food it is given,  queen egg becomes a queen ant and a worker egg becomes a worker ant. This is found to be the case in harvester ants and big-headed ants (See references below.) When food makes a difference, such as determining whether a worker becomes  a big worker (major) or not, it seems to be the amount of food rather than the quality.

In ant species with a single queen, generally the workers will not accept a new queen and the colony dies out when the queen dies. In ant species with many queens per colony, however, such as the Argentine ant, the workers may accept new queens. How many queens a colony will accept may be influenced by how highly related the workers are, as well as environmental factors.

As for a worker being able to become a queen, once again it depends on what kind of ant you study. In ants with a separate queen “caste,” with a queen that is bigger and structurally different, a worker can never become a queen. Once a worker ant becomes an adult, it can not change its form. A worker ant does not have wings necessary for going on a mating flight, for example, and can not grow them. When the queen dies, because the workers are females they may be able to lay eggs, but the eggs are unfertilized and result in male ants.

Other ants are more like wasps. All the ants within a single colony look pretty much alike with no physically different queen, and one worker acts as a queen (it has a special name, called a “gamergate”). In this case, when the queen-worker dies, another worker can assume her role. The queen-workers’ hormone levels do change and her sisters can detect the changes. One species with this type of queen-worker is the jumping ant, Harpegnathos saltator.

(Photo: Harpegnathos saltator from the BR hills, November 2006, Author=L. Shyamal WikiMedia Commons)

I know that is all probably as clear as mud. 🙂 Please let me know if you still have further questions. You might also be interested in the posts on answers to questions from fourth graders, and the Ant Facts or Fiction quiz.

And if anyone has more information pertaining to these questions or knows of more recent research, I would love to learn more.


Holldobler, B. and E.O. Wilson. (1990). The ants. Cambridge MA:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

A recent article in ScienceDaily about harvester ants.

Abstract about research on big-headed ants (Pheidole).

Ant Question About Collecting

(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. Karen has been graciously putting the answers on her website for some time, but now I felt it was time to relieve that burden from her. From now on I will post the answers here, and when she has time she will also post the answers on her site.


I hope you take questions from those who are not students, such as myself. (Although I think I am a “student” even though I’m 56 and not officially enrolled at a place of learning.)

I also hope that getting help from you is a free service…I believe it is. If not, please disregard this e-mail. Thanks.

One of my grandsons and I would like to have an ant farm. He’s had one prevoiusly, and I had one when I was a kid. They are quite interesting! I want to get a queen ant, so that there will be more longevity to our ant farm.

We may even try to have the ants be able to go outside as well through tubing or whatever…but I’m not sure if we’ll do that or not. The idea seems interesting to me. (I appreciate what I read from your writings about adopting the beekeepers method of having the exit too small for the queen to fit through.)

Do you know where we might purchase one in Oregon? It’s my understanding that we can’t purchase one out of state. I suppose we could go up in the woods and look in and or under fallen, rotting trees or whatever…but I don’t know if it’s legal to take ants from the forest or not.

First of all, I apologize for the lateness of my response.

As for your question about queen harvesting, I do not know your local Oregon regulations, but in most areas it is okay to collect insects on your own property. It is not okay, however, on many state and federal lands where wildlife is protected. If you are going to be on public lands, I would carefully check their regulations.

Often the best time to look for queens is when they are swarming. If you have one or two species in mind (I would recommend larger-sized ants that don’t sting for a first ant farm), then you can look up when they are likely to swarm in your area.

Please let me know if you have any further questions, and I’ll promise to answer more promptly.

-The Consult-Ant

Kids’ Questions About Ants

In another world, I am the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms.

Recently, some fourth graders in Georgia had a lot of questions about the ant farm in their classroom. Here are their questions (some of which are quite entertaining) and my answers (which are not as entertaining :-)).

1. Why do they (the ants) make tunnels (in the ant farm)?

The ants make tunnels because they live underground and need a way to get from place to place. Ants use their tunnels to store food, as a place to raise young ants and they even have special areas they use as dumps or trash bins.

They live underground for many reasons. One is temperature. It is cooler underground in the summer and warmer in the winter. Another is that it is safer because enemies like birds can’t get in and eat the young.

2. Why do they eat their dead friends?

You have probably seen what looks like the ants are eating their dead friends because an ant farm isn’t really at all like how ants live in nature. In nature, ants take their dead outside their nest and pile them in special areas. Sometimes they cut up the bodies to make them easier to carry outside.

Because they can’t take the bodies outside in an ant farm, they probably just cut them up. That might have looked like they were eating them, but they most likely were trying to get rid of the bodies somehow.

However, if the ants are very hungry, they might resort to eating each other (cannibalism).

Sometimes ants without a queen act strangely too. I’ll write more about that below.

3. Why do they die fast?

What an important question. Normally, ant colonies have a special ant called a queen. She is usually the only ant who lays eggs, and she makes special substances that keep the worker ants healthy and happy.

In an ant farm, there are only worker ants. The companies that sell ant farms are not allowed to send queens through the mail.

Without the queen and their colony, the worker ants don’t get the special substances and they die much more quickly than they probably would have if they stayed with their colony.

By the way, queens can live a long time. Some queens live 10, even 20 years.

4. How do they communicate with their antennas? and
5. Why do they communicate with their antennas?

Ants use their antennas partially like we use our noses, to smell things (they also use them for touch). When an ant meets another ant, it will touch it with its antennas to pick up any scents. The ant can tell if an ant is a member of its own colony from its smell. If the ant is a member of its colony, it will let it pass. If it is an ant from a different colony, it may try to chase it away or fight with it.

Sometimes when two ants from the same colony meet, one ant will smell that the other has eaten something good. It will ask that ant to share by tapping with its antenna. The ants will pass food to each other. The long name for this is “trophallaxis.” It kind of looks like the ants are kissing.

Ants use their antennas for a lot of other things, like looking for food. When they find food, they sometimes lay a trail of scents, like perfume, back to their nest. Once they get there other ants can follow the trail with their antennas. In fact, if you look closely at an ant, you will see its antennas are not like other insects because they have a bend, like an elbow. That bend lets the ant hold its antennas down toward the ground where it can follow scents laid down by its sisters.

Ants do a lot of different things with their antennas. You might want to get a book out of the library to find out more.

6. Why do ants eat their own dead?

You classmate had a similar question. I told her that in nature ants take their dead out of the nest and pile them. Because they can’t do that in an ant farm, most likely they were trying to cut them up and get rid of the bodies.

Ants are very clean. They don’t like to leave trash lying around. It makes sense, because the other ants could have died of a disease, or get moldy if they are just left around. That could spread disease to the living workers ants, as would eating them. But if they were very hungry, they might eat their nest mates.

7. Why do they dig tunnels?

Ants dig their tunnels so they have a place to live. If they stayed on the top of the ground things like birds or lizards might eat them. Also, the temperature is better underground. It is not windy, away from the rain or snow, cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. I think I’d like to live there.

8. Is there such a thing as a flying ant?

During certain times of the year the queen lays eggs that become new queens, which are queens with wings. Some of the eggs also grow up to become winged males. The two forms fly out together on a flight. After the flight, the male dies and the queens pull off their wings and start digging a tunnel.

It is cool to watch a queen ant take off her wings. They rub their back legs against them and actually pull the wings off.

9. Is there a king ant?

There are male ants, but they don’t live very long. Both honey bees and ants have queens, but no kings. Termites do have males who hang out with the queen and are called kings.

10. When they bite do they have poison?

Okay, actually ants defend themselves in a lot of different ways. Some ants bite with their jaws, but they don’t have poison in their jaws. Some ants sting, with a stinger that’s at the other end of their body. Those stingers do have poisons, called venom.

And some ants can spray acids at their enemies, although that works a lot better for little enemies than big ones like us.

Fire ants are known to actually bite first, draw up a bit of skin with their jaws, and then put their stinger into the pulled up bit. That might be why people think they are biting. They are stinging too.

11. Why do they bite, do they just want your blood?

Ants are biting, stinging or spraying acids because you are really, really big to them and they “think” you are going to hurt them. They are simply trying to keep you from crushing or killing them or destroying their home.

Now mosquitoes, they do want your blood.

12. Why do they like eating the dead ants?

I see several of your classmates all have similar questions, so you have been talking and thinking about this, I can tell. It’s good that you have been wondering.

It turns out that the ants in the ant farm are doing something they normally wouldn’t do if they were outside. In a regular nest when an ant dies, another ant picks it up and takes it outside. They like to keep their nests clean. If that dead ant is heavy, they might cut it up to make it easier to carry before they take it out.

In an ant farm they can’t take the dead workers away, so they just cut them up as small as they can.

13. Why do they go crazy when people blow at them?

That’s a very good observation. When the ants are underground, they are protected from wind. So if they feel an intense burst of air, it’s probably either the breath of something really close that is coming to eat them, or the air being pushed by something jumping at them. In any case it would be a good idea to get ready to run and/or to defend themselves.

I would too.

14. How long do they live?

These are important questions that scientists have spent a great deal of time studying.

How long an ant lives depends on what kind of ant and also whether you have a worker or a queen. Most worker ants live about one year, but some have lived over three years. Most queens live over ten years. The oldest queen recorded so far was a harvester ant queen who lived to be 30 years old!

15. How big can they grow?

Again that depends on the kind, or species of ants. There are types of ants that live in the tropics that have workers one inch long. The biggest ants are the queen driver ants from Africa. They are over 5 cm long. Ask your teacher for a metric ruler to see how long that is.

16. Why do they live so little time?

Do you mean the ants that were in your ant farm didn’t live very long? I’m sorry to hear that.

There are a few reasons ants in ant farms don’t last long. One is that you don’t know how old they were to begin with. The youngest ants stay deep within the nest, so when the people from the ant farm company come along and grab ants, they often grab the very oldest ants. If worker ants live a year, and yours were already nine months old, they only had a short time to live anyway.

The second reason is that ants don’t thrive as well without their queen. The queen makes special substances that keep the other ants in the colony happy and healthy. Without the queen, ants just don’t do so well. By the way, the companies can’t send a queen through the mail by law. They can only sell workers.

Thanks for all your questions. Looks like you’ve really been thinking a lot about ants. That’s what science is all about, thinking up questions. I am glad you find ants so interesting, because I do too!

Edit: If you are interested in books about ants for children, check this recent post.