Keeping ants as pets has been a common hobby since the mass-marketed Uncle Milton's Ant Farm achieved commercial success in the late 1950s, though these ant farms did not include a queen ant for legal reasons. U.S. Federal law prohibits shipping live queen ants in interstate commerce. The reason for this is if it escapes into the wild and starts breeding, it could be in an area where it has no predators and could breed to astronomical levels, or interfere with local insects causing ant wars that could cause injury to humans and animals.
Reasons for Ant-keeping
Ant keepers may choose to keep ants in captivity for the purpose of documenting ant behavior (in the case of an ant species which is difficult to observe in the wild). This field of study is called Myrmecology.
Ant keepers may also choose to keep ants as a casual hobby, as pets.
Starting a colony
There are differing methods of starting, caring for, and housing an ant colony. A fertilized ant queen can be bought, provided that the seller is from your area and that you are buying a native species. If you are in the UK, any species of ants can be kept legally and you can purchase these through EU based sellers.
Locating a queen ant
The first step involved in ant keeping is capturing a fertilized queen ant. Ants engage in nuptial flights during spring and summer, and after these flights a fertilized queen ant will land and remove her wings before locating a spot to found her new colony. If a queen has already chewed her wings off, she is likely (but not certainly) fertilized. If a queen ant on the ground still has her wings, she is likely unfertilized.
A queen ant can be distinguished from a worker ant by the relatively larger size of the thorax (which at this point contains the wing muscles of the queen), and the enlarged abdomen which contains eggs. Beware that certain species have large workers similar in size to a queen, if the possible queen you are looking at has marks on either side of the thorax (Wing scars, where the wings of the queen were) it is a queen. If not, it's a supermajor; a larger worker of the colony.
Housing the queen ant
For fully claustral species, the queen should be sealed in a dark, aerated small container with access to water. One way to provide this environment involves using a test tube, some water, and two cotton balls. One cotton ball is pressed against the water, the queen is inserted, and the other cotton ball is used to plug the end of the tube. This nesting chamber should be kept in the dark for one month while the queen lays her eggs and tends to them until they hatch. A claustral ant species need not be fed during this period, as a queen ant will digest her now-useless wing muscles to provide her with the necessary energy until her first generation of workers emerges.
For a semi-claustral species, which is an ant that requires food during this nesting phase, protein rich foods should be provided intermittently during the pre-worker phase, with the frequency and type of food determined by the specific species of ant.
Moving the ants into a larger housing
If successful with feeding the first generation of workers, the queen ant should continue laying eggs. Eventually (at about 25 worker ants), the colony should be moved into a larger housing such as a formicarium to allow continued growth of the colony. If you wish to put your ants into a setup before this 'worker limit', you may purchase a 'test tube outworld' which will allow them to be fed more easily, while still inside the test tube.
Care and feeding
Dietary needs of ants
An ant's diet should consist primarily of sugars/carbohydrates (such as fruit, sugar water, raw honey, or honeydew) and proteins (such as mealworms, cockroaches, or bits of egg). The sugars are necessary to provide the ants with energy, and the proteins are necessary for the growth of the colony. Uneaten food should be removed to prevent the growth of mold in the formicarium.
Laws on keeping ants
In the United States of America, it is usually illegal to ship live queen ants across state lines, and ant farms sold there contain no queens, in order to prevent the introduction of non-native ant species. In Europe, some domestic species (such as Formica rufa) are protected, and it is illegal to own, keep, buy or sell these ants or to damage their nests. However, unlike for reptiles and spiders, there are no rules for owning, keeping, buying or selling non-protected species inside the EU and many other countries.
In popular culture
Over the years Ant Keeping has become more normalised through the internet. Ants Canada and Ants Australia are both some of the key influencers in Ant Keeping Culture. They have together helped society think of ant keeping as a normal hobby and not one to be afraid of.