Starting My New Hobby "Keeping Ants As Pets" In The Winter?

Winter months for many creatures are a time to rest.  They stay tucked away in burrows inside trees or underground, safe from the harsh conditions above ground.  It would seem an impossible time to begin the hobby of "keeping ants as pets" during this time, but that is not necessarily true in all situations.

The biggest challenge is going to be the weather.

Collecting ants in the winter may not be an option for everyone, but here in Raleigh, North Carolina it can be as good or a better time to collect ant colonies in many ways.  I am not suggesting frequent visits out to disturb a lot of natural habitats in a haphazard manner, but rather a targeted approach to obtaining a small colony or two while they are sleeping.  Collecting under these conditions is much safer for the ants and much more successful for you once you locate them.  Have a rotten tree in the yard that you need to move before spring?  Do you have a lot of fallen acorns or other nuts in your yard to look through? 

The biggest challenge is going to be the weather.  I usually wait until February, the month before ants start to fly, to do any winter searching.  I feel this is helpful not only to me as I can find the healthier colonies that have survived diapause that year, but also it has given the ant colony it’s period of diapause without interruption.  When collected at this time local colonies in Raleigh have already had 3-4 months of cooler temperatures.  Some additional challenges are the fact that ants are not moving during this time, so you have to be very specific where you look for colonies.  Under rocks, inside rotten wood, and also inside decaying acorns and other nuts you will find some small colonies (or queens waiting for the spring to begin their colonies).  Be ready to collect the entire colony if you do go looking, however.  Without experience or at least the help of someone with experience, I do not recommend digging for ants, especially during this time when they are all massed together in tight balls.  One shovel in the wrong place will kill a large portion of a colony when they are so closely compacted in their chambers.

The best location to search I have found is inside rotten wood and acorns.  Peel out outer layers of bark or nut (use a metal nutcracker) until you see a few workers.  Even in the winter on warm days, ant colonies will have some sentries usually located in the outer fringes of the nests.  The presence of these workers will let you know an ant colony is nearby sleeping and what species.  Then proceed slowly and carefully using small tools.  Another method us using a claw hammer and peeling away layers of the dead wood starting further away from the colonies location.

A major benefit for me in winter time collecting is lack of ticks, spiders, mosquitoes, snakes, etc.  You certainly may come across a sleeping version of these and other creatures, but they are sleeping typically.

One shovel in the wrong place will kill a large portion of a colony.

During a recent outing my wife and I searched for about 15 minutes and found a large amount of very old nuts under a large tree inside the forest.  The nuts were found under the carpet of dead leaves.  We placed the nuts with tiny holes on the outside (this told us something may have recently been coming and going from inside) inside a bag and went home to see what we could find.  Among a dozen nuts were several “acorn” ant colonies, a small Aphaenogaster sp. colony, and a small Strumigenys sp. colony (no queen, however). 

Happy Hunting!  

Mack Pridgen - Owner Operator of Tarheel Ants


Re-posted with permission from Tarheel Ants - The original article can be found here.


Mack Pridgen