I have been keeping Harpegnathos Venator colonies since the beginning of my ant keeping experience. They were one of my first ant colonies and are also one of my favorite ant species.
To date, my first Harpegnathos colony has also been my most successful, although I have made mistakes I was fortunate to be able to bring them back from less favorable conditions.
I bought this colony with one queen and around 10 workers, some larvaes but no eggs or pupae. The nest they came in was a plaster nest type Chinese model with one entrance box attached.
Harpegnathos Venator is an exotic ant from hot and humid regions like India, Southeast Asia and China.
It belongs to the Ponerine family and as such has a sting that is used to immobilize prey or to defend from intruders. They feed on live insects and don’t have any interest for sugars.
It is a large ant, around 10 to 12mm long, and their colonies can reach up to 200 workers.
As true ponerine ants, these ants have queens, workers, worker gamergates and males.
A gamergate is a worker that has also mated and replaced the queen (in the case of death or absence) and has started to lay eggs. If mated she will be able to produce new workers, and alates, if unmated she will only produce male alates.
Queens and workers are almost the same size, the best way to spot a queen is by the wings scars.
Males don’t have the same mandibles as workers and queens. They have long single antennae; they are black with an orange/yellow gaster. They resemble small wasps.
These ants have a strange social behavior. They will fight between themselves for dominance. Those fights can be just a quick exchange of antennae strikes, or elevating the body to exert dominance over the other or even go as far as biting and wrestling one another.
It is possible to kick start a colony by introducing new queens to one or two outside workers, as the queen will fight for dominance and will end up accepting the workers as part of her own colony. Multiple queen (2 or 3) colonies are also common in the wild and in captivity.
In the Chinese ant trade, ant traders will normally collect queens and mix them with workers from other colonies to kick start a new colony. This will be completely unnoticed by the customer because when they see the colony it will already be established in terms of dominance and it will look like a perfectly normal colony.
Do note that they are semi-claustral and will exit their nest to hunt for prey during their founding stage.
I have yet to achieve raising a colony from a single queen, something that has been proving difficult.
These ants have large eyes and can perceive movement, light and shadows. As a result it is necessary to cover their nest with a red plastic film or something opaque to prevent them from getting stressed.
They are capable of jumping, and in case of danger, they will jump to try to run away.
They normally nest in sandy/clay areas, tentatively more humid/moist areas.
They only have one nest entrance and it is very similar to a Diacamma Rugosum entrance. A round protruding funnel type entrance, it is normally very easy to spot. Early stage nests have just one small chamber really close to the surface so its easy to reach.
While keeping them, I have connected several plaster nests together (each nest with one entrance), and what happened was very interesting. The ants only allow for one nest entrance, the other non chosen entrances were covered with whatever materials they could find (debris, soil, cotton, insect’s remains, etc).
For this species in particular, I found that plaster nests work very well. They like to have a uniform high humidity levels. Plaster being so absorbent can retain a lot of water and keep their nest moist for long periods.
Regarding temperature, there are mainly two seasons in Macau. Winter dry and cold, and summer hot and humid. During winter I have kept them in temperatures as low as 15 C but never for more than 3 or 4 days. When temperatures get really low, I normally place a heat mat in half of the nest to warm them. During winter I don’t water the nest too much, because there will be a lot of condensation inside the nest upon the usage of heat mat. That condensation makes the perfect conditions for mold to develop. During summer, my only concern is to water the nest often to prevent loss of humidity.
Regarding feeding, these ants need to be fed once every 2 or 3 days, and depending on the number of workers and brood, the keeper should limit the amount of insect(s) to suit their needs.
In the beginning I fed them with crickets. But I don’t advise this at all. Especially adult crickets as they can be dangerous to the ants and brood. I have lost countless workers to crickets that would turn around during the stinging and bite the ant’s gaster. Also crickets are very strong and venom resistant. In the past I have had to remove their back and central legs to prevent them from running inside the nest and creating havoc. I have obtained the best results by feeding them cockroaches. Although they are faster, I always crush the cockroach’s thorax before giving it to them; this stuns the cockroach for a minute or so, enough for the ants to capture it easily.
I also don’t advise meal worms, they are too round and hard-shelled for their stingers.
This species will always bring the insect into the nest for consumption. If they have larvae, they will place the larvae on top of the prey. Once they are finished, they will remove the remains to the outside.
Their brood has three stages, egg, larvae and pupae. For the larvae to transition to pupae it is necessary to provide some soil, clay or paper tissue, because the ants will create a bed with it to stimulate the larvae to pupate, if not provided, the larvae will not pupate and end up dying.
Another aspect an ant keeper needs to pay attention to is to the size of the larvae. If you want a healthy colony, the larvae should have a shiny white/grey colour and be round. A sign of starvation can be noticed when larvaes are small, wrinkled and have a yellowish color.
If you see workers disposing of larvaes in the outworld it means that larvae are dying or dead and most probably due to lack of food.
The size of the colony is dependent on the amount of food provided.
I started by providing a large cricket once every 3 days, then 2 days, then every day.
Once I started to provide a cricket every day the queen immediately started to lay an enormous amount of eggs. The eggs soon developed into larvaes and I saw myself forced to supply three crickets a day to prevent the larvae from dying. I kept this routine for 2 months. The colony was getting enormous, regularly producing males, workers and alate queens.
Since I couldn’t keep to this routine I started to reduce the number of crickets I would feem them. Some larvae did die, but soon enough, the colony seemed to match the food supply. The queen would lay fewer eggs, and queen alates stopped appearing.
To conclude, they are a very nice species to keep. I wouldn’t recommend them to true beginners but to someone who has been keeping ants for around 6 months successfully and wants to have something new and exciting.