Colony Antics: Spice Girls (Lasius niger)

It's high time to give you an update on our 'spicy' Lasius niger queens, as much has happened since we introduced them. A few weeks ago we got a bit overexcited about our brand new German-made formicarium and we attempted to move Rosemary to it by connecting her test tube to the ant farm. We knew that this was very premature, as tube-bred colonies generally don't start looking for a new nest until their tube gets crowded, so when they have 50 or so workers. We gave it a try anyway, but Rosemary would have none of it. She clung to the cotton on the opposite site of the tube entrance and wouldn't budge. After a day it became clear that she was not ready to leave the comfort and safety of her tube, so we let her be.

Ginger has made a cotton thread blanket for her larvae

Another tube move was done by necessity. Thyme's tube flooded, so we had to move her to a new one. Unfortunately, a lot of her brood (eggs, larvae, pupae) was lost in the cataclysm, so there was a risk of her not being able to recover and lay new eggs. But Thyme is a fighter, and very soon not only did she have new brood, but she was the first of the Spice Girls to have pupae! A few of the others followed her example and after a few days there were cocoons in 3 of the 6 Spice Girls tubes. Saffron alarmed us for a time, as her pupae hadn't made cocoons for themselves and were sitting naked on the floor of the tube. We asked the internets what was up with that, and the answer was that this is something normal for ants in captivity, as they sometimes lack the irritants (like grains of sand) that trigger the cocoon spinning. And the tiny almost-formed ants look very cute - white with tiny black dots for eyes.

Thyme is recovering nicely

Saffron with her brood

As all the Spice Girls were making good progress on their brood, we decided to do a little experiment. Normally, ant queens of this species (and all claustral species) do not need food until their first workers arrive, and sometimes long after that. They shut themselves in a small chamber underground and use their fat reserves and flight muscles to survive themselves and to feed the larvae. This doesn't mean that food isn't appreciated, as they demonstrated when I offered them some honey water on Q-tips, which they guzzled greedily.

This time, we tried something more protein-rich - small fruitflies we had bought from the pet store. The queens had a variety of reactions, with some of them utterly ignoring the flies, others stuffing them out of the way and yet others fighting the flies (although they were already dead). Saffron was the fiercest - the moment I introduced the tweezers holding the fly in her tube, she reared on her hind legs and attacked the tweezers with such ferocity that I almost dropped the fly. Once she was satisfied that the invading tweezers have been fought off, she proceeded to rip the fly apart. As she was the only one who seemed to actually eat the flies, I gave her a second one. This time, she leisurely removed its wings and legs and placed it on a pile of larvae. I guess this is the ant equivalent of cutting the crust off your kids' sandwiches.

Content warning: blood and gore. A queen with a vanquished fruitfly

At this point we have quite a few ant species in our keeping (Stroomschok has introduced some of them here and I introduced our Messor barbarus), so a dedicated space for them became a necessity. We decide to use part of our book room for ant-keeping, as it has lots of shelves and we otherwise don't use it much. Now all our ants and the associated paraphernalia are nicely housed in there, but the move wasn't without perils. Stroomschok accidentally sent the Spice Girls' tubes tumbling as he was moving them, so now the poor queens have to gather their scattered brood in the aftermath of the tubequake. We'll keep a close eye on them and hope that this event hasn't been too traumatic. As all of them now have cocoons or pupae, we hope that the next update on the Spice Girls is to show off their first workers!

If all our ant shenanigans have made you interested in ant-keeping, most of the Spice Girls (Cinnamon, Rosemary, Anise, Ginger and Thyme) are looking for a forever home in the Netherlands. Leave a comment if you would like to adopt one of them.