If you compare them to most other insects, most ants are actually quite small. Their success is a result of having an army of well-equipped soldiers able to take down any foe, using smart architectural engineering or having advanced agricultural skills. And of course throwing loads of cheaply-produced workers at problems until they go away.
But there are some ant species that use none of the above, yet are quite successful by simply being really, really tiny. Like the Temnothorax, whose minuscule workers, measuring only 1.5 millimeters, are completely overlooked by most other ants, enabling them to sneak into claimed food spots and put some yummy in their tummy right under all those big watchful antennas.
Being this small also allows the Temnothorax to find themselves a nice little nest for almost no effort. You see, there are these little insects called Curculio glandium or 'acorn weevil' whose larvae have a sweet tooth for the acorns of the summer oak. So they hollow them out from the inside and when they are done they leave the acorn by making a tiny little hole on the side... a tiny little hole that the Temnothorax fits through perfectly. This is what gives them them their name: 'acorn ants' (though when in need, the will settle just fine with rotting twigs hollowed out by the grubs of other species).
So if you know where to look (and look very closely) it's actually not that hard to find colonies of this tiny little ant: just go and crack open acorns that have little holes in them (and don't be grossed out by the various other insects that have the same real estate agent as acorn ants). To find a freshly-mated Temnothorax queen however, one that still has to found her new colony and is smaller than the workers of most other species of ants - now thát is a lot harder. So I was quite lucky to get my hands on a young queen who had only just hatched her first two workers.
|Queen Acornia and her two extremly cute little workers.|
They were still in a mere catch-tube, hiding in the kitchen paper on the bottom. Not an ideal situation in terms of moisture and fungus, but being accustomed to an acorn laying on the forest floor, naked to the elements, these are surprisingly hardy ants. So a new and rather custom-made formicarium was fabricated out of some cork sheets, rooms cut out with a dremel tool and then jammed into a transparent little make-up box from Kittenmancer.
|The little wad of cotton serves to maintain the humidity in the nest.|
Queen Acornia, seeming quite comfortable in her little fold of fabric, her tiny little workers occasionally and carefully exploring the little catch-tube, had lulled us in a bit of a overconfidence that she was doing all-right where she was for now. So it was quite a shock when suddenly one of her workers died. Over the last month the paper in her tube had become increasingly mouldy and so had the sides of the tube. Time to move!
Our tiny queen was like a rock though and even having her tube upside down on top of her new cork nest was not moving her a millimeter. Fine, move or get moved! With her brood barely visible with the naked eye we didn't dare pulling out the soggy paper in one go, afraid we would smear it against the walls. So instead Kittenmancer meticulously plucked away at it until only a tiny little island was left with Acornia and her brood and remaining worker marooned on top of it. Then we placed this on top of the new nest, next to the entrance, all under a plastic cap from a spraying bottle.
|For scale: the entrance to the left is 1.5 millimeter in diameter.|
At first it was Acornia exploring the surroundings, while her worker was left babysitting. She found the entrance quite quickly and then spent half an hour sticking her head in for a few seconds and then quickly retreating, repeating this for at least a dozen times. Then she relieved her nanny, who then went exploring every nook and cranny of what lay beyond that fascinating little hole. The next two days she occasionally reported back to the queen, but most of the time she could be seen scurrying down below... until, overnight, the queen had moved to the smallest room of the formicarium.
But when I looked for the worker, she was nowhere to be found. I panicked a bit at the thought of Acornia having lost both her workers now, a devastating loss to such a fledgling colony, until suddenly I found the worker crawling between the screwing threads of the top and the bottom half of the little make-up box containing the nest. Are you out of your mind!? Get back here this instant!!!
Deaf to my horror slowly turning into annoyance, she definitely took the long way back from her little spelunking trip. Probably aware of the fact I couldn't simply unscrew the formicarium with the risk of grinding her into a smear between the threading, half hour later she emerged seeming very satisfied with herself. Promptly a gently, but unyielding little brush appeared and shooed her finally into the more appropiate areas of the nest.
|So hard to see whether the cap is leaving a crack or not.|
So now we leave the formicarium in an unscrewed state for the time being with the whole thing inside an outworld box with a parafin barrier (because the standard babypowder barrier is useless against them) and always do a headcount after maintenance, followed by a triple-check of the spray cap barrier. Ironic how the smallest and most docile of our ants is also the only one needing a super-max security protocol.