What it’s like to keep 3,000 ants in an HDB flat
Leave your Baygon at the door before entering this house.
When I first got into ant-keeping as a hobby, my parents made it very clear that they expected my ant collection to move out with me when I got married.
This made for a peculiar conversation with my then-fiancée after we got engaged.
Asking her if she wanted to marry me was nerve-wracking. But asking her if I could also move a growing number of ant nests, or formicaria, into our new home was a different story altogether.
As weird as it sounds, I had grown very fond of my ants. I gave my queen ants names, painstakingly fed my colonies with tweezers through their vulnerable founding stages, and watched with pride as they grew strong enough to hunt live prey insects on their own.
But ants have a reputation for being pests, and I knew it would take a lot to convince anyone, even my soon-to-be-wife at the time, that they could make great pets.
Starting small, very small
I first got into the hobby in 2017 when I read an article about the Singapore Ants community and was surprised at how easy it is to catch a queen ant to start a colony.
I had always been interested in insects and ants, going as far as getting two ant nests from Toys”R”Us while growing up. But without any knowledge on myrmecology, I was merely collecting worker ants that didn’t survive long.
Excited to finally get some guidance, I joined the Singapore Ants Facebook group and was invited to its very active WhatsApp chat. In the chat group, experienced hobbyists were helping newer members identify ant species and giving tips on how to keep them.
With their help, I began excitedly searching for and catching my very own ant queens near light sources on nights after it rains.
Unlike hobbies with a high start-up cost, ant-keeping has low barriers to entry, especially when you are beginning a colony with just a single queen ant.
All you need is a test tube and a pair of cotton balls, and you have a basic ant setup suitable for most species.
If your little founding colony is eventually successful, upgrading to an appropriate purpose-built ant nest is also not too costly.
Medium-sized formicaria that can hold hundreds of ants can be bought from $30 to $50, and larger ones that can hold thousands can be found online or at the local Just Ants shop for around $100.
Growing with my colonies
The first species of ants that I managed to grow successfully were the Camponotus albosparsus, also known as carpenter ants.
This is a common species for beginners to keep as the individual ants are relatively larger, making them unable to escape from tiny gaps in the formicarium. They also do not bite humans.
It is incredible to watch how one fertile queen lays eggs and tends to them single-handedly for about a month before her first workers, or niantics, emerge.
I recall the very first time I placed a small insect into the carpenter ants nest as food and waited with bated breath to see how they would react.
Having been raised in captivity, this was the tiny colony’s first encounter with anything from the outside world, and the 15 ants were initially confused as to what to do.
As they grew in experience over subsequent feedings, I saw how the colony became more coordinated in attacking their prey, even insects larger than themselves.
I was captivated by how my pets were growing not just in terms of numbers, but also in knowledge of how to work and live together as a little ant society.
Over the years, I went on to keep many other species of local ants, from the menacing red weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) you find in the trees, to the tiny but voracious Asian marauder ants (Carebara diversa) that live in the soil.
However, when my first son was born in 2019, I felt the need to reduce my collection of ants.
By this time I had both a 2,000-strong Camponotus auriventris carpenter ant colony needing daily feeding and a baby who needed to be fed hourly.
Although it was bittersweet to part with my dearest colony, I was also glad it was bought by the Singapore Ants Museum where it could be put up on display.
A love-hate relationship with ants
One of the biggest misconceptions about ant-keepers is that our love for ants prevents us from killing random ants we find at home.
In fact, I only managed to successfully remove the ant infestations at home after I started ant-keeping.
The species of ants that invade homes are often much smaller in size, allowing them to potentially break into formicaria and overwhelm our trapped colonies to steal their brood.
Hence, I have to use my intricate knowledge against these invading threats.
The trick is not to indiscriminately spray insecticide at any worker ants you find, as the colony can always produce more. Instead, patiently trace them back to the entrance of their nests and apply poison or insecticide to kill off their queens and brood to destroy the colony for good.
Growing an “Antstagram” account
I believe a big reason why so many of us in the community have an ant YouTube, Instagram or TikTok account is because of the influence of the incredibly popular AntsCanada YouTube channel that piqued our interest in the hobby.
I jumped on the “influANTcer” bandwagon in 2018, starting the @Punggol_Ants account on Instagram. Over the years, this platform let me connect with fellow ant-keepers, myrmecologists and entomologists from around the globe.
From conversations with them, I was surprised to learn that our tiny tropical Singapore is home to more ant species than countries many times our size, making me appreciate our biodiversity and conservation efforts more.
Another group I’ve managed to connect with on Instagram are locals who are not ant-keepers themselves but intrigued by the hobby.
Some send me photos of insects asking me if they are queen ants. Others send me the queen ants themselves, allowing me to start colonies with queens I don’t find in my corner of Punggol.
The community engagement from running an ants Instagram account has been very fulfilling, and has added another meaningful dimension to this hobby.
The fact that ant-keeping had become a big part of my life was most apparent when the follower count on my ants Instagram account surpassed my own personal account.
While I had a bit of an identity crisis when I realised people were more interested in my ants than my life, it also made me feel thankful the public was beginning to see ants as more than just pests.
As for my wife, she recently returned from overseas with a huge new formicarium and supplies for our ants that total over 3,000, so I guess you could say she’s a keeper.