How Do Ants Detect And Deal With Dead Nest Mates!

14. November 2012 by Mike in Ant Behaviour  //  Tags:   //   Comments (0)

My friend forwarded me an interesting statement about how ants deal with their dead nest mates.

When an ant dies it gives a special odor to indicate to other ants that it is dead and then taken to a graveyard.

This definitely rings true. Unfortunately a number of my smallest Harvester Ants (Probably first generation workers) that came with the colony have died over the past few weeks. Some gave a clear indicator of their impending demise by behaving sluggishly and trying to get as far away from the nest as possible. This is possible evidence pointing towards evolved behavior so that an ant aware that it isn't healthy gets as far away from the nest as possible so it doesn't infect the rest of the colony!. Although this goes against how ant killing products state they work but the behavior may differ between species and the particular ailment the ant has.

An article I found online titled "How social insects recognize dead nestmates" states that the smell ants have changes after death, not because of new chemicals given out by decomposition but because of an absence of other chemicals given out by healthy ants. My observations show that this is VERY rapid - I have witnessed an ant die, curl up and be carried away for disposal all within a couple of minutes.

Amazing little creatures!

Prefered Food For Harvester Ants (Messor Structor)

13. November 2012 by Mike in Food, Messor Structor  //  Tags:   //   Comments (0)

I'm currently trying to determine the food most preferred by the Harvester ants. Finding food they are interested in has so far been tricky (and expensive!). Here I rate each food type by how quickly it gets taken into the nest, the rubbish created and my guess on suitability.

Harvester Ant Food

Things I have tried so far.


  • Immediately taken into the nest, lots of feeding. 5/5.
  • Potentially not healthy to use caught flies as they might contain bacteria etc. 2/5
  • Lots of rubbish - wings, legs, partially eaten fly (yuck!) - 1/5

Seeds (Ant store "Mix Fodder 1A")

  • Non-stop harvesting of these seeds until the nest was overflowing. They seemed to prefer the grass ones but all types were taken in. 4/5
  • Seems to be a targeted mix of seed types for Harvester ants so should be perfectly suited. 5/5
  • Reasonable quantity of rubbish - husks from seeds etc, but all quite small. 2/5

Seeds (Peckish Finch seed mix)

  • Reasonable amount of activity but very selective. Lots of seed types being ignored. 2/5
  • Seeds so should be what they want but as they are being selective I'm not sure if they will get a varied diet. 3/5
  • Reasonable quantity of rubbish - husks from seeds etc, but all quite small. 2/5

Dandelion Seeds (Ebay)

  • Initially VERY interested working non-stop for 24 hours taking the seeds in. Very easy for the small ants to carry. Interest quickly stopped though - not sure why. 4/5
  • Not sure on the suitability, suspect similar to other seeds. 5/5
  • Same amount of waste as other seeds - they are similar to grass seeds so the outer husk gets thrown out. 2/5

 Mealworms (Dried)

  • No interest in dried worms. Soaked some in sugar water and one was taken into the nest but subsequently was thrown out. 1/5
  • Probably not a good idea to feed them dried mealworms as they get alot of their water from what they eat. In theory the Mealworm would be full of protein though! 2/5
  • They didn't eat it fully so loads of rubbish. 1/5

Mealworm (Zoo Med's "Mini Mealies")

  • No interest in the worms :-( 0/5
  • In theory they should be perfect, moist fresh Mealworms with lots of protein! 5/5
  • Dried out eventually and had to be thrown out. 0/5

Cricket (Zoo Med's "Can O' Crickets" mini size)

  • No interest in the crickets. 0/5
  • Potentially lots of protein. If only they were interested.... 5/5
  • Dried out just like the mealworm, untouched. 0/5

Honey (Ant store "Forest Honey")

  • No interest in it "neat". 0/5
  • Harvester ants I think would only use this for short term energy so not amazingly suitable. 2/5
  • Would be really easy to clean up as it is in a dish. 5/5

Sugar Water (Ant Store "Invert Sugar")

  • Diluted into water and placed next to their water source some ants seemed to prefer it. 2/5
  • Would only be used for short term energy. 2/5
  • Very easy to clean up. 5/5


I would rate the Ant Store Harvester ant seed mix as essential for Messor ants. It would be possible to find a mix that they would like but you will get lots of wastage as they will only take the ones they like.

Dandelion seeds are definitely worth considering to put in with the Ant Store seed mix.

I'm still searching for a source of protein for them. I suspect it will end up being flies of some sorts!

Ref. Ant Store



Harvester Ant Dragging Fly

12. November 2012 by Mike in Food, Messor Structor  //  Tags:   //   Comments (0)

As the colony is so small I thought the queen might benefit from a protein boost. My friend provided me with this fine fly specimen from a restaurant electric fly zapper :-)

I dipped the fly in boiling water for 30 seconds to sterilise the outside. Forum posts seem to indicate flies aren't the best choice of protein for ants as they can have many bacteria on them etc.

The strength of the Harvester ants is amazing - he was able to drag the fly on his own back into the nest!. They are also amazingly persistent.  Numerous times food has fallen off the ramp and they have gone back for it and eventually got it to the top of the ramp and into the nest!


Note: I wouldn't advise giving them flies, they don't seem to eat it all and it creates a mess with legs and wings all over the place :-)

Formicarium Construction (Ytong) For Harvester Ant

12. November 2012 by Mike in Formicarium, Messor Structor  //  Tags:   //   Comments (0)

There are two parts to my formicarium, the arena (a glass tank) and the nest. I purchased all equipment from

The Arena
The arena (or foraging area) is where the harvester ants will collect seeds to stockpile in the nest. It is comprised of a glass tank with a special lid that has a gauze for airflow and to prevent them from escaping.

Around the top of the tank an anti stick coating PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene or more commonly known as Teflon) is applied. The PTFE comes in a small container and you brush it on as a liquid. This creates a barrier that the ants will fall off from if they climb too high.

The sand is 0-1mm washed sand which was then baked in an oven for 10 minutes. This makes the sand very dry and makes it impossible for the ants to dig into.

The pebbles are 2-8mm washed pebbles which I oven baked to make sure they were sterile. The ants subsequently used the smaller stones to seal themselves into the test tube!

The plants are plastic but look pretty real!

The cactus is a water feeder but I subsequently replaced this with a dish as the ants seemed to have trouble climbing up to it. Its VERY important to make sure there are pools of water anywhere - they drown extremely easily. Put cotton wool in any water you have - the ants will climb onto it and drink.

There are two 3/4" connectors either side to allow for future expansion. There are two common used sizes 10mm/27mm. I chose the bigger size as I figured it would stop traffic jams occurring!!

Ant Arena


The Nest
The nest is constructed out of an aerated concrete block as it has strong resistance to mold growth, maintains heat well and provides a degree of protection against the ants escaping (Harvester ants can chew through ytong though so keep an eye on them).

I measured and marked the ytong to make drilling easier. I then drilled out the ytong using a circular hole cutter (without the pilot bit) on a drill press. This gave a really smooth side wall. Next I used a normal drill and the depth limiter on my drill press to mill out the middle of the hole.


The finished nest (with heat pad temperature probe for testing). The hole to the right of the probe was where the temperature probe was finally installed - this was because it was very difficult to match the interior temperature of the nest to the reported temperature on the controller.


A thin bead of aquarium silicone (MUST use aquarium silicone as its non-toxic) was placed around the outer edge of the ytong. The glass was placed on top and weighted down over night. It is important to weigh the glass down or the ants will be able to crawl in between the ytong and the glass.


My intention is not to provide any moisture into the nest. There are many blogs around the internet that indicate this is acceptable for Harvester ants - after all if moisture was present in the nest the seeds would germinate.

End results (excuse the mess in my office!!)

The temperature probe is visible to the right, it is a cheap <£20 STC-1000 model complete with probe from eBay. Its very important to accurately place the probe and also have the ability to measure the surrounding temperature to see if the probe is accurate - I used an IR heat gun for this purpose. The species of Harvester ant I have is supposed to like temperatures of between 20-30C. The heat mat is roughly half the size of the nest so as to provide a gradient and allow the ants to move out of the heat if they want. It is important to place the heat mat above the nest and not heat from below for two reasons. It stops condensation appearing on the glass and also ytong is an excellent insulator so its much harder to heat from beneath it. The heat mat is held onto a piece of polystyrene by two elastic bands to provide further insulation at the top and to block out light to the nest.


They moved all those stones themselves on the first day to block the light in. Amazing to watch!