Ant farms were a household hit back in the 50s when Uncle Milton's Ant Farm was released. They were labeled as toys for kids and hardly reflected an ant's natural environment. This begs the question – are these “farms” cruel?

Ant farms are much like any pet environment or enclosure and are entirely cruelty-free with the proper care. Make sure your ants have ample space, food, and heat to guarantee the colony's longevity. 

Read on to learn more about ant farms and under what circumstances can they be considered cruel or cruelty-free?

What Are Ant Farms?

An ant farm, also known as a formicarium, is an enclosure that allows individuals to raise and observe this insect’s behavior. 

Most ant farm nests are made from transparent materials, such as glass or plastic, to allow clear visuals of the activity inside. 

Depending on the type of ant farm you buy, the nests are attached separately to a simulated habitat or “outworld” where the ants can forage. 

Most ant farm habitats are filled with a wide range of substrates depending on the user's preference and the ant's needs.

Things like sand, soil, coconut husk, charcoal, plants, and vermiculite are popular substrates used to fill these tanks.

Is it Hard to Take Care of Ant Farms?

Ant farms are safe and easy to have in your home if you care for them properly. 

Certain ant farms are more complicated to take care of than others. With the proper structure and suitable species – it can be relatively easy to care for  and requires very little attention from you. 

The most you usually have to do is add a little food, maintain the moisture levels now and then, and lift the container lid to let in new oxygen. 

But it’s like caring for any other pet – a typical ant colony needs things like regular fruit infusions, water, and protein sources like fruit flies, mealworms, or crickets. 

You can get away with doing this once a week (but more often is better). 

If you buy an ant farm for a child, things may get a little trickier. It depends on your child’s age and the level of responsibility they can take. 

For example, if your child knocks the farm over or takes it outside with them – you might have an infestation on your hands quickly. 

Don’t be alarmed when you see dead ants piled up in the corner of the farm, either. This is a standard practice that social insects do called necrophoresis.

Ants will move their dead away from the nest to prevent the spread of disease throughout the colony.

Can Ant Farms be Cruel?

Yes, ant farms can be cruel. It all depends on how you treat these insects within their new home. The most unethical way to raise a colony of ants is in a gel farm.

Why Do Ants Suffer in an Ant Farm

It’s difficult to tell if ants suffer psychologically in an ant farm vs. in the wild. 

But, provided they are getting the right amount of food, water, oxygen, and enough room to forage and work – there’s no reason to believe they lack anything in a farm that they would otherwise get in the wild. 

If anything, a well-preserved ant-farm can substantially lengthen the lifespan of the ants and their colony. 

It’s important to note that ant farms are not toys. 

They are living environments you can observe – they are not objects. Back in the 50s, it was common for ant farms to be labeled and perceived as toys. So, parents would give them to their children as an alternative to more time-consuming pets.

However, since it’s hard for kids to understand the responsibility they need to take on –  it’s common for them to observe the ants with short interest and then neglect them. 

The point of an ant farm is to give you a clear way to observe and learn about these intelligent and hardworking insects.

They help you see a colony’s complex tunnel systems, breeding spaces, social interactions, and work schedules that would otherwise be hidden in the wild.

In return, we offer them a safe, stable, and abundant foraging space and nest for them to work.  

As long as they have done the research to care for them properly, there’s no reason to believe these insects suffer on a proper farm.

Why Gel Ant Farms Are Particularly Cruel 

Gel ant farms might seem appealing because of how little maintenance is needed – plus, they look fantastic.

But these gimmicky farms are cruel. They do not provide ants with the natural environments they deserve and need to thrive. Here’s why:

  • The gel allows for a lot of light to infiltrate into the space, stressing the ants out as they like dark areas.
  • The smell of the gel makes it difficult for the ants to communicate pheromonally – which they rely on heavily.
  • Most gel farms don’t come with a queen, so they have nothing to tend to, and no larvae can be produced. 

  • The ants cannot digest the gel without the help of their larvae – so these ants often starve to death after a few months.

Are Ant Farms Ethical?

Child friendly Ant Farm

It is ethical to have an ant farm as long as the colony is cared for properly and the environment is well-maintained to suit their needs.

Ant farms can be like a haven for ants since it is devoid of predators, and the ants don't need to worry about constantly acquiring food for the colony. 

It allows ants to expand, move, and provide food to the proper members and chambers inside the colony. 

An ant farm is relatively similar to having any other enclosed pet, like a fish. They both need to be housed with proper food, lighting, temperature control, and other life-sustaining factors.

As long as you provide for the colony you have and ensure they are safe from any threats or diseases, it is perfectly ethical and humane to house an ant colony.

Just make sure that the formicarium houses a complete colony for the most ethical results. This means it comes with a queen and a sufficient amount of worker ants too.  

What Type of Ant Farms Are Ethical?

Structurally, ant farms can differ widely. Some of the most common variations you can find include:

  • The classic framed stand
  • Glass jars
  • An aquarium tank
  • Ytong ant nests
  • Apartment tanks

Apart from the classic ant farm, these structures provide a substrate-filled section and other empty chambers for various purposes, such as incubation and nests.

Gel ant farms also don’t use substrate-filled sections, but these are considered cruel, and we do not recommend purchasing them.

Is it Cruel to Catch a Queen Ant?

If you do it properly, catching a queen ant is not cruel – it’s actually perfect for a budding colony. 

The role of worker ants is to ensure the queen’s survival, ultimately securing thecolony's survivaly as a whole. 

The queen ant is responsible for reproducing and expanding the colony, and so, all members are devoted to her.

When a queen ant dies, most colonies will die with her over time because they typically reject new queens. 

Therefore, you can keep the colony, and the members will survive for perhaps a few years, but since the queen isn't replacing new members, there isn't a promise of longevity to the colony.

The Best Way to Catch A Queen  

Since there are many laws surrounding the legal transportation of queen ants no matter where you live, it can be difficult to acquire one for your ant farm.

The best thing you can do is find a young queen yourself during nuptial flight season.

Young queen ants will have wings during mating season when they participate in something referred to as "nuptial flights," where the young queen ant and male ants mate as they fly around. 

A young queen will typically mate with several males before returning to the ground.

Once the young queen has mated, she will chew off her wings and search for a location to start her colony. 

This is the best time to acquire a queen ant because she has just mated with several males and will likely be fertile from the nuptial flights, but she has not yet started a colony.

You can find her based on her significant size (much larger than most ants) and the two scars on her thorax where her wings came off.

Finding a gravid young queen ant can be a lengthy and fruitless process, but it is the most cruelty-free method to acquire her. 

Once she has started a colony, she will spend the remainder of her life underground and is unreachable by humane means.

Some individuals will dig-up or flood a colony to acquire the queen, which is extremely cruel as it will potentially kill hundreds of members and unborn eggs.

Just Remember, It is Illegal To Buy a Queen Ant 

It is illegal to ship a live queen ant across most state lines without a permit in the US. 

Sadly, this means that many colonies are shipped without their queen, which can be argued as highly unethical.

But, the consequence of distributing a queen ant to a new place is too great a risk for that environment. 

If a queen ant were to establish a colony where that species isn’t naturally found, it could harm an area’s natural biodiversity, especially if the ant species is invasive. 

But not all countries have the same rules. The best thing you can do is check out your local laws first.

Will Ants Die Without a Queen?

It can be considered cruel to have a colony without a queen. 

For individuals that want smaller colonies for a brief amount of time, you can acquire a queen-less colony and then release the members into the wild when appropriate.

Although the ants can live without their queen, the colony cannot survive as all the members are sterile. 

Therefore, you can keep the colony, and the members will survive for perhaps a few years, but since the queen isn't replacing new members, there isn't a promise of longevity to the colony.

Never take a queen ant from an existing colony without taking some, if not all, of her members as well.

If you introduce a new queen to a new colony, they will likely reject her, and all members will suffer. You are also dooming her old colony with her removal.

The most cruelty-free way to have a colony with a queen is to humanely acquire the majority of a pre-existing colony or catch a gravid young queen ant that has not yet created a colony of her own.

If you discover the colony you acquired does not have a queen, you can observe them for a brief amount of time in the ant farm before releasing the members back into the wild.

However, if you have a colony with a queen, expect to need a decently sized ant farm to support the colony's growth. The average pavement ant colony can reach up to 3,000 to 4,000 members in the wild.

With nothing in the ant farm to kill or threaten these members, you'll want sufficient room to contain them as the average worker ant could live 1-3 years.

The Most Humane Ant Farms for Adults

If you’re invested in building a humane and cruelty-free formicarium – there are a few ways to go about it. 

Tarheel Ant Farms

This is one of the most accessible and educational options if you’re new to ant farming.

Tarheel ant farms have a built-in nest and tunnel system directly beneath the ants' habitat. The formicarium is one clear glass container that makes it easy to see the ants in action.

You can choose the right nesting system for the species of ant you plan on housing – each has its benefits.

The nests are either made from Ytong or a blend of natural materials. What’s nice is that you can buy the ants foraging enclosure already built to save you some time and hassle.  

Here’s a great video to watch to help you get set up:

An Aquarium Tank Linked to a Ytong Nest 

If you’d like to see your ants in action, a Ytong nest linked to an aquarium tank is a great start.

Ytong is a fantastic material that makes ant keeping easy. 

  • It retains moisture, so it keeps humidity levels stable.
  • It’s highly insulative, so your ants aren’t exposed to many temperature fluctuations.
  • The porous surface makes it easy for the ants to grip onto, and it also helps the developing larvae spin their protective silk cocoon

This nest lets you see the ants in action up close in a safe way. Plus, it is easily linked to a glass tank or aquarium to create the ants’ foraging space. 

Here’s a great video to watch to help you get set up:

A Natural Formicarium 

One of your best options is to build a natural formicarium using some substrate, plants, and soil – allowing your ants to build their nests underground. 

Beyond the fact that it looks beautiful to have a natural farm in your home, instead of a plastic box with pictures of trees on it – your ants have the opportunity to be in a more natural home too. 

The only difficulty with a 100% natural ant farm is that it’s difficult to clearly see the tunnels and nests. Sometimes they’ll dig right up against the wall – applying heating will facilitate this process.  

Here’s a great video to watch to help you get set up:

How Long Do Humane Ant Farms Last? 

Ants have the longest life span of any insects in the world. So if you keep your formicarium in tip-top condition – it can thrive for many years. 

Some queen ants can live as long as 30 years, depending on the species. On the other hand, worker ants can live for four years. 

A formicarium without a queen will never last as long because no larvae can be produced. 

If you have a queen-free farm, it may last for a few years. But your best option is to observe the ants for a few months and then release them into the wild.  

If you intend to get and support an ant farm with a queen – understand the commitment that comes with it.

As long as you keep the ants in an appropriately sized farm for their numbers – they will continue to thrive.

Final Thoughts

Ant farms are much like any pet environment or enclosure and are entirely cruelty-free with the proper care. 

While we can’t tell whether these insects suffer psychological damage in an ant farm, there’s no reason to believe it is bad for them as long as they have ample space, food, and heat to ensure the colony's longevity.

You should humanely catch a gravid young queen ant if you want a long-lasting colony. 

Otherwise, expect your queen-less colony to last about 1-3 years. You will need to care for them until the end of their life or their release into the wild. 

Remember that despite their size, ants are living creatures, not toys, and they deserve the respect and devotion of any owner if placed in an ant farm versus their natural habitat.

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