I have wanted to keep Leaf cutter ants since i saw them wild in Costa Rica in 2003 and have waited 8 years until the opportunity came to purchase some. I have decided to loosely base my colony on Adam Jame's set up using acrylic tubes and "Stewart" Clear Reptile Hatching Boxes.
The Ants were to be sited in a fairly cool area of my house so would need to be heated. I was advised by the seller that the optimum temperature for the fungus should be about 23c. I wanted the conditions to be stable, but that could be difficult in small plastic boxes so my first thoughts were to put the plastic boxes in a larger vivarium and heat a few inches of water in the bottom with an aquarium heater to give the right temperature. I didn't really like that idea so decided to just use a heat mat with a thermostat.
I liked Adams idea of using Bisque tiles for a substrate. Bisque tiles are ceramic which have only been fired once and haven't been glazed, they are very porous so should be ideal for holding water to maintain humidity. There seems to be much variation on how high humidity should be and to measure this accurately always seems difficult as every gauge seems to give a different reading. I have readings from 82 - 100+ RH. Humidity is essential for the fungus to grow, but I'm yet to learn what is the optimum level.
I have already cut holes in the boxes so i can connect more tubes and made blanks to close off any open ends until any additions are needed..One of the ends has gauze fitted over it to provide ventilation for the system and later i will fit a small PC fan to encourage air movement and cooling. I decided not to buy to much equipment, just yet, if it all failed it may have been an expensive error so i have just enough to get it started. I had 5 boxes but 3 i had already used for other species of ants and several lengths of acrylic tubes.
The smaller box inside was to hold the queen and fungus until the fungus out grew it.The queen could not travel any further than the two larger boxes, the idea being was to restrict her movements with a smaller pipe coming from the exit which is to small for her to squeeze through, that way i knew where she was if i needed to keep the colony at a reasonable size. I have not really thought about how i would go about population control, euthanasia perhaps, but the thought is worrying me.. The amount of condensation on the box lids was worrying too as the water droplets could damage the fungus if they were to drop, just taking out some water solved this slightly.
I still wasnt happy with the ease of maintenance, so i decided to do away with the large viv and just use a small arena for the initial set up and had connected it to a pipe that led to the two boxes i started with. The tank size was 36w x 21h x 21d cm. This seemed to work just fine.
My Atta cephalotes
arrived 9 am June 8th 2011 from a private seller in the UK. Opening the parcel i could see that the queen was on top of a small piece of fungus and there were larvae and pupae scattered everywhere with frantic workers running and carrying them everywhere. Must have had a bumpy ride, good ol' Royal Mail. I only had chance for a quick peek, so i put the plastic sandwich container the ants arrived in, into the arena and then back to work. I had time for another look at lunch time and noticed that the queen had gone to the bottom of the plastic sandwich container and had lodged herself between that and the tissues. The workers had collected the larvae and had deposited them around her, infact by now the fungus i saw on the top had now disappeared and the queen was rapped around a beech seed pod and that's where she stayed for another 2 - 3 days.
I had bought a medium sized colony which was supposed to have a fungus size of a tennis ball but i could see nothing, even the small piece i had seen when opening the box had gone. I was expecting it to arrive like everyone elses with the fungus just surrounded by tissues and could be taken out and placed in its new home but mine had soil inside the kitchen roll so it all had to stay as it was.I was lucky that i had decided to use the 36cm arena as it wouldnt have fitted.
Apparently the soil is added to support the growing fungus but should have been taken out before posting. It appears that the soil had smashed what fungus there was during postage and all i could see was a couple of small piles of fragments under the tissues.
That evening the ants spent their time excavating the soil, i could only presume they were trying to salvage any remaining fungus they could scrape together.
After the first night the ants stopped digging and after a few more days the queen had moved to the other side of the plastic box, i could see only a few pupae, what happened to all the rest ? there was little sign of anything resembling fungus by now and i was starting to feel concerned. My only hope was that it was under the soil but i couldn't see anything, and the queen wasn't in contact with it.
This evening i decided to carefully remove the soil in hope of finding the fungus. For 2 hours i gently took out the soil and pieces of kitchen roll until there was barely nothing left, i was gutted, all i could find was a pea sized piece of what could have been fungus that the queen was hanging onto so i decided to leave this as it was for the evening and hope for the best but i had really lost all hope.
During the night the ants had collected a small pile of fragmented fungus from the box and put it all onto a blackberry leaf at the edge of the arena and under a few sprigs of dog rose, that i had placed there for them to cut. It must have been like dust as i couldn't see anything like that left in the box. Perhaps there was more and i shouldn't have taken out so much of the soil.
Closer look reveals more eggs just after the move.
As soon as the lights went on at 7am things burst into action. The queen started moving about and walked off across the piece of jungle vine i had placed as a bridge, and went to where the ants had placed the fragments. She had left that small piece of fungus she was curled around behind, but shorltly after about 20 ants carried the tiny piece of fungus across to the other fragments.
Tiny piece of fungus the queen had left.
By the next day it had already taken on the shape, form and colour of what i wanted to see
... Things are looking hopeful...
They seems to have settled now and are busy repairing the fungus. This really shows how these ants have struggled to save themselves.
16 June 11
Ive notice the past couple of days that the ants have been collecting pieces of soil and cut leaves and are placing them a few inches away from the fungus. I think they are trying to enclose it so i have cut off the end of a lemonade bottle and put it over the area.