Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nest for seed eating ants.

Since the small common black garden ant (Lasius niger) colony started to grow and became more active, Carina encouraged me to get more ants. Her requirements were simple, they should be larger, more active than the current species, have different casts and I should take care of them. Things did get a bit out of hand and we now have 6 different species of ants cohabiting with us in out apartment. Luckily I had some nests ready for them (see some of the nests at the end of this post). 

Completed nest for the seed eating ants (Messor barbarus)

After positing some of the photos of the nests on Facebook I had a number of questions on how to build them and if I am willing to sell them. I feel that selling these nests is not really something that I would like do for a number of reasons. Shipping of things made of glass being one. But more importantly, it is very easy for anyone to make this and the materials are reasonably cheap.

The rest of the blog will thus be an overview of how I built the nest for the Messor barbarus ants. If you are interested in our adventures in Sweden, just scroll through the pictures of how messy our house is while I am building stuff (Carina promised a blog on Valborg soon). However, if you want to see how easy it is to construct a formicarium read on…

The materials.

The basic material you need to build this type of formicarium is:
- sheets of glass (I used both 6mm and 3mm)
- ytong (a.k.a aerated concrete, autoclaved concrete or if you are in Sweden Lättbetong)
- silicone (I prefer aquarium silicone since it can be used for building enclosures for animals).

In addition to the basic materials I also used a number of materials to make the nest neat but also habitable specifically for the Messor species.
- aluminum profiles
- sand & stones
- plastic tubes and plugs
- rooibos tea
- plastic aquarium plants
- thermometer and hygrometer
- 14 watt heatmat (it came with rubber feet that I also used)
- PTFE (a.k.a. fluon)
- Superglue (or some other brand of Cyanoacrylate glue)

The tools.

Since the main materials are ytong and glass you need tools to deal with these. The minimum requirements are thus something to cut and shape the ytong and something to cut the glass with. There are however some things to make it easier and the tools I used to build this formicarium are:

- a handsaw
- a glass cutter
- a inexpensive wood chisel set
- Dremel
- masking tape (quite a lot)
- ruler/measuring tape
- a pen or pencil to mark the ytong and glass
- a carpenters square
- sandpaper (grit sizes P60 to P320)
- various utility knives (a.k.a. stanley-knives or box-knives and blades)
- a drill
- the internet (this is the tool I probably used the most to get information on everything from the Messor ants' habitat requirements to which dremel bit are best for polishing. Links to some of these are  throughout this post and also from my other post on building formicaria)

The planning.

I wanted to buy the ant species, Messor barbarus. A lot of time was thus spent in researching the requirements for this species from, the optimal temperature and humidity to the most popular Messor nests on Youtube. I had a idea of how the formicarium should look and made a rough sketch to present to Carina. She needed to approve it since the monstrosity would be standing in our living room. The initial idea was to buy an aquarium and to mount two nests in it (two nesting areas are good for this species, one for raising the brood and one for storing the seeds at slightly lower humidity). However, by accident I bought (for another project) two sheets of 300mm x 600mm glass that was 6mm thick instead of 3mm and decided to use this to build the whole formicarium from it. The final design was a cube of glass 30cm x 30cm x 30cm with two ytong nests (each 20cm x 30cm x 10cm). The next step was to cut all the pieces of glass and stone to the correct size.

Ytong nests.

I found working with ytong extremely easy, especially after making a nest from sandstone which is very hard (see: I used a handsaw to cut the 600mm x 200mm x 100mm piece into two 300mm x 200mm x 100mm pieces. This requires only to draw a line in pencil on the stone and almost no effort to saw through (I can see why many ant species, including Messor babarus, is reported to be able to chew through it).

I personally like a line around approximately 1cm from the edge on the side where the glass is attached to the stone (see below). This is mainly to give a nice visual effect to the final product but also serves as a guide for when carving the nests and also a place to add the silicone. It does not seal better than a continuous line of silicone on flat stone.

Carving a edge line with a Dremel tool (these are smaller nests for Myrmica rubra and Lasius flavus).

The next step is to draw the nests and tunnels on the front and carve it. I use chisels but the same can be done with a flat bladed screwdriver. I start from the centre of each nest and stepwise make the holes the size I want. I finish each one with a small piece of sandpaper. I use also carve the tunnels in small steps and use a rolled piece of sandpaper to make it nice and round. The front part of the nests looked like this.

Close-up of nest.

I sculpted the back of the stones to be more natural. Since they would be facing each other I made some ledges that could be connected by bridges. I also carved some shallow ditches at the top that could be filled with water to hydrate the stones. Finally I drilled extra entrance holes into the nests and one hole in each stone that can be connected to the outside of the terrarium and small holes for the plants. After all the sculpting was done I used a fine grit sandpaper to ensure the flat surfaces are flat, smoothed and rounded the curved areas and touched up where necessary.

It is very important to remove all the fine dust from the nesting areas before using it as formicaria. I therefore rinsed the stones with a strong stream of water, making sure to get into all the holes and crevasses.

I also wanted to stain the nest. I found that ytong soaked in rooibos created a nice red-brownish colour. I added 4 bags of rooibos tea to approximately 5-7 liter boiling water. I submerged the stones for 20 hours (each stone was done seperately). Ytong has the very interesting (and annoying) property of floating. It is therefore necessary to place something on it to keep it under. Note, however, that on the contact points (both where it touch the botom and whatever is on the top), the stone will be less stained. I used sponges but it is better to move the stones or contact points (I did this when I could). A last important point is to remember to remove all the air bubbles underneath the stone as these areas will also not stain properly (be careful when trying to get them out when the stone is placed in boiling tea).

Close-up of stained nest

Back and front of one stone.

Back and front of other stone.

Working with ytong is very easy and satisfying. It is very forgiving and it is very easy to get the end product to look natural. Staining also takes no skill at all and I recommend everyone to use ytong, if it is possible to get it. Using glass is a whole different story...

The glass.

Unlike ytong, working with sheets of glass requires a bit of practice. It is important to MEASURE ACCURATELY and score the glass ONLY ONCE. Not doing this will lead to pieces of glass that is useless (i.e. becomes lids, bridges etc.) or a redesign of the whole nest.

The nest in the picture below (for Pheidole pallidula) should have been a square but a few errors lead to this shape (the open area in the water will become an island someday and I will say I planned it this way).

There are however a number of good tutorials on the internet and with a bit of practice it is possible to shape your own pieces. Here are links to the two videos I found the most informative (but there are many more):

It is also possible to ask a glazier to cut the glass to the required size when you buy it.

Thus, after spending many hours reading about the molecular chaos in glass and multiple tutorials on how to cut glass (including how to cut a circle out of 1 inch glass), I got out my glass cutter, oil, ruler and sheets of glass.

For this project I did not have to cut as many pieces as some of the other formicaria but I had 6mm glass that needed a bit more force when breaking than the 3mm that I was used to. I used 3 pieces of 300mm x 300mm x 6mm for the floor and two of the sides. From one of the side panes I removed the corners where the exit-holes in the ytong will fit. The ytong was mounted, each, to a 300mm x 300mm x 3mm piece, for the other two sides. For the lid I needed to cut 2 pieces of 300mm x 100mm x 3mm and 2 pieces of 120mm x 100mm x 3mm.

Heap of glass for various projects. Pane on the bottom are for the one side of the Messor formicarium (note the corners are removed).

The profiles.

This is an optional extra I added mainly to make the edges look neat. Since the glass panes on two sides is 3mm and on the other 6mm the corners were not neat and since the botom pane is 300mm x 300mm they would never be flush. It may also provide a bit of extra support to the whole structure but I do not think this is necessary. The profiles are however important for the lid on this formicarium, both as part of the structure and keeping the lid in place.

These profiles are aluminum and have edges that extend 15mm. I used a Dremel tool with a cut-off wheel to cut the profiles to the correct size.

Profiles and glass.

Note that I have used plastic profiles for some of the other formicaria. Below is a lid for the a formicarium that houses Myrmica rubra.

Plastic lid for Myrmica nest.


During almost all stages of every project I fit the finished and half finished pieces together to see how things will look and if they actually fit. Prior to touching any glue or silicone I have thus had many pre assemblies of the various pieces. I find doing this very satisfying as the image in my head becomes a real thing. It thus keeps me inspired but also helps to see potential problems and tweak the parts to fit together. It also highlights in which order the parts should be assembled to ensure that you do not end with spaces to tight to fit the glue or insert a pice of stone. Using masking tape to keep the pieces in place temporarily helps a lot.

Here is a pre assembly of all the major components.

The next is all the steps in assembling the formicarium.

First I used silicone to stick the two plastic exit tubes in the ytong nests. Next I started to build the glass and stone into a formicarium.

Sticking the stone to the glass.

This was done for both stones. I uses a thin line of silicone in the edge lines and a thin line at the top. I use masking tape on the glass where I don't want the silicone to smear (this is done only close to where I apply the silicone and not on the whole pane) and remove it immediately afterwards. I left this to cure 24 hours before continuing.

Sticking the sones to the base.

This was also repeated for the other stone. I ensured that the silicone sealed completely where the glass from the base and side met. I also added a few dollops of silicone to the bottom of the stone to ensure it remains stuck. I left this for 24 hours to cure.

Adding side the third side.

Again I used tape on the areas where I did not want silicone. I used just a thin line of silicone, since it is enough to seal together two panes off glass. This is then flattened out by swiping your finger across it. Again I left it for 24 hours and then added the last side.

I found the following video very useful for tips on how to apply silicone and make it neat when building formicaria/aquaria/terraria:

The profiles were added one day later (apologies for the blurred photo).

I simply added a line of silicone to the profile and stuck it to the glass. It was held in place for 12 hours by masking tape. When doing this make sure that you don't add too musch silicone as it will "spill" out from the side and onto the glass.

While waiting for the whole thing to dry, the fumes to evaporate and the ants to arrive from Germany, I constructed the lid. I first taped the glass in place with masking tape and applied silicone where they met. I then placed the glass lid on the formicarium and glued the profiles on with silicone to ensure a tight fit. I was however careful to NOT glue the lid to the formicarium. I left the lid also for a day to cure.

Lid (note the PTFE was added later).

The last step in assembly was to add the rubber feet, which was glued to the glass with silicone, and attaching the heat mat to the bottom (it is self-adhesive).

Decoration and making it habitable. 

To make the formicarium nice to look at as well as a nice and comfortable home for the ants, I added a few extra bits. I glued some artificial plants and glass bridges to the nesting stones. I also added a layer of PTFE to the top edge of the formicarium. This is to prevent the ants from escaping (I also have have some on the lid if any ants manage to get past the first barrier).

I added sand and stones to make it look more natural. The sand is also used by the ants to build barriers in their nests and close holes and they make the nests more "comfortable" for themselves. It also absorbes the heat in the main area when the heat mat is on.

Top view of formicarium.

Close-up of bottom and the "art" on the stone.

Close-up of plugged exit hole and rubber feet.

I also added a combined hygrometer and thermometer to make sure that the formicarium is not too wet or dry and also at the optimum temperature for them to thrive.

Caring for the ants is relatively easy. I have some seeds in the formicarium, a dish with honey water and a trough of water. The latter two should be cleaned and filled when needed.

Tips on the build.

With only a bit of practice it was possible to manipulate all the materials used in this project. I actually spent more time reading about how to work with glass than building the whole thing. I personally think planning, even if it is only in your mind, is more important than the actual skill to work with glass, stone or silicone.

More tips on building a formicarium (with emphasis on sandstone) can be found at:

For the Messor formicarium, drying out is not a problem (since it is inside a glass construction). However, the some of the other nests do tend to lose a lot of water and become to dry for the ants. I therefore first add a thin layer of silicone to all the edges that will not be covered (I subsequently did this with the sandstone nest also, see link above).

Bottom of nest with layer of silicone left to dry.

I also drilled a hole into the stone, sealed a pipe into it and filled it with water. I then place the other end in water and the stone draws the water and the nests keep hydrated. The nest below uses about 500ml in two weeks.

Keeping the nest hydrated.

It is also important to remember to let all the silicone dry and all the fumes to evaporate before placing your colony inside. This takes a few days but since I decided to build everything before getting the ants I had ample time for this to happen before the colonies arrived.

I hope that this post may help anyone that are interested in building a formicarium. But don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions. Also let me know if you want updates or videos on this blog of how the ants are doing.

The next blog will be from Carina...soon...


p.s. below are some pictures of the other nests for those who are interested:

Setup in our living room (front to back: nest and outworld for Lasius niger; nest for Pheidole palidula, nest for Messor barbarus)

Close-up of Lasius in their nest (living there for almost 3 months now)

 Left: nest for Lasius flavus; Right: nest for Myrmica rubra 

Close-up of Myrmica rubra

The completed formicaruim for Messor barbarus


  1. Good blog with nice photos and information. Please consider joining my Ant Hill World forum as we have over 1,400 members worldwide and they would welcome your interest in ants.

  2. hey i was wondering when you put your messor barbarus in the nest after you built it how big was you colony? seems very large and overwelming for a starter enclosure.

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