Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, the western harvester ant is now one of the most popular and widely accessible ant species for beginner and advanced hobbyists alike thanks to the deregulation of interstate transportation for this species of ant, allowing for live queens and colonies to be sent all over the United States without the need of a permit. Furthermore, to the joy of Canadian insect hobbyists like me, Zach from Canada Ant Colony has stocked queens of this wonderful species for sale commercially for the first time in Canada in the summer of 2019.
In this blog post, I will discuss the basic Pogonomyrmex occidentalis care and husbandry, including heat, humidity, food, and even nesting options. I will share with you my experiences with this species as well as a journal documenting the growth of my personal colony.
Based on the date this blog was written, it has been 318 days since I received my beautiful Pogonomyrmex occidentalis queen on August 8th, 2019. Since then, the queen has developed to a colony of over 500 workers strong and became one of my most treasured colonies. They continue to surprise me with their voracious appetite and speedy development, only recently, I’ve discovered my colony has produced alates! Male and female winged reproductives roaming the nest, they are surely a sight to behold.
General Care Information
(Disclaimer: this is all based on my personal experience with this species, many colonies or queens may have different personalities and behaviours, but this guide can be used as a general guide to successfully raise this species.)
Pogonomyrmex occidentalis are often found in deserts or arid grasslands, meaning they have a taste for higher temperatures. In nature, the ants can dig tunnels deep into the ground if they so wish to find a cooler spot, or make chambers right under the surface to absorb as much of the sun’s energy as possible.
For my colony, I keep them at a consistent 30 degrees celsius, or 89 F, there is a gradient heating effect as I am using a heat mat taped to the side of an insulated box as the heating source. It makes that the closest tube to the heat mat is the warmest, and the further away the nest is, the cooler it becomes. I’ve noticed the ants like to stack up as much of their brood as possible in the tube closest to the heating mat, so it’s safe to say that this species really enjoy the warmth, and any keeper wishing to provide them with an ideal habitat, should definitely look into investing in a consistent heating source.
Humidity is a topic many keepers have their own experiences and views towards. Here I’ll share with you my personal position on this subject.
Many hobbyists like to keep their Pogonomyrmex occidentalis queens and colonies in arid, and dry conditions, due to the fact that these ants’ natural habitats are often found in deserts and arid grasslands. However, after comparing my results with other keepers, and sharing our experiences, I have concluded that this species actually does better when kept in more humid conditions, especially when founding. When keeping these ants, I suggest using a nest with some sort of water-absorbent material which when heated, releases the water back into the air and boosts the humidity to an optimal level. (90% and higher is best) I’ve found bamboo tubes are great for this.
As the colony grows and becomes more lenient with their condition requirements, one can gradually lessen the amount of water added to a nest and lower the general humidity as a whole. Some ant keepers have used water feeders for this species, it is an option however I would not recommend it, as the ants tend to pile substrate and garbage into the water, making a mess.
In this picture below, you can see the condensation of the glass of a bamboo tube. (I focused on the eggs but the glass is blurry from all the water droplets.)
There are many different housing options for Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, there are lots of fantastic formicarium on the market, or you can simply make one yourself! Your pogos would love any kind of nests as long as you provide a few essential elements.
1. Substrate, substrate is not necessarily required for the founding of a queen of this species but is heavily recommended. If not given, the queen may appear restless and unwilling to lay eggs, as she feels she has not yet found a suitable location to start the founding process. A layer of fine sand in a normal test tube set up is enough, the sand will absorb water from the cotton and become malleable for the queen to construct a snug chamber to surround herself within.
2. The ability to add water and control moisture manually: this is crucially important. Any nest you decide to go with must be able to hold water. A material like gypsum, plaster, grout, or just sand or dirt will all work. The chosen material must be receptive to water, which prevents the queen from dehydrating and dying. Standing water can be given, but large-sized droplets or puddles must be avoided to prevent any chances of drowning. Normally, if you use any material that holds water and heat them, condensation will form naturally and the ants will be more than happy to drink off that.
MY NEST SUGGESTIONS:
1. One of my favourite all-around nests: The bamboo tube
They are super versatile, one can easily adjust the amount of water added in order to adjust the humidity, a very thin layer of gypsum is used to spread water throughout the entire tube, and the chamber design is great to make queens feel secure. This is the nest I used to found my personal colony of Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, and would recommend it to anybody willing to try.
2. The Tar-heel Ants Mini Hearth
The Tar Heel Ants Mini hearth is a great nest for founding queens and small colonies, it has a beautiful design and is very nice to look at. Coupled with the water tower the nest comes with which allows one to manually adjust the humidity level within the formicarium.
3. Test tube setup with substrate and outworld/tubs and tubes set up
One of the most basic yet efficient ways to found Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, a simple test tube set-up most ant keepers should be very familiar with, and some sand or dirt as substrate. The substrate will absorb water from the cotton and become malleable for the queens to construct a small chamber to surround herself within.
A typical tub and tube set up:
Test tube set up with substrate:
FOOD AND NUTRITION:
Pogonomyrmex occidentalis is a very forgiving species when it comes to accepting food sources. I’ve found my colony to enjoy many varieties of protein and seeds, they would tear into pretty much anything that moves, or doesn’t move(RIP the fake plastic grass I put in as decoration).
From my experience and testing with my colony, here is a list of all the different type of food they have accepted:
1. Protein (They seem to like crickets and roaches the best, followed by mealworms, superworms etc)
2. seeds (My colony’s favourite seed is by far the millet, after that canary seeds, dandelion seeds, and Kentucky bluegrass seeds. They also accept large mixed birdseed but not as much as the other options)
Millets – my go-to type of seeds for Pogonomyrmex colonies, but remember, it’s always beneficial to add some variety.
3. Protein Jelly (like most of my other colonies, my pogo colony always eagerly go to town on the insect protein jellies, they provide a good amount of water and nutritious value)
One type of food my colony has never accepted, even as a small colony, is Honey water, or sugar water, or even sunburst, they always refused to drink the mixture and end up burying it with garbage or substrate.
Lots of hobbyists online say that Pogonomyrmex occidentalis queens does not require insect protein source and can live off a diet of just seeds. This is technically possible but I would not recommend it. The brood would develop much slower and the workers smaller and weaker, the queen would not be able to produce eggs to her maximum capability. I fed my queen half a small cricket every two days when she was founding, along with a sprinkle of peeled millets whenever the seed bank is running low. This paired along with the right amount of heat, humidity, and the right nest can make founding this species much easier and quicker, I was able to get my queen from egg to worker as a founding queen in 23 days.
Its also important to note that Pogonomyrmex is a semi-claustral species, meaning the queen will exit the claustral chamber to scavenge for food. So when founding the queens of this species, you need to provide an outworld and constantly feed her in order for her to found a colony.
Here is my personal feeding schedule:
Monday: half a small cricket, a sprinkle of millets(enough to last a week)
Wednesday: half a small cricket
Friday: Half a mealworm
Sunday: Half a small cricket
For Small colonies(1-50 workers)
Monday: a small cricket, a sprinkle of millets(enough to last a week)
Wednesday: a small cricket
Friday: Half a mealworm
Sunday: half a small cricket
For large/mature colonies(51 workers – 500 workers or more)
Monday: 2 large crickets, a sprinkle of millets and bird seeds or seeds of your choice(enough to last a week)
Wednesday: 2 large crickets, 1-2 large mealworms
Friday: 2 large crickets, 1 large Surinam roach
Sunday: 2 large mealworms
Feel free to add protein sources of your choice to this diet, and give occasional different food source like waxworms. However, I would advise against catching live insects in the wild and feeding them, to eliminate the chances of parasite or bacterial infection.