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.
And that concludes the care guide section of this blog, below this I will document the progress of my personal Pogonomyrmex occidentalis colony, and share tips and thoughts on the way :) - Jerry
Pogonomyrmex Occidentalis Journal
August 8th, 2019
I received my Pogonomyrmex occidentalis queen on the 8th of August, 2019. I was stoked to be able to finally keep this species as it was the first time they were commercially available within Canada.
She arrived in a little test tube set-up filled with some sandy substrate, I connected it up to a brand new bamboo tube and set her in my insulated box, set to 30 degrees celsius overnight.
August 9th, 2019
The day after she arrived, I eagerly checked her setup and was ecstatic to find out that not only has she moved into the bamboo tube, she also laid a small clutch of eggs! I counted 8 myself.
The test tube is full of condensation, so the pictures did not come out well at all, bare with me please haha.
August 10th, 2019
The third day of keeping this species! She is doing great and laid even more eggs overnight! I can't even properly count how many she has laid!
August 16th, 2019
8 days after she arrived, she has her first few tiny larvae! I was so surprised at the pace this species grows, especially for a founding queen! She also laid tons of eggs, I estimate at least 30.
August 19th, 2019
I left my queen alone for three days after the first larvae were spotted, and checked up on her again on the 19th of August, and to my surprise, the larvae have grown quite a lot and are no longer minuscule. The queen has been busy tearing apart the cricket I left in her outworld and bringing in the pieces for the larvae to consume, I've also noticed millets being eaten by the larvae.
Note: one cool thing I've noticed about Pogonomyrmex larvae, is that the larvae feed themselves! The queen only has to place the food item near the larvae's mouth area and the little grubs will chew into it happily. This is different from many other ant species where the queens or workers have to consume the food first then feed it to the larvae manually.
August 23rd, 2019
On August 23rd, the very first pupa was spotted, it was a very white and just morphed from a larva into a pupa. The larva stage only took 7 days compared to 8 days for the egg stage. I was very pleased with the pace this colony is developing at that point.
Notice the 4 prepupae in the photo above, those still look like larvae but are completely milky white, without a trace of food inside them. That's how one can tell if a larva is getting ready to pupate.
August 26th, 2019
4 pupae now, 3 days later, with a bunch more to come. It seemed like the queen ate some small larvae, but laid some more eggs in return. To be honest I prefer larvae over eggs :p
August 31st, 2019
I didn't check up on the pogo queen for 4 days and was pleasantly surprised when I did again on the last day of August. She had 10 pupae and one of them was very orange! It meant it was close to eclosion and the first worker will be born soon, very soon!
September 1st, 2019
FIRST WORKER!! Yayyy!
I knew the first worker would be emerging very soon after I saw how orange the pupae was, and I was right! I checked up on my queen the day after I last did because I was so excited to see if the pupa has emerged or not, normally I wouldn't bother her that much but I was too impatient to wait another day.
The newly emerged worker was very yellow and pale in colour in comparison to the queen, but she will darken with time.
NOTE: In the picture above, you can clearly see some smaller larvae chewing away at a piece of cricket by themselves.
September 8th, 2019
5 workers now, the condensation was very annoying to take pictures through.
I fed the pogos a singular peeled sunflower seed, they brought it inside their test tube and the larvae wen to town on it. It is the big chunky thing in the middle of the photo above.
September 20th, 2019
Around 20 workers now, the colony is growing at a very fast pace.
September 21st, 2019
The pogos have quickly outgrown their previous founding outworld and count at 22 workers as of the 21st of September. I definitely need to make a new one for them to explore. But 22 workers in 44 days of being with me? Heck yea!
September 27th, 2019
I made a desert-themed outworld for my pogo colony today. Like I said above, they have quickly outgrown their previous outworld and deserve a newer, and prettier version. I was very pleased with how it came out and attached up their current bamboo tube into the container.
October 2nd, 2019
Loads of workers now, they are definitely enjoying their new outworld.
October 8th, 2019
Brood pile is looking very nice indeed.
October 14th, 2019
One of my favourite Pogonomyrmex occidentalis photos was taken today, it displayed the queen amongst a crowd of workers and brood, quite majestic if you ask me.
October 22nd, 2019
Literally swimming in brood, after this batch of pupae, we definitely would hit 100 workers.
November 16th, 2019
Exactly 100 days after I received my wonderful queen, I gave them a brand new bamboo tube as a present. I think they like it ;)
November 29th, 2019
Pogos now have at least 200 workers and loooooads of brood, I've decided against hibernating them this year but I definitely will next year. I decided that because I've learned that hibernation is not 100% required for this species and they can do just fine without it for a year or two. The reason being I noticed they still had lots of fresh eggs and pupae, while larvae can survive through winter, eggs and pupae cannot.
December 12th, 2019
At least 300 workers, what can I say
March 7th, 2020
There has been lots and lots more growth throughout the last three months, but nothing out of the ordinary. So I'll just share a few pictures I've taken of these wonderful creatures.
May 23rd, 2020
Well well well, 3 months after the last update, alate pupae spotted!! they appear to be males but hopefully I get some female alates as well.
June 2nd, 2020
The pupae have darkened significantly and are easy to tell they are males due to the body proportions, I am super excited to see how he will look like as an adult ant.
June 4th, 2020
Will you look at that! The first-ever alate produced from my colony! Even though it's a male, it is still very cool looking and definitely a great achievement for me! Getting Pogonomyrmex alates in under a year! Super hyped!
June 8th, 2020
The male alate has now fully darkened, it really looks out of place in the colony compared to the red workers. He is a lot skinnier and slightly larger in build, has a matt black head and thorax while the gaster is shiny orange, just like the workers.
I also noticed something else that's very interesting, the first-ever female alate pupa! I can tell that she's a female alate due to the body composition and how she's a bit larger than the worker pupae. As well as the three eyes in the middle of her head.
June 9th, 2020
Aha! Look who eclosed! The female alate emerged a day after I saw her as a pupa and is a beautiful pale yellow colour. It almost makes her seem like she's glowing! I managed to get a picture of her next to the original queen. Mother and daughter moment ;)
June 12th, 2020
The brood-pile is ever-growing, and the pogos have outgrown their outworld and are in desperate need of a new one. So I set to work constructing a new outworld for them, much much bigger than the last.
June 16th, 2020
The grout for the new outworld has completely dried by now, and I connected up the three out bamboo tubes into the brand new arena. They eagerly explored their new territory.
During the commotion, the female alate ran outside into the outworld! She has fully hardened by now and is looking fantastic! I managed to capture her and put her in a test tube for a few quick photos, then promptly released her back into the colony.
Isn't she just a beautiful ant?