When the ants march one by one in Edmonton, insect enthusiasts go out and catch them to keep as pets.
With its river valley, Edmonton has a very good habitat for ants, says Zachary Liu, a second-year biology student at McGill University in Montreal and owner of a company called Canada Ant Colony.
The company sells ants nationwide to research institutes, film crews and potential pet owners.
Edmonton is where Liu gets a lot of his ants, from local collectors like Scot Ellacott.
“I broke the ice when I went public with my ant-keeping hobby,” said Ellacott, who maintains up to 30 ant colonies in the basement of his home.
“Toronto was the hot spot for ant farming and just in the last three or four years it’s really picked up in the West, with Edmonton being kind of the hub,” he said.
Most ant collectors focus on catching the queen, which tends to be the largest ant in the colony and the only egg-layer.
“She is the life of the colony. Without a queen, there is no colony,” Ellacott said.
He said a good time to catch ants is during the nuptial flight, when the queens leave to start a new colony.
Although the timing of nuptial flights varies depending on the ant species, in Alberta they tend to be between May and September.
Ants have a highly evolved social system, with queens, males and workers. Although the workers are women, they cannot reproduce. Ants have been known to take slaves, conduct violent raids, and go to war against other colonies.
“Ants seem to be problem solvers. They don’t just exist, but if they want to get somewhere, they’ll find a way to make it happen,” said Warren Paterson, another Edmonton ant keeper.
Paterson gave his 12-year-old daughter a cologne and then took up the hobby himself so the two could share a common interest.
“I like to try to buy gifts that are useful and long-term and that interest will last a long time,” she said.
Some queen ants can live more than 30 years.
A little studied insect
For years, there was a misconception that Alberta had few ant species, said James Glasier, an ecologist at the Calgary Zoo who studies ants.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have found more than 80 different species of native ants in the province, bringing the total to 120.
Of those, about 40 different species are found in the Edmonton and Calgary areas, Glasier said.
“The problem with ants is that there hasn’t been a long history of studying their populations in Alberta. We don’t really know much about them,” he said.
active radio9:39let’s go look for ants
Ant enthusiasts are helping fill that knowledge gap by providing scientists with information on how to best keep and feed ants in captivity, so they can be studied.
“Just like any group that spends time with an organism or on earth, they will know more than a researcher who may not spend as much time within that realm of knowledge,” Glasier said.
Outside of national and provincial parks, there are few rules about ant collecting in Alberta. But that could change if the hobby continues to gain popularity, Ellacott said.
Risk of illness
While collecting and raising ants is a great way to learn about the natural world, Glasier said she worries about people purchasing ants over the Internet. If they are not careful, they could allow the spread of disease or introduce invasive species.
“Maybe they don’t know how to care for them and they do something like what people do with goldfish and release the ants into the wild,” he said. “I feel like that’s the danger.”
Invasive species of concern include the European fire ant, known for its painful bites. The species was introduced to North America in the first half of the 20th century, probably through infested plant containers shipped to Maine.
To help stop the spread of invasive species, Liu said his company only sells native ants or species with government approval. He also tells his clients not to release ants into the natural environment.
The company has an unconditional buyback program in case the insect becomes unmanageable for any possessor.
Regardless, Liu said, the hobby is becoming more and more common.
“It’s a much more interesting hobby than it was, say, 30 years ago, and our goal is to make it as accessible as possible.”