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Keeping ants as pets is a growing hobby in Singapore

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InterviewsTrendsDIY

From keeping crickets in his storeroom to having queen ants mate in his bathroom, meet the man who raises an ant colony at home without any barriers.

Many might think of dogs or cats when the word 'pets' is brought up.

However 31-year-old Johnathan Yong may beg to differ. Together with a growing community in Singapore, he has a fondness instead for the iconic six-legged insect – ants.

"It's less maintenance than a dog," the lawyer shrugs before continuing to explain the rationale behind ant-keeping.

"Ants are very fuss free. They live in a community and can take care of themselves. In fact, they even clean up after themselves!" 

Pachycondyla-ants-test-tubes
Like most of his other young ant colonies, Johnathan raises his Pachycondyla ants in test tubes.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/DEXTER LIN
 

When Youth.SG visited Johnathan's home last month, he greeted us with a friendly smile and a handshake. But I stepped in with hesitance, half-expecting ants to swarm me the moment my foot touched the cool marble floor. 

At first glance, there were no ants in sight. My worries were pushed to the back of my mind as I surveyed his luxurious condominium apartment, until Johnathan reminded me: "Be careful to not step on any ant trails you see." 

My colleague, who has a phobia of insects, froze like a classic deer in the headlights. 

Dinomyrmex-gigas-giant-forest-ants
Johnathan also keeps giant forest ants. These Dinomyrmex gigas are the largest ant species in Singapore, with workers 2-3cm long, and are hailed as the holy grail of ant keeping. 
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHNATHAN YONG 

We were then led into his room, where he proudly showed us his extensive collection of ant species. 

Numerous tanks lined the walls, each a home-made ant farm (or formicarium) with tiny specks of life crawling across the soil and greenery provided within. Even the potted plant at the corner of the room housed a nest of weaver ants in its leaves. 

Carebara-diversa-marauder-ants-colony
Johnathan is well known in the ant community as the specialist in raising Carebara diversa, also known as marauder ants.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHNATHAN YONG
 

Johnathan then brought us out to the balcony to view his biggest and most treasured Carebara diversa colony, and explained what makes him a little different from other ant-keepers in Singapore. 

"I keep my ants in an open-concept backyard in my house, where they are free-ranging and allowed to roam," said the mild-mannered man. 

Ant-nest-colony-balcony-garden
"They're going to escape anyway. If it's open concept, at least they roughly know where their boundary is," Johnathan explained about the ant's nest sitting quietly at the corner of his balcony.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AMANDA WONG 

As he said that, I could not help but wonder with furrowed eyebrows – what if his marauder ants, who number in the thousands, invited themselves into his home?

"When my ants are satisfied with the amount of space they have, they will just stay within their own area," the married man shared. He continued to explain that they only tried to escape when they were contained.

Take a peek into what the life of an ant-keeper is like.

His wife, who was heavily pregnant at the time of our interview, had not taken too well to his ants in the backyard. 

"My wife told me that if the ants were to come into our home, she would pour bleach in," he said before laughing and shaking his head. "She also does not enter our backyard at all." 

Ant-colony-rebuilding-nest-colony
After a heavy rain, thousands of Johnathan's ants would come out of hiding to find food and rebuild their nest when their surroundings are moist.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/KASSANDRA TAN 

Johnathan's interest in ants began when he was 10 and started keeping ants. 

"At the time, my parents almost chased me out of the house," chuckled Johnathan. 

Back when he was in primary school, there was very little literature about the hobby and he went as far as learning German just to understand foreign ant-keeping forums. 

Newborn-ant-queens-nest-colony
In order to get more fertile queen ants, John allows newborn queens from his main colony to mate in his bathroom with male ants he catches from outside.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOHNATHAN YONG 

When asked about the biggest struggle in his hobby, Johnathan went through a hidden door in the living room and returned carrying egg cartons and containers. 

We quickly realised that was a storeroom filled with various supplies of feeder food for his ants. 

"The amount of food that they eat is ridiculous; it can be up to a kilogram worth of food a day. They eat anything from insects, mealworms, crickets, seeds, fruits to even chicken wings," said Johnathan, as he opened a box of critters and sent us scrambling to our feet in fear. 

Crickets-ant-food-feeding-colony
Johnathan is thinking of incorporating crickets into his backyard to build a self-sustaining ecosystem.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AMANDA WONG 

The notable growth of Singapore's ant community may come as a surprise to many. Currently, the community has a Facebook page with more than 2,000 followers and several Whatsapp groups. Johnathan runs his own website that he uses to provide updates on his ant colony and give tips about ant-keeping.

"I wanted to get more people interested and help them to successfully farm their own ant colonies," shared Johnathan, who regularly meets other ant-keepers to explore Singapore, in search of founding ant queens to start new colonies. 

Free-roaming-ants-colony-nest
"Please take this photo quickly, the ants are crawling up my leg to bite me," Johnathan murmured politely as he smiled for our camera right on top of his free-roaming colony.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/KASSANDRA TAN 

A week after our interview, Johnathan became a father, and we wondered about the future of his giant ant colony, especially with a newborn baby at home. 

However, Johnathan has a plan.

"I'll try to salvage as much as I can. I'll put the ants in a tank and try to contain them once my children come in, but they won't be gone. I've become too attached to them to let that happen." 

As a person who doesn't keep ants, I used to shudder just at the mention of them. But now, I think I've grown to appreciate that for some, ants really can be more than just pests. 

BANNER AND TEASER CREDIT: JOHNATHAN YONG