A. Buschinger - Myrmecologische Nachrichten, 2004

(original title: Risiken und Gefahren zunehmenden

internationalen Handels mit Ameisen

zu Privat-Haltungszwecken (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

English translation from Aliens, 2004)


In Europe, Austria, France, Germany, Spain and UK, for the

past few years an ever-increasing trade in pet ants has

been observed. Internet companies provide formicaries,

accessories and living ants of European origin, as well as

from overseas (South America, Indonesia, Australia).

In this article I discuss various risks of this trade: escaping

ants may establish and cause economic or biodiversity

impacts, carry diseases that switch over to indigenous

species and bastardise local faunas. Even “intraspecific”

faunal bastardisation may occur.

I suggest urging governments of all nations to ban the

trade of invertebrate species, in particular ants and exotic

species, for commercial and non-scientific purposes. Ex-

ceptional permits should only be granted when escape-

proof keeping can be guaranteed.


During the past 2-3 years, there has been an ever-increas-

ing interest in keeping various ant species as pets at home.

In the US it is illegal to trade ant queens, however, in Eu-

rope, where restrictions are mostly lacking, a couple of

Internet-shops have established where the ant keepers can

order living ant colonies, formicaries and accessories. Since

these shops advertise and sell ants from nearly all over the

world, there is some cause for concern. Information on the

amount of this trade can be obtained from a number of

Internet forums (URLs given below). From the forums it is

also clearly recognizable that the species in question are

usually not identified, often sold under wrong names or

just with a genus name, e.g. “Pheidole sp.”, this being a

genus with 900 species worldwide, among them several

already known as major pests.

I – The risk of bastardisation of faunas

As with any intended or casual release of foreign organ-

isms in a given ecosystem, the exotic species in a few in-

stances may establish viable populations and thus

bastardise the local faunas. Even known invasive ant spe-

cies may be released in countries where they have not

been found as yet, because the dealers and customers as

laymen are unable to differentiate between hazardous and

(perhaps) harmless congeners.

Ants in particular are a greater risk to local faunas than

other exotic organisms: They are generally highly domi-

nant members in most terrestrial ecosystems. And, if re-

leased, it is usually not one or a few single specimens that

may die before having the chance to reproduce (as for

example the numerous spiders, millipedes, scorpions, man-

tids etc coming free every year). A complete ant colony,

whether escaped or set free by the keeper may find and

reorganize itself in a suitable place and, provided that

favourable ecological conditions are given, begin to re-

produce. Potential inbreeding among the progeny of a

single queen is not a serious problem in ants, as is often

erroneously believed. In any case most (potentially) inva-

sive species are polygynous and have several reproduc-

ing queens in a colony. Pet ant keepers prefer polygynous

ant species because they are believed to survive longer in

captivity. In addition, “spectacular” species are sought

after, such as the Australian bull ants (Myrmecia sp.), or

leafcutter ants (Atta and Acromyrmex spp.) and weaver

ants (Oecophyllasp.) - all offered for sale in Germany and

other European countries.

II – The risk of developing additional pest and/or invasive

ant species

Germany presently is plagued by about a dozen introduced

ant species. Most of them are confined to hot houses,

green houses of Botanical gardens, zoos etc. A few are

invading homes, hospitals, restaurants etc., among them

the Pharaoh’s ant, but also a few Pheidole species. Others

surviving in the open are the Argentine Ant (Linepithema

humile) and Lasius neglectus (Dekoninck et al 2002; see


index.htm). Both have the potential of eradicating numer-

ous native ant species.

Most pest ants probably have arisen from widespread

synanthropic species that have been carried around the

world through traditional commerce. Pet ant keepers and

dealers are always demanding “new”, “interesting” spe-

cies. Ant collectors and dealers will hence try to bring ever

more species from nature hat never had the “chance” to be

distributed by man. Among the numerous Pheidole spe-

cies that are very popular because of their big-headed sol-

dier caste, there may be dozens of potential pest ants.

Since both dealers and customers are laymen, they are

unable to correctly identify the ant species in question.

Many are sold with evidently incorrect (nonexisting) names,

or only identified up to the genus (Pheidole, Messor and

others). Ant taxonomy is very difficult, even for the few

contemporary professional myrmecologists, and many

groups (genera) are taxonomically unsettled as yet, so it is

absolutely impossible both for dealers and customers to

assess whether or not a given species may be an actual, or

possibly future, pest.

III – The risk of ant parasites switching over to native


All animals carry parasites, which, if released in a foreign

habitat, may switch over to native species, threatening

them, even if the original host species cannot survive in

the new environment. These parasites may be mites, nema-

todes, protozoans, fungi, bacteria etc. Some ant species

are known to be intermediate hosts of tapeworms. In south-

ern France a Tetramoriumspecies is known to carry a tape-

worm infesting domestic fowl (genus Raillietina; Nadakal

et al1971).

As yet, extremely little has been known on the parasite

fauna of ants, but I have done some studies on tapeworms

(Buschinger 1973), on fungi (Sanchez-Peña et al. 1993),

and on gregarines, all found in ants (Kleespies et al 1997),

so I have good reason to infer that many more ant species

may carry one or other potentially dangerous parasite spe-

cies. A gregarine species found in North American,

Leptothorax ants from Montana, were able to infest Euro-

pean Leptothorax in laboratory experiments, and even the

Pharaoh’s ant. Unfortunately it did not affect this species

to an extent where its use for biological control would be

justified (Buschinger & Kleespies 1999). Though appar-

ently no incidence of such a parasite transfer among for-

eign and native ants has been recorded as yet, it neverthe-

less appears a real possibility.

IV – “Intraspecific bastardisation of fauna” – a neglected


With “intraspecific bastardisation of fauna” I mean that

not only the introduction of a foreign species into a native

fauna or ecosystem may become hazardous, but also the

introduction of members of a species into distant popula-

tions of the same species. In Europe there are numerous

species with a very wide range, from Mediterranean through

sub arctic habitats. We may assume that their local popu-

lations usually have developed special adaptations to the

local climatic conditions etc. If transferred to a sufficiently

distant place they may either disappear (if they do not

tolerate the local conditions – the best case), or hybridise

with the resident population, which might weaken the

adaptiveness of the local population. Afurther problem in

this context is that expensive studies on biogeography

and phylogeography may be jeopardized.

One frequently studied question in Europe is whether a

given species has arrived from the Mediterranean refugia,

after the ice age, to the North of the Alps via the eastern or

western route. With modern DNAtechniques it is possible

to reconstruct such routes, but if (for example) an ant spe-

cies from France escapes in eastern Austria and by chance

establishes a population there, this may invalidate a lot of

research efforts.

V – URLs of Internet ant-sellers and forums

German “antstore” (238 mem-

bers as at 15 January 2004)

German Ameisenforum

with a lot of discussions on the topic of introduction of

exotic ants. (559 members, many of them also in the antstore



(in French; forum but also trading ants) (274 members)


phpbb2/index.php (forum which doesn’t advertise ants,

but the owner sells ants on demand by e-mail) (258 mem-


Great Britain presently does

not advertise ants, but has formerly sold many colonies,

e.g. leafcutter ants. Not all of the registered forum mem-

bers are ant keepers, but quite a high number are.

The German antstore in particular is importing ants from

Australia, SE-Asia, and Central America to Europe, and

also distributes ants from southern Europe in central and

northern Europe. In Germany and most European coun-

tries there is no legal restriction on the trade with exotic

animals, except for those endangered in their countries of


As yet, there is no ant species known which would be

endangered by taking them from the field in their countries

of origin. I do know only about restrictions in the USA

where trading ant queens (not workers) across borders is

illegal. The American Forum for ant enthusiasts, where

these restrictions are frequently discussed is: http:// (608 members on 15 January


VI – Conclusion

Of course, ants are not only imported by those specialised

companies, but as yet mainly by ordinary trade (with plants,

fruit, wood etc.), and also many colonies are taken home

by tourists. However, trading pet ant colonies may consid-

erably increase the numbers of imported colonies and also

of additional species, handed over to private customers -

who can be as young as 12-13 years old.

I think it would be worthwhile for IUCN (and othes) to

inform the governments of all nations on this quite recent

development, suggesting legal restrictions on exotic

arthropode trade, both because of dangers for their native

faunas and of additional invasive species whose eradica-

tion is always very expensive and nevertheless usually

fails (see fire Ants, Pharao’s ant, Argentine ant etc.)


Buschinger, A., 1973: Ameisen des Tribus Leptothoracini

(Hym., Formicidae) als Zwischenwirte von Cestoden.

Zool. Anz. 191, 369-380, 1973

Buschinger, A., Kleespies, R. 1999: Host range and host

specificity of an ant-pathogenic gregarine parasite,

Mattesia geminata (Neogregarinida: Lipotrophidae).

Entomol. Gener. 24, 93-104.

Dekoninck, W., C. De Baere, J. Mertens & J-P. Maelfait, 2002.

On the arrival of the Asian invader ant Lasius neglectus in

Belgium (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Bull. Soc. roy. belg.

Ent. 138: 45-48.

Kleespies, R.G., Huger, A.M., Buschinger, A., Nähring, S.,

Schumann, R.D., 1997: Studies on the life history of a

neogregarine parasite found in Leptothorax ants from

North America. Biocontrol Science and Technology 7,


Nadakal, A.M., A. Mohandas, K.O. John, and K.

Muraleedharan, 1971. Resistance potential of certain breeds

of domestic fowl exposed to Raillietina tetragona infections.

3. species of ants an intermediate hosts for certain fowl ces-

todes. Poultry Sci. 50:115-118.

Sanchez-Peña, S.R., Buschinger, A., Humber, R.A. 1993:

Myrmicinosporidium durum, an enigmatic fungal para-

site of ants. J. Invertebrate Pathol. 61, 90-96.

A. Buschinger

Zoological Institute,

Darmstadt University of Technology,

Schnittspahnstrasse 3,

D-64287 Darmstadt,



Member of the IUCN SSC, Social Insect Specialist Group