The great queen scam
We are frequently contacted by hobbyists who have just started keeping exotics, asking for our help and advice as to why their colonies/queens are failing. After discussion, in most cases, the problem seems to be that they have been persuaded to buy cheap, poor-quality stock, and from what they describe many of the queens they have purchased seemed to be infertile.
Finding fertile queens of many exotic species is not easy. Unlike many European species which have mass flights over a few days, and can be easily found wandering over the ground having been fertilized and already removed their wings, many exotic species have flights spread over several months with no specific mass swarming days.
There is an ever-increasing demand for queens of exotic species and to satisfy the growing demand the collectors abroad have solved the supply problem by simply removing the wings of female alates found in mature colonies, and selling them as fertile queens. This has become a serious problem with wholesale suppliers in some countries especially China, and recently we are also hearing Malaysia and Thailand. The more enterprising collectors now also add brood and workers from the mother nest to produce what look like young colonies.
Think about it!
It is much easier for these unscrupulous collectors to simply open up a wild nest that has plenty of female alates and just separate a few, cut off their wings and give them some workers and brood from the mother nest, producing what look like young colonies. Just imagine how many ‘false colonies’ they can manufacture from a large colony full of alates. Much easier and quicker than having to search for true young colonies. They can then sell them in bulk at a low price and still make a good profit.
Many of these collectors operate under the principle of ‘make money today never mind about tomorrow’ and they do not intend to be in the business for long, and those that do linger simply change their name/contact details after the word against them spreads.
The problem is compounded because many of the suppliers selling ants to hobbyists in other countries are importing these exotics and simply selling them on as quickly as possible. When they offer a species for sale and state ‘it has just been released from quarantine’ what they actually mean is that the postal courier has just delivered the box from overseas. It is common knowledge amongst the trade that most resellers do not quarantine their stock despite saying this, it is just a sales ploy. After they have been delivered, they sell them on as quickly as possible. In the short time, they have them they can not confirm if the queens are fertile. And they just don’t seem to care, as long as they can sell them as quickly as possible and make some money.
Hence; more and more hobbyists are reporting failed queens/colonies which have not raised a brood, and when they mention this to the supplier are being told it’s the customer’s fault because they are not keeping them in the correct conditions. Hobbyists are thus getting the impression exotics are difficult to keep. While in reality, it is the sellers who are at fault for buying the cheapest stock they can find, to resell as quickly as possible to the end customer at nicely marked-up prices. The sellers know this and it is very probable that some are actually colluding with suppliers to make some quick money, and relying on the fact that it will take several weeks before the buyer notices something is wrong, and then any guarantee offered would be expired.
Some new alate queens like several of the more common Camponotus species are easily found and are unlikely to be false. However, others like Camponotus singularis, Polyrhachis species such as P. armarta, P. bihamarta, and Oecophylla smaragdina are very difficult to find. If you are offered these in large amounts at low prices beware!
Signs of unmated queens are:
1) The ‘false queens’ show listlessness and are continually trying to get out of their foundation set up, as opposed to fertile queens who settle down to raise a brood.
2) Eggs are just never laid, or eaten as soon as they are laid.
3) Eggs are laid but not kept in clumps and cared for, but scattered around and ignored.
4) In some species brood is raised to maturity, but only male alates emerge.
5) The price for the queens is usually well below the normal price shown on reputable seller’s websites.
6) In ‘false colonies’ the alleged queens do not receive the attention from workers that true mated queens receive (as they do not produce the required pheromones), and often seem to be regarded as just another worker, aimlessly just wandering around.
7) Other signs to watch out for with the new queens that come with their so-called first workers/brood, are that the workers present are all normal size and are not the true nantics that newly mated queens naturally produce, some even have majors! This is a sure sign of a boosted and probably infertile queen.
If your ants have failed and shown behaviour similar to what we describe, don’t just give up thinking it is your fault. You have probably been sold infertile alates or false made-up colonies. Complain to the person you purchased the ants from.
Contact the seller to describe what has happened and ask for a refund. Don’t be fobbed off with feeble excuses about incorrect care, or how long you have had them. Until these suppliers realize that the cheap/false stock they are being offered is not going to be accepted, they will keep on buying it in, and selling it at low prices to tempt customers to place an order, with a nice financial gain for the seller, but with the same disappointing outcome for the hobbyist. And disturbingly giving the impression that exotics are difficult to keep and raise.