House ants become new German pet craze
4 March 2004
BERLIN – Ants by the thousands have taken over apartments all across Germany – as the latest craze in house pets.
A country where more than 80 percent of the population live in apartments, Germany and the Germans have always been keen on small lap dogs, kittens, budgies and gold fish.
But in increasing numbers, Germans are opting for the tiniest of the tiny – a queen ant and her myriad workers.
These days Germans shell out hundreds of euros for large terrarium-style habitats which are big enough to accommodate entire ant colonies – but still small enough to fit on a coffee table.
Catering to this fad is Europe’s only pet shop specialising exclusively in ants.
“People are realising that a pet doesn’t have to be a puppy or a kitten or a guppy,” says Martin Sebesta, proprietor of the shop, fittingly called The Ant Store, and located in the Klingsor Strasse in the Steglitz district of Berlin.
“Ants are much easier to care for than a cat, for example. They don’t eat much, they don’t smell, they don’t make any noise, they are fastidiously clean and – best of all – they are fascinating creatures,” Sebesta says.
“I defy anybody to resist watching ants at work,” the 28-year-old businessman says, surveying the teeming six-legged populations in the glass cases in his small shop. “You think you’ve just been watching them 10 minutes and then look at the clock and realise a couple of hours have gone by.”
Sebesta, a trained computer technician, succumbed to the lure of these creatures years ago in his parents’ back garden.
“I would watch the ants in our back yard as long as weather permitted,” he recalls. “Then it occurred to me that I could rig up a box with soil in it and bring them into the house – where I could watch them any time I wanted.”
Ants live everywhere, from wood ants living inside human dwellings to tunnelling ants that never see daylight, and from leaf cutters in the jungle canopy of the Amazon to the icy wastes of Greenland.
“The more I’ve learned, the more I realise how little we know about these wonderful creatures,” he says.
“One of the many mysteries about ant colonies is that there is no management. A functioning organization with no one in charge is so unlike the way humans operate as to be virtually in conceivable.
“Yet the colony harmonically performs extremely complex tasks including nest building navigation, foraging, food storage tending to young, care for the dead, garbage collection and on occasion even war.
“All I need to do to start a war is to connect, say, this habitat containing Raptiformica fusca over here,” he says, pointing to a case with rather angry-looking orange-and-blue ants, “via a plastic tube to this habitat containing Myrmecia gulosa, or Australian bull ants, over there,” gesturing to a case full of equally mean-looking, 3-cm- long ants.
“In no time I’d have a war on my hands,” he says. “And the Raptiformica would carry off any surviving enemy as slaves. The bull ants, on the other hand, don’t take prisoners. They sting them to death by means of a wasp-like stinger.”
Owning ants is like having your own army, then. And not surprisingly, most of Sebesta’s customers are young men, mostly schoolboys and university students.
There are some 10,000 species of ant in the world, and Sebesta stocks about 30 species, some of which, like the Australian bulldog ants, are quite exotic.
They range in price from about EUR 10 for a colony of Camponotus herculeanus, or common German carpenter ants, to EUR 1,000 for a colony of exotic ants such as Australian bulldogs.
Then there are the terrarium-style habitats, which Sebesta calls “formicariums” since he feels properly fills the bill for “ant home” better than any other word.
Most of Sebesta’s business is done via the internet. Germany has no restrictions on mailing live ants, unlike the United States and some other countries which prohibit the mailing of live queen ants so as not to promote cross-species contamination.
Customers include film production teams which have contacted him in search of “stunt ants” to perform in TV commercials.
“You can say I’m into family values,” he jests. “Since there is only one fertile female in an ant colony, all the ants in it are siblings. You can’t get more family than that.”
Sebesta’s internet address: www.antstore.de
Subject: German news