In a small test tube, the ant queen is at rest. Around her, worker ants are swarming. The colony is just days old and there’s only a handful, which means they have their work cut out for them. They have to tend to their mother, who has been busy laying the eggs that will become these workers’ sisters. Some of those eggs have already hatched into larvae, resembling tiny maggots, or grown into pupae (which look like slightly larger maggots). This is the last stage before they, too, join the workforce.
Eight of them are crowding around a small dab of honey, hungrily sucking it up and then dashing it off to regurgitate it into their colleagues’ mouths. One feeds the goo to a larva. Once she’s done, she scurries away and a faint golden glow can be seen in the larva’s stomach through its transparent skin.
“Isn’t it neat?” Mikey Bustos gushes.
Over a course of one year and 36 YouTube videos on his Ants Canada channel, Bustos will document the growth of this colony of solinopsis geminata—a common species of fire ant—from its humble beginning in a test tube to a sprawling empire of thousands upon thousands in a custom made Avatar-themed ant habitat.
In a 13-year-long YouTube career where his antics have garnered him almost 5 million subscribers and more than 575 million views, Bustos has documented the growth of more than a dozen other colonies of varying species (the rise and occasional fall of often gigantic empires of weaver ants, bullet ants, and carpenter ants have all gotten the documentary treatment). Members of the ant-keeping community credit him with helping to popularize a once obscure hobby.
As a provider of both information and materials, Bustos has become “the No. 1 driving factor for getting people into ants,” Tyler Boehmer, an undergrad biology student at Arizona State University who works with the school’s social insect research group, told The Daily Beast. Boehmer himself discovered the joys of ant-keeping through Ants Canada. He even runs his own insect-keeping supply site, called Arthropod Antics.
It’s not just hobbyists who are excited about what Bustos is doing. Researchers say he’s playing a valuable role in helping them understand a creature that most people rarely notice but that arguably is even more dominant than humans when it comes to ruling planet Earth.
Ever since he was a little kid in Toronto, Bustos remembers being fascinated by unconventional creatures. He told The Daily Beast he was “that weird kid that had a lot of exotic pets,” who would go out and collect insects and spiders to create a little bug zoo in his parents’ basement. Bustos also had a flair for showmanship: He’d use his parents’ camcorder to film his little pets and make little nature documentaries with his narration on top.
It wasn’t until he was an adult, though, that he realized he could push his hobby even further. One day, he came across a YouTube video made by a German ant-keeper and, although he couldn’t understand what was being said, it led to a lightbulb moment. Ants have an annual nuptial season in which winged males and queens swarm together and pair off. The males die while the newly fertilized females land, break off their wings and begin laying the first of thousands of eggs as they establish prospective colonies. If Bustos could find a fertilized queen, then he could raise his own colony in captivity.
As he read books and joined online forums on ant-keeping, he realized that the hobby, though big in Europe, was not a common hobby in North America. Uncle Milton’s ant farms (also known as formicaria) had been around since the 1960s, but they were essentially children’s toys: cheap pieces of plastic and glass aimed at kids who would plunk a few worker ants in and watch them dig before getting bored. Bustos’ early effort at a homemade habitat, while not as elaborate as what would come in later years, was much more ambitious: an all-glass enclosure with pumice for the ants to burrow into and ample room for feeding areas and locations for them to discard their garbage. After finding his queen, he used a Christmas gift webcam to launch his channel in 2009.
The early videos are a far cry from the high-definition productions Bustos delivers today. The footage is grainy with minimal narration and the only sound is often public domain classical music. Even so, he began building a small audience. Within a year of launching the channel, he began receiving requests to build custom habitats for other people looking to bring ants into their homes. The channel and his fledgling business—also called Ants Canada—grew in tandem.
Influential as he might be, Bustos has had some criticism come his way: Boehmer notes that many of the videos in recent years has been devoted less to informational content the average ant-keeper can use and more towards showing off elaborate enclosures, containing complex arrangements of plants, soil, and rock that few others in the hobby tend to use.
Some of the content can also be sensationalistic—if not outright grotesque. Among the most popular content is Bustos feeding some of the more aggressive species things like a dead lizard. And though he usually pre-kills any other insects that can be part of some species’ diets, one particularly grisly video involved a cockroach giving birth while being devoured. This shift is not just because the YouTube algorithm promotes more extreme content, but because Bustos’ love and knowledge of show business has seeped in.
In 2003, he participated in the inaugural season of Canadian Idol, ultimately placing seventh. Today, despite his channel’s name, Bustos is actually based in the Philippines, having moved there in 2011 to pursue show business opportunities. He finds himself wildly famous among two very different crowds: those who know him as an actor and singer and others who know him as the disembodied voice giving play-by-play of trap-jaw ant activity.
The dichotomy has led to some interesting interactions. Corrie Moreau, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist at Cornell University, recalls a day when she was working at Chicago’s Field Museum. She was told a singer from the Philippines was going to be in town and was interested in ants. Despite being familiar with Ants Canada, she wasn’t able to make the connection.
That visit sparked “conversations around husbandry and how it can impact research,” Moreau told The Daily Beast. Many researchers can be intimately familiar with ant taxonomy but have no idea how to properly keep a colony going in a lab. The knowledge developed by amateurs like Bustos is actively sought out by the professionals to facilitate their research.
“We’ve now had success being able to keep these animals in captivity because of the ant-keeper community that Mikey Bustos and others facilitate so scientists like myself have access to that information,” she said.
Bustos has contributed in other ways too. While he originally made his content from a Manila condo, he has since moved into an elaborate, custom-designed home—known on his channel as the Ant House—surrounded by vegetation. During the construction of the house, Bustos found two species of ant that previously were not known to live in the region, as well as a third that might have been entirely undocumented until now. He’s currently working with a local specialist to try and verify the discovery.
The infrastructure, resources, and communities for ant-keepers has exploded over the past decade. Aside from YouTube channels and subreddits, there are Discord servers where thousands of people help others identify species or identify good spots to go to find fertilized queens.
Now, settled into his Ant House, Bustos has plans to start filling it with new colonies—and spreading out his love for the creatures like the ever-growing tunnels of an ant farm.
“I have high hopes for ant-keeping. I think, one day, keeping will be big,” he says. “As an ant Youtuber, it’s a very exciting time to be at the forefront of ant-keeping as a hobby.”