SINGAPORE: Tucked away in a corner of a Housing Board estate in Yishun, bordering a traditional Chinese medicine store, Mr John Ye’s shop seems fairly nondescript from afar.
But take a closer look and you'll see a large tank of ants outside. Mr Ye stands ready to share his wealth of knowledge about the insects with any curious passers-by.
Just Ants is the first physical ant shop in Singapore as far as he knows, said the 41-year-old, adding that the number of ant enthusiasts here is growing.
“We have about 30 to 35 species of ants,” said Mr Ye, as he showed CNA around.
At least 10 tanks of varying sizes line the outside of his shop, each filled with a different colony of ants. They range from the most common Carpenter Ants to the invasive Anoplolepis gracilipes - colloquially known as Yellow Crazy Ants.
A range of formicariums - small vivariums used to raise ants - stock the shelves at the back of his store.
They include small test-tubes holding the smallest colonies. The larger set-ups provide creature comforts like tunnels and an "outworld" where ants go to forage and hunt for food.
A starter test-tube kit for a beginner ant hobbyist could go for about S$12, while an established colony of 20 to 30 ants would sell for S$20. Rare ants, on the other hand, can go for up to S$50 to S$60, Mr Ye said.
While some might bug out at the idea of keeping ants, Mr Ye’s love for the insects prompted him to leave his previous job of distributing wholesale electronics to set up shop early last year.
“It started from a hobby, a small hobby,” he told CNA. “And then when I actually learned more about ants, I was mind-blown. I ventured deeper and deeper. So I thought to myself, why not start an ant shop in Singapore?”
Mr Ye’s passion for ant-keeping is palpable.
Framed up in his shop is a poem he wrote about ants. “Why keep ants they say. They are not entirely pests I say,” it read. “Ant keeping can be a joy. A lot more fun than that boring toy.”
Ant-related religious verses decorate the walls, while a giant ant plush toy sits on top of a glass cabinet.
Then there is the display tank holding a one-and-a-half-year-old mature colony which Mr Ye uses for show-and-tell. Inside, tens of thousands of ants crawl over the soil base, like scattered lines of marching troops.
“They are a very ferocious species,” he said. “Although they are very small, there are up to seven sizes. The queen is about 2cm. This is what a nest would look like in the wild, very simple in soil.”
The ants in this tank can grow to a population of about 10,000 to 20,000 in about a year, he added.
“Whatever’s in their path they will take down. It doesn’t matter how big you are - even if it’s a big lizard, they got a strategy to take down the enemy,” he said.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Mr Ye said his interest in ants started “randomly” in 2017.
“I was watching some videos online. In Singapore it’s fairly new, but in Canada, the United States, it’s quite a hobby. So there’s a very popular ant channel in Canada - he’s also a comedian - Mikey Bustos.
“He started the trend back then, and he did a storyline for each ant colony. So every time you will (be like) - wah, what’s the second episode like?”
A few months later, Mr Ye found himself hunting for ants to start his own colony. But it was only early last year when he decided to up the ante to open his shop.
Just Ants was previously at Woodlands before moving to Jurong East. Mr Ye thinks the current shop at Yishun Central could be their “forever home”.
The reception among customers is “getting better”, he said. “We have more curious people - not ant-keepers - but (they’re) curious as to what we are doing.”
While some have the misconception that he is selling ants as feed or that he is selling ant eggs, Mr Ye is unfazed.
“I will tune my frequency to them (to explain),” he said, speaking in English, Mandarin or dialect depending on the customer.
Before COVID-19, they were “very well-received”, he said, with schools as well as the Singapore Science Centre approaching him to talk about ants.
There are repeat customers who will come back to look for new formicarium or stock up on feed, said Mr Ye. He also runs an "ant hotel" where he will care for the colonies when their owners are away.
“We even have an uncle (who started with us). He’s 79-years-old. He bought a few colonies and he said he will spend hours observing them, taking pictures … He’s very cute because he will keep asking me, ‘you have any new ants?’ I say, ‘no more, all you have already’,” he said.
But things have not always been smooth-sailing. Friends and relatives doubted him at first, many of them wondering if he was “nuts”. When he first started his hobby, he said his wife threatened to spray his ants with "Baygon" if they escape their enclosures.
Mr Ye was also initially worried about turning a profit.
“I know it will not be very profitable like a full-time job as in the workforce, but as time goes by, we thought of, well, passion would be ultimately over profit,” he said. “Of course we are not earning as much (as) back then in the workforce, but slowly we found really little happiness in what we’re doing.”
‘IT’S LIKE LOOKING AFTER A PET FISH OR HAMSTER’
A lot goes into running an ant shop. Not only does Mr Ye open every day from 12pm to 8pm, except for public holidays, he also has to ensure a steady supply of ants for potential customers.
He sometimes finds his ants from the wild, where hundreds of them will be flying around lamp-posts after the rain. He will then harvest as many ants as he can to ensure that he captures queens which have mated successfully.
Other times, he will exchange ants with fellow hobbyists.
One queen ant is enough to start a colony as they only need to mate once to produce eggs for the rest of its lifespan, Mr Ye explained.
If you are putting out feelers about starting a new hobby, Mr Ye said it is relatively “low-maintenance” for those starting out with one colony, although it comes with responsibilities. These include feeding them and maintaining the humidity of the formicarium.
“It’s like looking after a pet fish or hamster. They have requirements,” he said.
Each ant has its own characteristic - some are friendly, some are aggressive - and so he provides a care sheet for each species of ants that he sells.
Mr Ye hopes to own more 100 species one day, including the Dinomyrmex gigas, the biggest ant in Southeast Asia which is native to Singapore.
“It’s very therapeutic. My favourite part about keeping ants will be just looking at them, gazing at them … It calms my mind after a hard day at work. They really soothe my stress,” said Mr Ye.
“They are so adorable crawling around, grooming themselves, it just tickles me. Doing their daily stuff, their strategies, the characteristics, how they organise themselves so uniquely,” he added.
“It’s different every time I look at them. Every scene, every chapter of their daily routine is totally different.”