Ms Vivien Tan has always been afraid of anything with six or more legs.
“Growing up as a child, I definitely did not want anything to do with ants or any kind of insect,” the 30-year-old shared.
But things changed after she came across AntsCanada, an ant-keeping channel on YouTube a few years ago. She grew an interest in observing ant colonies and felt encouraged to try keeping ants after meeting Mr John Ye, 41, the owner of Singapore’s first physical ant store, Just Ants.
“Seeing another Singaporean [keep ants] successfully made me realise that I could give it a try. It’s very fun because it tests your patience in so many ways,” Ms Tan said.
As of July this year, Ms Tan has five ant colonies at home. Three of them are mature colonies and two are fresh out of their founding stage and are stabilising. One of them is her latest Trap Jaw ant colony, which finally developed after 10 failed attempts.
She found the most challenging part of ant-keeping to be the founding stage, when the queen ant lays her egg. At this stage, the queen ant is sensitive because the slightest change in environment can easily affect her ability to lay eggs. Hence, the success of the colony weighed entirely on the queen ant.
But Ms Tan also finds the founding stage to be the most satisfying part about ant-keeping.
“At the founding stage you can keep track of them and they mean so much to you,” she shared. “And then from there, you progress to see how the queen is more and more taken care of by the workers.”
Together with her “partner-in-crime”, her 26-year-old sister Ms Rebecca Tan, they started their own Aunty Ants channel on social media to share the ups and downs of their ant-keeping journey. Their TikTok and Instagram accounts have drawn about 37,200 followers and 1,424 followers respectively. Their most popular TikTok video has scored 2.7 million views. They’ve also recently started a YouTube channel.
Mr Ye, the person who inspired Ms Tan to start keeping ants, wasn’t an ant-lover to begin with as well. But there’s something about the ants’ way of life that struck a chord with him.
“You always hear the phrase ‘Never give up’. Ants display this ‘Never give up’ kind of vibe,” Mr Ye said. “So tiny, so insignificant, yet they show us that despite being so tiny, they can do so many great things.”
Inspired by the ants’ perseverance, Mr Ye ventured into ant-keeping in 2017. He first kept them in his electronics distribution shop in Woodlands. That’s where the Tan sisters first met him.
In January 2019, he and his co-founders opened Just Ants, Singapore’s first physical ant store, in Jurong East. They stayed there for about half a year before renting a small place in the Lim Chu Kang area between June 2019 and June 2020.
Giving up an electronics distribution business for ant-keeping doesn’t seem like a pragmatic idea, Mr Ye acknowledged.
“In Singapore, we have to be quite realistic too. How can you earn money from passion?” he said.
But he’s determined to follow his heart for at least a couple of years. “If you look at it differently, just try. For two, three years of your life, just do something that you really want to do.”
Like many other businesses, Just Ants was hit with a major setback right after the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020.
Mr Ye said: “We just got our sign board ready, we prepped everything, designed the whole shop, then we were unable to open during the Circuit Breaker period.”
During that period, their earnings were close to zero and at times they had to rely on their savings to carry on.
After the Circuit Breaker measures were relaxed, the shop moved to Yishun and has settled there since.
Mr Ye said business has improved after CNA published a story on their shop. But he knew most passers-by are still grossed out by the display at his shop, and many people still don’t take his business seriously.
“90 per cent of the people that walk past [say] ‘eee … goosebumps’, so I thought of doing a poster here that says ‘Free Goosebumps. View at your own risk’,” he laughed.
Mr Ye said he wants Just Ants to be a “stepping stone” for aspiring ant-keepers in Singapore. “We want to create a good groundwork to prepare people for further ant-keeping knowledge,” he explained.
He said that to most people, ants were just ants – hence the shop’s name. But to Mr Ye, each species of ants has its own story to tell and a different life lesson to impart.
While he hopes others will share the same love for ant-keeping, he doesn’t believe in hard sell. He tells his younger customers, especially children, to buy ants only if they’re willing to bear the responsibilities.
“Our mission is just to spread the love of ant-keeping and how ants can shed a different light on our lives,” he said. “Look at them differently, don’t fear them as pests.”
Edited By: Adiel Rusyaidi Ruslani