‘Some people think I’m crazy’: What makes Singapore’s ant-man tick
When the sun goes down, Zat Low collects creatures the rest of society considers to be pests. To him, keeping ants isn’t only a hobby, but a source of solace that’s provided much more.
SINGAPORE: The night-time is when this muscular man, sporting tattoos and an ear stud, goes hunting around void decks. He lives in Hougang but goes to HDB estates round the island, even those more than an hour away.
Mr Zat Low is especially likely to make a catch when it rains. That is when a queen ant would emerge from its nest to mate, and it would typically fly towards a lighted place such as a void deck.
Armed with a laminated card and a test tube, the 34-year-old tattoo artist would be all smiles when he spots his prize, like the time he found a queen crawling inside a lift.
He is not the only one hunting ants after night falls. Singapore Ants, a Facebook group of ant lovers and collectors he helped to start, has about 1,640 members. That is four times the group’s membership in June last year.
Unlike most other ant-keepers, however, he has even gone into forested spots to lure ants with a light box. But more than that, he likes the time alone.
“I love the night life because everything is so quiet. Everybody is asleep” he said.
I’m not scared of being in the forest alone. I think humans are much scarier.
His is one of the stories featured in the documentary series Singapore After Dark, about people who come to life at night.
They include a private investigator, an amateur astronomer, night fishermen as well as animal rescuers, wildlife surveyors and a joss paper maker who burns his goods for wandering spirits. (Watch the show here.)
In the case of Mr Low, his hobby has given him more than a unique perspective of Singapore by night, it has also given him a renewed purpose in life, “a lot of truth” and “joy”.
AN IDEA HATCHED FROM EGGS
It started some three years ago when a friend, a bird enthusiast, showed him a bag of ant eggs he bought to feed his birds.
Mr Low figured that it could be a good business opportunity and decided to catch queen ants – recognised by their wings and swollen bottoms – to harvest their eggs as bird feed.
But after half a year, he found it too tedious, even though he reckoned that he and a partner who was doing the sales were each making S$4,000 a month.
From what he had learnt online, ant-keeping seemed more interesting – even former United States president Bill Clinton has two ant farms – so he decided to start his own colonies instead of selling the eggs.
But it was such a niche hobby in Singapore that he had to do more online research and get tips from ant-keeping communities worldwide.
For instance, it may take up to a month for a queen ant to lay its eggs. If it does not, it may not be fertilised, and he would release it.
He also learnt to build his own formicariums (ant nests) and now has more than 100 colonies.
Some of them are crammed into his room, while others are looked after by his friends from the ant-keeping community, whose members range from students to housewives to working professionals like lawyers and doctors.
They share tips about caring for their colonies and where to hunt for rare finds. Different HDB estates attract different ant species because of their location near different forested areas, explained Mr Low.
We’d never know what we’d find. We’re like Pokemon Go players.
His parents were initially sceptical about his hobby but now even wander into his room to admire his collection: Formicariums of different shapes and sizes surrounded by walls adorned with some of his favourite tattoo art pieces.
He is a favourite of his young nieces and nephews and cousins, who are curious about and in awe of his pastime.
ANTS SAVED HIM
Ant-keeping is more than just a hobby for him, however – it helped to save his life.
Three years ago was also when he was at the lowest point in his life. He used to have bad mood swings, which affected his relationship with his family and close friends.
“I used to be a very arrogant person. I had hurt a lot of people, both emotionally and physically,” disclosed Mr Low, a former gang member.
He became depressed, partly because he had also lost friends who had taken their own lives. But after he came to terms with his past actions and personal losses, he began to rethink his life.
“I found that life was kind of meaningless, but I didn’t want to spiral downwards to that,” he said.
Then I looked at ants, and I realised that they’re so small and are fighting for survival. What (about) me then?
His ants kept him busy, and helped to keep him from feeling depressed, even though some of his friends and relatives thought it was a “lame” hobby at first. Some people still do.
“Some people think I’m crazy. They say, ‘Why ants?’ But I find ants an enigma to me,” explained Mr Low, who remains fascinated by their social behaviour, hierarchy and caste systems, as well as the similarities between humans and ants.
Ants invented farming – 60 million years ago – he pointed out, noting that some ant species still farm fungus to sustain their colonies.
Ants also operate within a highly developed division of labour: Some ants are in charge of foraging, some defend the nest while others tend to the queen.
“Ants have remarkable capabilities. For example, some enslave other ants while others can show the highest levels of altruism,” said Mr Low, citing a species of self-sacrificial ants from Borneo that can explode themselves to cover intruders with toxic goo.
Today, he can rattle off the scientific names of ant species in Singapore – like the Polyrhachis beccarii (the golden ant) and the Dinomyrmex gigas (giant forest ant) – and their characteristics with ease.
HOPING TO HELP OTHERS
Mr Low got out of his rut after about two years, through his ants and regular exercise, and is now focused on sustaining his ant colonies and building formicariums, some of which he sells.
These formicariums are typically made of acrylic plastic or aerated cement; the elaborate ones are decorated with crystals. He even has one with a music box inside.
A formicarium can be set up for as little as S$5 and can sell for as much as a four-digit figure, depending on the craftsmanship involved and crystals used.
It costs him less than S$50 a month to feed his ants, with a concoction of chicken, flour and multivitamins, among other things, that he formulated himself. For the ants’ “carbohydrate needs”, he gives them the blackcurrant drink Ribena.
He used to sell his ants but stopped doing so, even though a rare queen Dinomyrmex gigas can cost €1,000 (S$1,580) on the European black market.
He preferred to concentrate on acquiring and sharing knowledge about ants with the local community, including children.
He thinks that by educating more people about ant-keeping, he can “give people a glimpse of hope when they feel hopeless or helpless”, like how it helped him to rediscover himself and the natural world.
“My main purpose in starting an ant community is to make people understand that ants can be a pet too, not just pests,” said Mr Low, who now views ants as “sacred creatures” for saving him.
“I also have great ambitions for the ant industry, whether harvesting its eggs for food (a delicacy in Thailand and Mexico, for example), formicarium-making or making ant presentations to schools. We can venture into a lot of things.”
Watch the webisode Antman of Singapore here. The documentary Singapore After Dark airs on National Day, at 10.30pm.