Located on the ground floor of a residential building in the quiet neighbourhood of Yishun is Just Ants, billed as Singapore’s first physical ant shop, run by 41-year-old John Ye. It is a tiny store, about the size of two bathrooms, and is easy to miss. Ant enthusiasts, however, know exactly where to find it, and frequent one of the few places in the country that can cater to their unconventional hobby.
It displays tanks of various sizes with different species of ants, from worker ants to the rare golden ant. Inside, the store’s shelves are lined with essentials for ant-keeping, such as tweezers, feeders, and feeding dishes. “Discover their hidden world,” a framed quote sits on one of the store’s shelves, inviting customers in. Just one of many ant-themed sayings in the store.
To customers, the store is a “one-stop-shop for all your ant-keeping needs” but for Ye, it’s a hobby-turned-business. He even quit a corporate job in sales for it.
“I was contemplating [starting up Just Ants] for a few months before I finally picked up the courage to do it,” Ye told VICE. “I wanted something that I could call my own. I wanted to try something different in my life. What else did I have to lose?”
His fascination with ants started with an ant colony he got from his brother in law in 2017. He said that it was the insects’ sheer determination to get things done that really drew him in.
“They have an immense character. They’re hardworking and never give up,” Ye said. “They’re always united as a colony. There’s no politics. Indirectly, I think we should learn from ants.”
Many think ants are nothing but disgusting pests but Ye wishes people could see how admirable they are.
“They have a strategy for everything. For example, some ants form into a ball shape to cross rivers. There’s just so much to learn about them,” he exclaimed.
In awe, Ye went online to find out more and found himself falling down a wormhole of all things ants. Soon, he began collecting his own ants and starting more colonies.
“I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but rather a quest for knowledge.”
Most of his friends thought he was crazy for leaving a stable job. “Your hobby cannot be your rice bowl,” they told him, but Ye just went for it.
Early this year, he started looking for spaces for his store but struggled to find one that would fit his limited budget. He eventually found a spot in the town of Jurong East but ended up relocating to the Yishun spot in July as it was more convenient for him and his customers.
He opened Just Ants in January. The store now displays about 30 species of ants and sells carpenter ants for SG$15 ($11) to SG$75 ($55). A full colony of ants in a tank can cost up to SG$200 ($147).
Ye goes through a painstaking process to acquire the ants, hunting down ants in neighbourhoods and parks after it rains in the early evening. He sets up torchlights and waits for ants to fly over to them. After capturing them, Ye feeds the ants every two to three days, giving them mealworms on Mondays, a small piece of an apple on Wednesdays, and a tiny cricket on Fridays.
The store has drawn a lot of curious onlookers but business has not been easy, especially because of the pandemic.
“We had practically zero sales for about one month. At one point of time, I thought that maybe my friends were right,” Ye said.
Still, he said he does not regret quitting his job.
“I’d rather do what I love than work so hard with no time to pursue my passion.”
He kept the store open despite the effects of the pandemic and business started to pick up in August, enough to cover the store’s expenses.
Ye said that his customer base is gradually building and that he hopes to see more people get into ant-collecting.
“The most important objective is to change the mindsets of people,” he said.
He plans to expand the shop one day and even partner with educational institutes to spread the word about ant-keeping.
“Give them a chance. If you see ants as a pest, you’ll see them that way forever.”