Ants Are Everywhere – How Do You Deal with Them in Your Home and Yard?

Ant season is here. Look out at your yard the day after a rain. See all the new ant hills decorating your landscape? Other than being an eyesore in a well tended yard, ants can also be an invasive problem, carrying disease with them into buildings they infest. There are sixty species of ants in North America. Of those, only a few are actually deemed pests; even fewer are deemed a health risk. Here we’ll discuss the most common pests, and various means of treatment should you find yourself under siege from these beasties.

Ants are a member of the order Hymenoptera (“membrane wing” in Latin), as are bees and wasps. Common types of ants in North America are Carpenter ants, Pharaoh ants, Fire ants, Pavement ants, Velvet ants (actually a wingless wasp), Odorous House ants, and Argentine ants. Different types of ants will respond differently to attempts to stamp them out. It’s important to try to determine what sort of ant you have before blasting them with poison.

Common Types of Ants in the Yard, Buildings, and Homes

To determine the best method of treatment for an ant problem, first determine which type of ants are currently plaguing you. Below you’ll find a list of common ants, and a description of each.

Carpenter Ants- One of the most common ants in North America, the Carpenter ant is found nearly nationwide. Carpenter ants are destructive, carving tunnels and galleries in wood. They do not eat wood, they simply make their homes within wooden structures. This can seriously weaken the wood, leading to structural damage, even collapse. Carpenter ants feed on protein and sugar; in the wild from dead and decaying insects, and the honeydew from aphids and scales living on plants. Indoors, even a clean home can offer them a feast. To determine if you have Carpenter ants, you will need to examine one. They will have one node (waist) and a smoothly rounded thorax (the back will be smoothly curved). Size is not a good indicator of the type of ant as most species have polymorphic workers, that is the workers can be different sizes and colors. Carpenter ants are usually red or black. Carpenter ants are commonly seen in the spring, though they are active year round. If Carpenter ants are seen indoors during the winter, however, it is highly likely there will be an indoor nest.

Pharaoh Ants- Pharaoh ants prefer a diet of protein. These are one of the species that poses health risks from the pathogens they carry. A colony of Pharaoh ants can be 30,000 strong, with multiple queens. These ants will travel along electrical wires and plumbing to set up new nests within a structure, and prefer to set up shop someplace moist. They are fond of the voids in cabinets, behind baseboards, even the hollows of curtain rods. Pharaoh ant can be distinguished by their yellow or honey color. Unlike some species of ants, the Pharaoh ant workers are all the same size. They have a double waist, and their thorax (back) will not be smoothly curved when viewed from the side. Pharaoh ant colonies are extremely mobile, and will split into multiple colonies if disturbed. These ants are capable of transmitting many diseases, by coming in contact with the pathogen and then contaminating a sterile area.

Fire Ants- There are two main types of Fire ants in North America. The first, indigenous Fire ant is simply called the Red ant, and is found throughout North America. The second, more aggressive species is the Red Imported Fire ant, and has colonized the majority of the southeastern US, as well as California. The indigenous species rarely comes into contention with human, preferring to do their housekeeping in the wild. Their mounds are large, and can contain thousands of individuals. They feed on seeds, tender plants, crickets and other insects. Fire ants, unlike other species of ant, do not envenomate with a bite, rather they use their jaws to clamp on their prey, then sting with their abdomen, injecting an alkaloid venom. This venom causes a reaction in humans that feels like being burned by a flame, thus the name Fire ant. Individuals with a sensitivity to Fire ant bites can be killed by this venom. These ants have a copper colored head, while the abdomen will be darker. Multiple sized ants can be present in one mound.

Red Imported Fire Ants, are a greater risk to agriculture and health than their cousins. These ants were first introduced in the 1930’s by Brazilian ships docking in Mobile, Alabama and unloading infested cargo. Since then they have infested over 318 million acres in the south. These imported Fire ants are much more aggressive than other species, attacking en mass anything which disturbs their mound. The venom contained in their venom sacs is unique, and contains a high concentration of toxins. The size of the mounds built by Red Imported Fire ants can damage plant roots and cause crop damage. It is difficult to tell the difference between Red Imported Fire ants and their cousins. There are 280 species of Fire ants.

Pavement Ants-These ants are brown to black, have a two nodes (waists), and a single set of spines on their thorax (back). They are extremely common, living in pavement cracks, under stones, and sidewalk slabs. In addition to seeds and insects, these ants will consume anything that you or I would. Pavement ants, while active in daytime, are much more so after dark. A nocturnal inspection should yield excellent results, allowing you to follow their trail back to the nest.

Velvet Ants- You may have noticed a strange, hairy ant scrambling around your yard, usually red and black, or black and white in color. These Velvet ants, are not truly ants, but flightless female wasps. They are not aggressive, and do not invade homes. They feed on nectar and water, and have no treatable nests. When threatened they can emit an audible squeaking sound. There is no treatment for these insects. It is suggested that if you notice an abundance of Velvet ants, the best treatment is to put down more grass seed, as thicker grass will provide poorer living quarters for them.

Odorous House Ants- These small, dark brown ants are common throughout the US. The name comes from the ‘rotten coconut’ smell produced when a worker is crushed. These ants feed on dead insects, sugar and meats. They are fond of the honeydew produced by aphids and scales, and will tend these insects, protecting them from other predators. If only a few Odorous House ants are seen indoors, it usually means they are from an outdoor nest and are in search of food. If winged ‘swarmers’ are seen indoors, then it’s time to worry about infestation. Odorous House ants will nest anywhere warm and moist, behind baseboards and in cabinet voids.

Argentine Ants- Argentine workers are all uniform in size. They are small and dark brown or black, with two nodes (waists) one of which is small and erect. The thorax (back) is irregular in shape. The workers emit a musty smell when crushed. Argentine ants feed on sugar, sweets, and some flower buds. There can be millions of individuals per colony, with multiple queens and sub colonies. Argentine ants will also tend aphids and other honeydew producing insects, consuming the honeydew left by them.

Indoor Treatment

You’ve spotted a trail of ants, crawling across the counter, in the cupboard, or marching brazenly across the kitchen floor. What do you do? Grab a can of bug spray and blast the suckers? No! While the instant death of the interlopers is an attractive prospect, remember that most indoor ant problems originate outside, and some species of ant will only spread further if disturbed and not destroyed.

The first step after spotting the besiegers is to determine what you have running around your house. Ants are ants, though, right? Not really. Poisons that work on species of ant may have little or no effect on another. It may only disturb the nest, making them split into separate nests, moving deeper into your cabinets, and walls. So, how to proceed?

Bait: Ant baits are popular choices, and work well in context. Read the packaging to determine which species the poison is best used against. Make sure it is registered for indoor use, as an outdoor bait will attract more ants. Carpenter ants, Pharaoh ants, Argentine ants, and Fire ants react well to proper baiting, though you may have to use a professional baiting system. Several manufacturers produce quality baiting systems, including Amdro, Terro, Maxforce, and OK Ant Killer.

Sprays: Sprays work well on individuals and foraging scouts, some even have a residual effect, keeping ants from crossing it. Sprays are ineffective against nests indoors. Follow the trail of ants to find the nest. If they are coming in under a door, through a window, etc. then chances are they are simply foraging for food and the nest is outdoors. Spray away if this is the case, and while your at it, powder the nest outside to stop them coming back.

Powders and dusts: While effective, powders and dusts can be messy and difficult to use indoors. As with other methods, ensure it is registered for indoor use.

Professional Treatment: For difficult or recurring ant problems, leave it to a professional. These folks get paid to know how to treat insect infestation, and the treatments they use are much more effective than what consumers can purchase.

Outdoor Treatment- There are more outdoor options than indoor, simply because it is difficult to produce a poison lethal enough to deal with the ants, yet safe enough for enclosed spaces. Treatment options are a mound to mound approach or a broadcast approach. Dust and granules work well for mound to mound treatment. Granules usually need to be watered in, while dust and powders do not. There are several companies producing broadcast insect solution, such as Spectacide, Ortho and Amdro. These are usually more expensive, but are advertised to work for up to a year. Sometimes professional help will need to be sought outdoors as well, if you are unable to determine the location of the mounds, or are unable to eradicate them.

Non Pesticide Solutions- Organic solutions include cucumber peels and slices, mint tea, cloves, cayenne pepper, boiling water, citrus oil, cinnamon, and coffee grounds. Borax solutions of �½ tsp sugar, borax, and honey mixed with water in a small spray bottle. Borax solutions are known to work, though borax can be dangerous if used improperly. 3 gallons of boiling water poured down an ant hill will eliminate 60% of treated mounds. Results for other solutions listed above are not reliable enough to give percentages.

What Drives Ants Indoors- Understanding what drives ants indoors can be a big help in watching for indoor infestations. All ants will move indoors under the right conditions, though most do prefer to remain outside. Three of the biggest reasons for ants to migrate into your home or office are drought, flood, and lack of food. When faced with drought or flood, ants will seek better accommodations, preferably someplace moist, but not wet, and warm. A large environmental change, such as the grading of woodlands can also drive them into buildings, seeking food. A home or office doesn’t have to be ‘dirty’ to house these beasties. Ants are more than happy to dine on crumbs and bits of sweets you may not even notice, while our cupboards, baseboards, and walls provide them with shelter. Our wires and pipes provide ant ‘highways’; ants prefer to move along these, carpet edges, and the corners of walls.

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