See also: Carpenter ants: Identification and control.
General Ant Identifying Features
- The body of an ant is clearly divided into three sections: the head, the thorax, and the gaster.
- Ants are social insects living in colonies comprised of one or a few queens, and many workers. The queen generally stays deep and safe within a nest. Most ants that you see are workers and these are all females. Depending on species, workers may be similar in size, or come in a range of sizes.
- Ants tend to come in dark or earth tones. Different species are black, earth-tone reds, pale tans, and basic browns.
Adult Males and Females
When ant colonies reproduce, the new queens and males may be found in the colony. These are “flying ants” and have two pairs of wings. Males generally have small heads, large eyes, large thoraces, and a pair of claspers at the end of the gaster. Once they fly (and mate), males do not live very long. After mating, new queens break off their wings and never fly again. Without wings, they can generally be distinguished from workers by their larger body size, larger thorax and larger abdomen.
All workers are females.
Immatures (different stages)
Ant larvae are white and grub like. They have no legs and don’t move about much on their own. You can generally see a large, dark stomach through their cuticle. Ant pupae look like white adult ants, with their legs and antennae pressed close to their bodies. In some species, larvae spin silk and the pupal stage is inside a cocoon.
Most ants eat a variety of small insects that they capture, dead insects they happen to find, nectar, or honey dew. They need a balance of carbohydrates and protein. Protein is especially needed for the queen to make eggs and for the larvae to grow.
Most ant species live in the soil. Some, like the carpenter ants, also live in wood (they excavate, but do not actually eat the wood). Some ants live in cavities made inside plants, such as acorns, twigs, and galls.
A variety of reptiles or amphibians (particularly toads and lizards), spiders, other insects such as assassin bugs, and other ants may prey on workers. Bats, birds, and occasionally, people capture and kill or eat the flying males and females.
Since ants are social they display many behaviors that remind us of our families and society. For example, worker ants take care of larvae by feeding and washing them. Ants are able to communicate with each other. They are able to communicate, among other things, directions (to where the food is) and alarm.
Some Ants are pests, some are beneficial
A few ant species are considered pests, because they live in and protect territory that we consider ours or because they want to consume resources that we need. For example, leafcutting ants compete with us for crop plants in the American tropics. Fire ants colonize damp grasslands (including lawns!) with alarming ease. Carpenter ants, adapted for living in dead wood, consider the dead wood (lumber) in houses fair game, especially if it is damp. A number of opportunistic ant species can overrun kitchens, pantries, and pet food areas in search of suitable food items. Also, some ants (like their relatives the wasps and bees) have a potent sting. As with bees, some people can become hypersensitive to ant stings.
Thatching or “mound ants” get their name because they construct mounds from small sticks, grass stems, leaves and pine or fir needles. They may also nest in decayed logs. Under most circumstances, thatching ants should be considered beneficial, since they are fierce predators of other insects. However, when they occur in lawns, rockeries, picnic areas and other areas of human habitation, they can become a severe annoyance.
Thatching ants are often injurious to seedling trees or plants near their nests, and they have been known to damage the buds of apples, pears and other fruit trees in the spring. The landscape can be visually disrupted by the presence of their mounds. Physical contact with them is also displeasing, since they can bite quite hard and usually spray the area they have bitten with formic acid to produce a painful sensation which can result in a blistering of the skin if it is not washed.
An interesting phenomenon demonstrated by thatching ants, as well as other ants, is the habit of “herding” and maintaining aphid colonies on trees, shrubs and weeds. This occasionally leads to an aphid problem because, while keeping aphids for their sweet honeydew, they protect the aphids against natural control organisms such as wasps and ladybird beetles.
Be sure thatching ants are indeed a threat if you find their mounds on your property. Frequently, they do not pose a serious problem and no control is recommended.
Baits: Thatching ants can sometimes be eliminated with baits containing boric acid or hydramethylnon. Often a combination of bait types works best. Repeated bait applications are usually needed to eliminate the colony.
Dusts: Thatching ant nests in buildings can usually be eliminated with boric acid, diatomaceous earth or pyrethrins. These can also be applied to cracks and crevices used by the ants as travel routes into problem areas. In addition to eliminating them in buildings, however, the ants should be followed to find other nests outdoors.
Thatching ant nests can also be eliminated using spot treatments of nests with residual insecticides registered for ant control. There is no need to apply residual insecticides to large areas outdoors. because the entire nest surface and subterranean portion should be thoroughly treated this is not environmentally friendly. Saturating the earth with pesticides may contaminate ground water.
See our feature pages of carpenter ant identification, photos and control information.
Odorous house ant
- Workers are all the same size, small, 1/8-inch long
- Dark brown to shiny black
- Petiole with 1 node, hidden by abdomen
- Thorax uneven in shape when viewed from side
- Very strong odor when crushed
- Feed on both dead and living insects, favoring aphid and scale honeydew
- In homes, forage primarily for sweets
- Travel in both wandering patterns and set trails
- Trails common along branches of trees, foundations, sidewalks, baseboards, and edges of carpets
- When disturbed, become erratic with their abdomens raised in the air
Nest type and size
- Live in shallow nests in soil under stones, wood, or debris
- May nest in various habitats including wooded areas, beaches, wall voids, and around water pipes and heaters
- Large colonies, with up to 10,000 workers and many queens
What to do when ants invade your home
- Sponge invaders with soapy water as soon as you see them.
- Plug up ant entryways with caulk or petroleum jelly.
- Remove infested potted plants.
- Clean up food sources such as sugary spills, pet food, or garbage.
- Rely on baits to control the ant colony. (Not Carpenter ants)
- Remove food sources by storing food in containers
- Follow good sanitation practices and focus efforts on excluding ants from buildings. Make your house less attractive to ants.
- Caulk cracks and crevices around foundations that provide entry from outside.
- Trim branches and limbs of trees and shrubs that touch the building to keep ants from gaining access via these routes.
- Eliminate food sources inside the building or prevent access to suitable food by keeping it in ant-proof containers.
- Clean up sugary spills.
- Provide a dry, vegetation-free border, such as gravel or stones, around the perimeter of house foundations to discourage nest building; wood chip mulches and landscape plants provide a good nesting environment.
- Manage honeydew-producing insects such as aphids, whiteflies, psyllids, and soft scales on plants near the house. These honeydew producers often support large colonies of ants that subsequently invade homes.
- Remove trees that consistently host ants and are adjacent to houses .
Ant Control Professionals
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