Ants are some of the most common pests in existence, no matter where you live. There are more than 12,000 known ant species in the world, and it can be difficult to know which type is invading your home, but the first step in ant management is identification, since treatment can vary.
Every state usually has a few hundred endemic ant species, but of these, you’re only likely to find a handful in your kitchen. However, since ants are highly organized and socially-oriented, even if only one ant found a food source in your home, they’ll recruit the rest of their nest to exploit it, and soon a full-scale invasion can be at play. Though most ants are just a nuisance, species such as Carpenter ants can cause structural problems in your home, and others can devour crops.
1. What do ants look like?
Like all insects, ants have three main body regions: head, the mesosoma—thorax plus the first abdominal segment—and the gaster, composed of the remaining abdominal segments. Between the mesosoma and the gaster, ants also have the petiole, a narrow “waist” which can have have one or more nodes.
2. How to identify an ant species
Ants are often confused with termites, but the difference is ants’ petiole between the abdomen and thorax. Their heads are large, with powerful jaws, and elbowed antennae. When you find one or more ants in your home, try and find their nest, and observe more of them in action.
Different ants can be identified by a number of factors, including:
- Size of worker ants and males
- Type of nest
- Number of petioles or nodes
3. Ant behavior: Habits and Habitats
Ant nests: Ants usually live in structured nest communities that can be underground, in mounds, or even in trees. Nests can be both conspicuous or hidden beneath rocks or other objects. When you find an ant nest, see if there’s a defined shape, and look at the number and placement of entrances.
Species such as army ants are nomadic, preferring to seek food for their immense colonies during periods of migration.
Ant communities: Ant communities are headed by a winged queen or queens who completely dedicate themselves to laying the eggs that ensure the survival of the colony. Their wings generally fall off once a successful mating has been completed, and they spend the remainder of their lives in the darkness of the nest. Male ants also have wings, and typically have only one purpose: to mate with the queen, and may die afterwards.
Worker ants, which are the ones usually seen by humans, are wingless females that never reproduce and carry out other functions in the colony, such as food retrieval, caring for the young, protecting the community, and building the nest.
Ant castes: Large colonies consist mostly of sterile, wingless females who are divided into different functions or castes, such as workers, soldiers, and other specialized groups. Males are also considered a caste, and fertile males are called “drones.” Finally, fertile queens are the final, most privileged caste. Colonies usually don’t survive more than a few months once their queen is killed.
Ant communication: Ants communicate through pheromones, sounds, and touch. Like other insects, ants perceive scent with their long, thin, flexible antennae. Ants will leave pheromone trails along their paths so they can be followed by other ants. In species that forage in groups, this trail to food is followed and reinforced by other members of the colony.
Pheromones can be used to convey many more signals than just food. A crushed ant, for instance, will release alarm pheromones that send nearby ants into an attack frenzy and call other members from far away. Pheromones can also be used to confuse enemy ants and fool them into attacking each other.
Ants “hear” through vibrations on the ground, which they feel with their feet. Their antennae, besides “smelling,” can also be used convey meaning through touch.
4. What do ants eat?
Most ants are omnivorous, generalist predators, and scavengers. They eat seeds, nectar, fungi, and other invertebrates. Some species are carnivorous hunters, and will eat small prey such as spiders, worms, and even lizards.
5. Can ants fly?
Ants generally don’t fly. Though queens and males both have wings, the queen’s fall off when she’s been successfully impregnated, and males generally die once they’ve mated. During the summer months, however, it can be commonplace to see swarms of flying ants.
This behavior, called a nuptial flight, happens when fertile female and male ants fly to breed with other ants of the same species, and found new colonies. This is the most typical reason for ants to fly. In species like army ants where only the males have wings, however, when they fly out it’s to impregnate virgin queens from other colonies, inside their nests.
6. How long do ants live?
An ant’s lifecycle from egg to full adulthood can take anywhere from several weeks to a few months, depending on the species and environment. An ant’s life span depends on the caste and species, as well. Males only live for a few weeks and die after mating, and workers usually survive for a few months, but queens can live for decades under the correct conditions.
In hot climates, ants can be active all year long, whereas in more temperate climates, they go into a state of dormancy during the cold months.
7. Types of ants
Despite the mind-boggling amount of ant species that exist globally, there are 10 that are more prevalent in the U.S.
Odorous House ants: So-called because they emit a coconut smell when crushed, these small (2.4-3.3mm, 1/16-1/8in), dark brown or black ants are attracted to moisture. In homes, they can even be found under toilet seats because of this preference. They like to eat meats, sugary foods, dairy products, pastries, cooked or raw vegetables, and fruit juices, and have exhibited a penchant for animal kibble. Signs of an infestation is the presence of large amounts of foraging worker ants, although winged swarmers may also be seen.
Pavement ants: Named after their propensity to make their homes in sidewalks and under rocks, Pavement ants often come indoors when scavenging for food, as they’ll eat almost anything humans do. They’re small, (3mm, 1/8in), light brown to black, with parallel lines on their head and thorax. They can sting and bite, but will generally prefer to flee. Signs of an infestation is the presence of worker ants, but other indicators can be small piles of excavated materials, or even flying swarmers. They’re usually visible in the warmer months of spring and summer, during which period they can be seen having battles to the death with other colonies, but can also appear at any time of year in a heated home.
Ghost ants: Ghost ants get their name from their pale abdomen and legs. Tiny (1.3-1.5mm, 0.05-1/16in), these tropical ants have been spotted mainly in South and Central Florida—in colder states, they can only survive in heated environments. They’re easily transported in potted plants, boxes, crates, and even household goods. Indoors, they generally prefer sweet foods and grease. They are continually breeding, and one colony’s nest can be distributed across various sites. They prefer moist places to build their homes, and since they can have multiple nesting sites, it’s best to leave their eradication to a pest control professional.
Carpenter ants: Carpenter ants are among the largest species of ants in the U.S., from 3.4-13mm long (0.13-0.25in for workers, and 0.5in for a queen). The most common color is black, but some species can have reddish or yellowish coloration. Workers have large mandibles. They build their homes outside and inside, in moist, decaying or hollow wood. Since they cut galleries into the wood grain, a sign of an infestation are wood shavings mixed with dead ant parts. They don’t eat wood, but they do enjoy meat and sweets, as well as other insects. Queens can live up to 25 years, and can create parent and satellite colonies. Unless the main parent colony is found and the queen eliminated, they can cause deep structural damage to your home. For this reason, it’s best to leave Carpenter ant eradication to professionals, as incorrect procedures can permit the colony to rebound.
Argentine ant: Also known as sugar ants, Argentine ants are typically found on the U.S. West Coast. Ranging in color from light to dark brown, 2.2-2.8mm (0.9-0.11in), these ants bite but do not sting. They prefer sweet foods, but will also eat live and dead insects, meats, cereals, oily household foods, and damaged fruit. They make their shallow nests in moist, dark spaces, such as damaged woods and wall voids. Foraging ants will make their way over long distances, into homes looking for food, or a drier spot during heavy rain periods. Argentine ants are highly persistent, and since colonies can have multiple queens, which can live up to ten years, a homeowner can have a recurring, yearly issue. These massive infestations of a network of interconnected colonies is best left to pest control professionals.
Fire ants: One of the most common species across the southeastern U.S. and eastern Texas, Fire ants can be identified by their reddish-brown coloration, darker abdomens, and their nests, which take the shape of conspicuous mounds with no visible entrance holes. Their workers are variable sizes, from 1.6-5mm (0.06-0.2in). Their most salient characteristic is their intense aggressiveness, and their tendency to repeatedly sting any perceived threat—on humans, their sting is quite painful, but usually only results in a pustule 48 hours later, although their bite can be fatal to some. These ants are a major agricultural and urban pest that can destroy crops and invade residential areas. Since they’re omnivorous and aggressive, they’ve been known to eat newborn calves, birds and rodents, although they’re also carrion eaters. In homes, they will eat all human food they can find. To avoid bites or stings in the case of an infestation, have your local pest control company perform an inspection and eradication plan.
Acrobat ants: Acrobat ants are often confused with Carpenter ants because of their similar coloration and habits. They’re generally on the small side (2.5-3mm, 0.1-0.12in), they get their name from their habit of raising their abdomens above their head when disturbed. They normally eat insects, but when in a home, they will eat both meat and sweets. When they invade homes, they like to nest in damp areas like foam sheathing behind siding, or even in roofing near a leaking skylight. They also take over abandoned galleries built by termites or carpenter ants. When they clean these out and push out the dirt and wood scraps, homeowners often think it’s a sign of a termite infestation. The most visible sign of an Acrobat ant infestation are the trails of foragers, as well as the aforementioned debris—foam insulation, wood scraps, and dead ants—they deposit as they excavate their nests. Since nests can be quite difficult to locate, this may be best left to a pest control professional.
Pharaoh ants: These tiny (1.5-2mm, 0.06-0.08in) ants frequently nest and live indoors. They’re yellow-brown in color with brown abdomens, although the queens can be dark red. They will eat foods that are high in sugars and proteins, although they can also be picky eaters. They prefer to build their nests in dark, narrow spaces and may be found nesting in cardboard boxes, refrigerator insulation, electrical boxes, and in wall voids. They can spread disease and contamination, and in combination with their ability to survive in indoor areas, they’re considered a major pest. If a toxic substance disturbs a colony, Pharaoh ants will scatter and create multiple problems where there was only one. For this reason, a pest control professional should be called if there’s a suspected infestation.
Little black ants: These small (1.5mm, 0.06 in), dark brown to black ants are prevalent all throughout the U.S., particularly in urban and industrial settings. They’re omnivorous, and will eat anything, from sweets to oily foods, to vegetables and plant secretions. They build their nests in dark, protected areas, such as wall voids and and cracks in walls or cement. Colonies tend to grow large fairly quickly, and will swarm from June to August, at which point home invasions are most likely to occur. Prevention includes sealing any entry points and cracks in the exterior walls or foundations. Since they’re such a widespread problem, there’s a multitude of ant pesticides and solutions to deal with the Little black ant population.
Crazy ants: Crazy ants get their name from their fast and erratic running behavior. They’re generally between 2.2-3mm (0.09-0.12in), and have many hairs on their body, including four pairs on top of their thorax. Crazy ants are most common in Texas, Florida, and throughout the South. They have a preference for sweet foods and enjoy nesting in electronics and wires to keep warm, as well as carpets, wall voids and houseplants. Signs of an infestation are the presence of forager ants, and possible mounds of dead Crazy ants by electronic devices.
8. How to get rid of ants
Treatment options for eradicating ant infestations are dependent on the species. Though there are a plethora of home remedies you can attempt, with varying degrees of effectiveness, there are also five main commercial products—dusts, granules, gels, liquid drenches, or baits.
Dusts are used to either make a barrier at possible entry points, or are distributed over interior or exterior nests, in hopes of killing the ants at their source. Gels are used as barriers, but can also be bait. Liquid drenches or sprays can be used on walls and entrance points, but only drenches should be used on nests. Sprays on nests can often make the problem worse, by simply dispersing colonies, which then form multiple new nests.
Most pest control experts agree that baits are slow-acting, but one of the most effective methods of ant control, since they target the colony in its entirety. Gel or granular baits work by taking advantage of ants’ deeply ingrained social structures, by destroying a whole nest through poisoned food. Unlike sprays, which most forager ants can identify and avoid, bait is attractive and can be more easily distributed to the source of the problem.
Pest Control Professionals
Massive infestations, no matter the species, require the intervention of a Pest control specialist. However, some species invasions should be handled carefully, independently of their size. Argentine ants, for example, with their multiple queens and therefore, greater chance of a networked colony; or Carpenter ants, that can cause massive structural damage if improperly controlled, should best be left to professionals. A good place to compare pest control companies is our top ten list of the year.