Description: Common in and around the home, ants range in size from about 1/32 to 3/4 inch long. They have three body parts (head, thorax and abdomen) and can be anywhere from a yellowish-red in color to black. Most ants are wingless, but winged forms exist during “swarming” or colony reproduction. There are at least 12,000 species of ants found throughout the world.
As a group, ants are important natural predators of many insect pests, including flea and fly larvae, caterpillars and termites. However, ant control may be necessary when they enter our homes searching for food and can cause severe structural damage when they burrow through decaying wood to nest, a common behavior of carpenter ants. Some ant species become problems in lawns and gardens when they build large, unsightly mounds or protect aphids, mealybugs, scales and other insect pests from their natural enemies. Ants can also damage plants by tunneling around the roots, causing them to dry out.
Note: Ants have pincer-like jaws and can bite, although most do not. A few species (red imported fire ants, harvester ants) are very aggressive and will inflict a painful sting.
Tip: Look closely to determine if what you see is an ant or a termite. Ants have narrow waists and bent antennae. Termites have thick waists and straight antennae.
Life Cycle: All ants are social insects and live in colonies with three distinct types of adults, called castes. Queens are larger than other ants and are responsible for egg laying. Some species have only one queen per colony whereas others have many. Males are responsible for mating with the queens; they do not participate in any other activities. Workers are sterile wingless females. They make up the bulk of the colony and are responsible for building and defending the nest, caring for the young, and foraging for food.
New ant colonies are established by a single fertilized queen that lays hundreds of eggs. After about 30 days, the eggs hatch into legless larvae that do not resemble adults. The queen cares for the “maggot-like” larvae until they pupate approximately 1-2 months later. Within three weeks, the pupae transform into adult “worker” ants, which begin collecting food for themselves, the queen, and for future generations of larvae. Eggs are laid continuously throughout the spring, summer and fall. Colonies overwinter in the soil, woody areas or in garden trash.
Ant Control: Like all pests, ants require food and water to survive; by eliminating these basic necessities you can greatly reduce their numbers. Store food and organic wastes in sealed containers, clean up all kitchen surfaces, and empty trash daily. Caulk cracks and crevices around foundations and apply botanical insecticides to door and window jams to prevent entry from outside. Where pipes and electrical wires enter the house spread Tanglefoot Pest Barrier to keep crawling pests out. Boric acid, diatomaceous earth and Orange Guard are all terrific least-toxic alternatives to conventional ant poisons.
Tip: The best way to keep ants from coming indoors is to locate the mound and destroy the colony. While this is not always an easy task, sometimes a chunk of jelly placed where ants are found will help. As the workers are attracted to the food source, pay close attention as they carry it back to their nest. Botanical insecticides applied as a soil drench will destroy existing mounds.
Note: Ants are not only pests but can be beneficial, too! Try to tolerate them when only a few are present.