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Carpenter Ants Bite Baby Part Two

By Chris Williams on July 7, 2014.

carpenter ants

Photo by Tim Chase

carpenter ant

Photo by Tim Chase

Carpenter ants or termites?

Katlyn Graham:  Now I have read that a lot of people confuse carpenter ants and termites. What is the difference between termites and carpenter ants?

Tim Chace:  That’s also a question we encounter almost daily. Two things are going on.

The type of damage that carpenter ants and termites do is vastly different. Carpenter ants are strictly making a nest in the wood itself. So the damage that they do is created by making little slits and chambers to keep their eggs and larva on in the pupa. The termites are actually physically removing parts of their house in their body and replacing it with dirt.

The termites are literally eating your house. The longer they’re working in there, the more wood they’re actually taking away in their stomachs.

If you envision a carpenter ant nest is a local little home inside the house, that’s much less damaging than if they’ve started to actually eat some of these members within so that’s the first thing that’s radically different.

Carpenter ant nests are generally absolutely spotless inside. If you get into carpenter ant damage, it looks like somebody used sandpaper on the little parts. It’s nice and clean. They’ve removed any debris from their space.

Termites bring that mud and fecal material that they build their mud tubes with. They use that to hold moisture. Where the termites were living, you’ll see this mud and dirt material. If you open up some wood where termites were, there’s going to be some soil in there. It’s generally smaller little slits that all go with the grain. The ants like to go with the grain, too, if they can. I’ve seen some neat things built around knots that it just looks like an engineer did it.

Ants and termites are basically completely different sides of the insect spectrum. There are a lot of differences in their bodies that are readily visible to the naked eye. Termites are what we call “unibody.” Their head, thorax and abdomen are kind of in line, especially the swarmers. They look more like one little black piece, where ants have a clearly visible head, thorax and abdomen. You can see these three distinct, globular parts.

No matter what kind of ant you are looking at, you’re going to see these three parts distinctly separated. Termites and flying ants both have wings, but our termites have four distinct wings that are all the same size. They’re very, very lightly veined, so the veins on a termite’s wing, you have to look at very, very closely.

Carpenter ants and other ant species have very heavily veined wings. They are very strong flyers unlike the termite, who is a very weak and floppy flyer. Carpenter ants and other ant species are pretty good at taking off and landing. They can zip around through the air well, as long as they have their wings attached. These veined wings, these front wings, are much larger than the rear wings.

Although there are four wings, the front and rear wings are different sizes. So that’s a dead payoff right there. Four wings but different sizes, ant. Four wings the same size, termite every time.

There are other creatures with four wings but that’s another story.

Katlyn:  I’m sure there are. [laughs]

Tim:  There’s also another very, very quick way to tell an ant from a termite and that’s the antenna. All ants have bent antenna, so do our wasps, as well.

You can take wasps off the table and ants off the table, if their antennas are bent. Termites have what we call, manila‑form antenna, which is basically a series of little dots stacks one on top of the other. This is a very movable little thing but there’s no bends in it. It’s like one little set of chords but they’re much more difficult to see the termite’s antenna basically because they’re so small.

If you can see that it doesn’t have a bend in it or your sample has a bend in the antenna, you can quickly eliminate ant. It’s a termite.

Carpenter ants pick up their dead

Katlyn:  That clears it up. Another question for you. Why do carpenter ants return to pick up their dead?

Tim:  That’s a great question. Two things that are going on here. As far as I think, this is largely conjecture on my part because I haven’t read any actual studies on this myself but I’ve been around ants along enough to have seen ant nests.

When you come to an ant nest, sometimes there’ll be almost a trash pile. That may serve to eliminate an ant that was sick or had some type of problem to kick him out of the nest. In these trash piles you’ll find parts of insects, a beetle skin, a fly wing, sometimes ant heads and ant body parts.

This is one of my thoughts on that. Perhaps they’re trying to bring it back to its trash can. We’ve found one of ours and we’re just going to bring it to where we bring all of the dead ones of us.

They could be using it as food. It can be an ant from a different colony has come in and found a dead one from another colony and brought it right back for dinner.

I’ve seen carpenter ants actually from two different colonies grabbing each other. One smaller carpenter ant has got the back leg of one of the bigger worker ants but he’s not from the same colony because the one guy’s trying to get away and the other little fellow is trying to bring him up.

Within a couple minutes, another ant came down and two of the ants from the same colony were hauling this fellow away for food. I’m sure there’s cannibalism among the colonies themselves. I doubt it’s within the same colony but they could have been either bringing it in for food or trying to get it to where they bring all their debris.

It’s weird behavior but I have heard people just talking about that.

When I squish one in an ant trail, they usually leave it alone for a while, but I haven’t sat there long enough to find out what eventually happens to every ant.

Carpenter ant bites

Katlyn:  [laughs] I’ve also read that carpenter ants can bite, and even sometimes break the skin. Have you ever seen that or experienced that?

Tim:  We know that their mandibles are very strong. Some of the carpenter ant workers are fairly large, especially the first queens, those big bombers, the queen carpenter ants. She’s got a big mouth on her.

If it got just the right purchase on you, and if you had very soft and sensitive skin, like a baby or something, there’s a potential there. I don’t think there’d be much injury, because it’s such a small little mouth.

Unless it was trying to defend itself from your squeezing it or something else, they’re not really a very defensive creature by itself. But because it’s big enough to pluck a little piece of wood off, there’s potential that there might have been cases.

I had a case several years ago at a carpenter ant job. As we were doing our work she said that, in fact, “We have a carpenter ant that’s biting the baby.” They had pulled it off, but the little head part was still stuck to the baby’s cheek.

Being the good guy that I am, and I just wanted to help, I plucked it right off the baby. I said, “You don’t have to leave that on there.”

Katlyn:  [laughs]

Tim:  It probably just fell into the crib and was meandering around and somehow the baby got on it, or something. They certainly are not malicious ants.

Katlyn:  But you don’t want them on your baby.

Tim:  No. You know how babies throw up a lot, and stuff like that? Formula, as it turns out, is very sweet, nutritious. It’s got protein in it. I have seen ants in the baby’s stuff, like the baby basket in the room, whether it’s carpenter ants or pavement ants.

Being opportunistic, if a forager finds what they’re looking for, different seasons of the year, they like different things. They might key on that. As soon as that happens, he sends the message back, “I’ve found something interesting.

Katlyn:  Then they all come.

Ants on the move

Tim:  They all come. I had a weird one at my neighbor’s house. The son had left Lifesavers in a paper cup on the bookshelf. When he moved a book, about 75 ants jumped out of the cup, walked down along the wall, out the window, and across the wire to the ant‑laden tree next door.

We sprayed that little edge of the wire, and the ants never came back. But one of them, foraging around on the wire, must have found that cup of Lifesavers, and said, “Hey, we’ve got some sugar here. Let’s get everybody.”

If we had left that, there could have been hundreds in the cup later on. It turned out the nest was over in the tree, and we didn’t have to do any treatment to that house. Kind of interesting. You can have ants in the house and not have a problem. You can have a problem and not see it.

There are a lot of different scenarios. I’ve had cases where a giant ant colony moves into the house. This was in Greenland New Hampshire. Long story short, this woman has videography equipment in the house, cameras on tripods. Back in the day, it was the big shoulder‑mounted camera. Everything’s charged up and ready to go.

She noticed some movement in the backyard, and went out to investigate. It was a four‑foot swath of carpenter ants coming in from the forest. When it got to the corner of the garage, she said it was bigger than a kiddie pool, because all the ants couldn’t carry their ‑‑ as she described them ‑‑ white things up into the crack. That was the larvae and the pupae they were carting in.

An ant nest from an old apple tree in the swamp, it had rained for four or five weeks that summer, so they must have gotten too wet. This was the first sunny day after that time period. The ants said, “We are out of this tree. We found a spot that’s nice and dry.” It was the sub‑floor of the garage on the two‑story garage.

Of course, when I got there the next day, the ants had fully moved into that spot, and there were ant trails coming off all sides of the house, and back towards the tree, too, in great numbers. She described this kiddie pool event and the millions of ants carrying the little white things. She hadn’t taken a photo.

That would be my favorite picture. I’d have that hung up,

Katlyn:  [laughs]

Tim:  That’s an example of an ant colony moving into your house. Two weeks before that, they probably didn’t have a lot of ant activity. That day, it was the worst she’d ever seen it. She’s had a couple events due to where she lives in the apple orchard, and she’s not a big fan of continual pest maintenance. She basically calls out when she gets a problem, which is fine, but it can get weird like that sometimes.

Katlyn:  A reoccurring theme that seems to come up in almost every podcast is taking action and fixing things when they’re a small problem, rather than allowing the Lifesavers to sit there on the shelf and the ants to keep coming.

Tim:  Yeah, things like pruning trees off the house. I would say you’ve got an ant colony that lives near the house and they’re feeding in the tree. Well, you don’t want ants on the tree and the house.

Then he says, “Well, he found your attic. It’s the nicest, warmest place. So I’m going to go back down the tree, back out to the stump, and say, “Look, I’ve got just the best spot to bring the pupa right now, because it’s warm, everybody get a pupa.”” Before you know it, the queen’s up there, everybody’s happy. It’s a very movable feast, so when conditions are bad, they can move.

We also have a thing called “satellite colonies.” You’ve got a big ant nest, they’re in this giant pine tree, but every summer they’ll set up a satellite colony in the attic of your house, because it’s so warm for the pupa.

I did an ant job, I want to say somewhere near Dover, maybe Rollinsford, New Hampshire. We had done an ant treatment at a house, probably two weeks prior to the job I’m describing.

When I got there she said, “Oh, the nice man on the phone said not to vacuum up the ants, because you might be able to tell us something from where they’re all dead, and so we’ve just left them.”

Katlyn:  Oh, for how long?

Tim:  About a week. It took me a week to get out there, but these folks were going on vacation, so they were excited about their trip. She said, “Just leave everything. When we come back, we’ll clean this up, and if you find anything interesting, just leave us a note.”

I just had one question. I said, “What did you people spray?” The basement’s filled with dead ants, second floor has got dead ants all over the place. There are dead ants in the attic.” She said, “Well, you sprayed our neighbor’s house two weeks ago and that’s when it all started.”

Both of those houses had one ant colony in common. I did my basic treatment for them, but the colony was already dead. Very interesting and weird.

There’s a lot going on with carpenter ants from the minorest little thing. We just found a queen ant in the bathroom, it’s probably not an issue. Two, “Jeez, we’ve been seeing these big, flying things every year in the sun porch. They just go away.”

Katlyn:  No, they don’t.

Tim:  “We don’t mind those other black ones that we see every spring, they go away after I mow the lawn the second time.

It’s interesting, but we’ve got excellent and safe treatments at Colonial Pest Control that really do the job. Typically after an ant treatment we keep the kids and pets out of the area for about an hour or so. There may be special precautions for newborns, pregnant folks, the elderly or infirm. But in most cases, you’re back to business as usual in a short time.

Then again, like I said earlier, it does take about 30 days for this stuff to really work on them. But then, after that, it’s largely smooth sailing, we don’t have a lot of problems with ants.

Katlyn:  Thank you so much for explaining that, Tim.

Tim:  It’s a pleasure.

[music]

Listen to How To Listen For Carpenter Ants And Treat Them Part One!

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