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How To Listen For Carpenter Ants And Treat Them Part One

By Chris Williams on July 4, 2014.

carpenter ants

Carpenter ants
Photo by Tim Chase

Katlyn Graham:  Hi, I’m Katlyn Graham, here with Tim Chace, a pest control technician and entomologist with Colonial Pest. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Chace:  Hi, Katlyn.

Katlyn:  How are you today?

Tim:  I’m doing fine, thank you.

Carpenter ants in Massachusetts and New Hampshire

Katlyn:  We’re going to tap your expertise once again. This time, with carpenter ant, which I know you’re very familiar with.

What are carpenter ants in Massachusetts and New Hampshire doing this time of year, Tim?

Tim:  Carpenter ants are very busy this time of year. It’s an important type of year for camponotus pennsylvanicus. That’s the main carpenter ant that we see up here. He is hallmarked as being the larger black ant that you’ll see running around.

There’s also one other carpenter ant that we see. It’s black on both ends with red in the middle. It’s basically the same animal. It’s maybe the northern carpenter ant. They’re up to the same thing.

Carpenter ants are very busy getting their first food for the season. The leaves have popped out on the trees and the inchworms have come down, so carpenter ants are collecting food for their larvae. They’re developing their swarmers, or the reproductive carpenter ants. I call it the brown bomber.

The largest carpenter ants you’ll ever see have smoky brown wings. Those are the queens. They’ll fly out of that nest in a swarming event and walk all around your yard. I’m sure you’ve seen one of these things. They’re just giant, and when you squish them, this white stuff comes out the back. That’s all of their fertilized eggs, or unfertilized eggs if they haven’t mated.

They’re very busy, so as these warm first summer days warm up, the colonies that have produced reproductives are ready to just release them into the environment to go out and form new colonies. Those are the big ones that you find one in the bathtub, one in the slide, the huge winged ant just walking up the screen outside.

As they leave the nest, they’re food for everybody. Every bird or animal that wants to eat an insect grabs them. Mice, birds, toads, frogs, everybody wants to eat a big fat ant.

That being said, the queen ant needs to get away from these people. She’s driven to crawl into cryptic locations, underneath logs, up into holes in the siding, into the chimney flashing, anywhere she can get away from these predators and out of the environment so she can start laying eggs.

The queen ants that have just been born are very busy starting their first brood of little eggs that then turn into the larvae, which secrete a clear fluid to the adult ants. Every food that’s brought back is brought back to these larvae. The larvae then pupate and turn into the adult ants.

Inside the ant colony, it’s kind of fascinating. There are different castes of ants. You’ve got big, fat worker ants with almost apple‑shaped heads, to medium‑sized worker ants that look just like a big black ant, but it doesn’t have the big, robust head.

There are very, very small tiny carpenter ants within the colony that are out foraging and looking for food items. All of the ants have a job inside the colony. The colony ends up, by the end of its cycle it’s producing these reproductives that come out and will form a new colony. That could happen a couple of times a year.

It usually takes the ant colony three or four years to be able to produce these reproductives. If you have an event like the screen porch is filled with flying ants on the inside, that means you’ve had an ant colony there for three or four years anyway.

How do you know if you have carpenter ants?

Katlyn:  That’s a while. It sounds like these carpenter ants are hiding in the walls, in the chimney, in the siding. How do you know if you have carpenter ants?

Tim:  That’s a great question, because you could certainly have ants that live in a stump or something, that are walking along your driveway, coming out to the Azalea, getting little insects off the trees. Their chief food is little caterpillars, dead insects that they find in the forest, and some forms of honey dew on plants. They do like aphids and scales, and things like that.

Depending on what’s happening on the bushes around your house, you could in fact see ants walking around that might not be living in your house. The main thing that we look for when we’re thinking, “Is there an ant infestation in my house?” is did you see ants this spring inside the house?

That’s one dead giveaway, because there’s really nothing for them outside. Once the side of the house warms up or the ants wake up, they’re going to start looking for water. It’s about the only thing you could find in the house. Typically, when the ant colony wakes up, we’ll see some ant activity in the kitchens and bathrooms as water sources.

Once the leaves on the trees pop, they’re less associated with these water sources because they get their moisture from their food. The ants are forced to forage outside the structure. The thing that I look for…I take a slow walk around the house and I look for ants that are just walking on the side of the house, or in the soil next to the structure.

If I see ants walking in a purposeful manner ‑‑ let’s say from the corner out to a tree‑‑ in most cases, those ants are foraging from the house going out to the tree. The Market Basket, Hannaford, DeMoulas, depending on the shrub. They bring their food items back to the colony, for the larvae to use.

If the tree is on the far side of the house, the ants might be walking from the upstairs wall void in your son’s room, all the way down that corner, all the way along the side of the house, all the way down to that tree.

They could also be walking through the attic, unseen by anybody, and just coming out the crack on the other side of the house to that tree. They’ve made their sneaky way. You could have an ant infestation and never really see a lot of ants.

Another dead giveaway is when those reproductive ants come out, those big bombers, the big queen ants. They’re usually produced in a mature colony, with a little wasp‑like male, too. It almost looks un‑antlike. It’s a little wasp creature. Ants and wasps are pretty closely related, as it turns out, so there would be some natural similarities, anyway.

As these guys are born out into the house, let’s say that nest up in your son’s room has reached the three‑ to five‑year mark. All of a sudden he says, “Mom, I’ve got flying ants everywhere,” and they’re walking all around that window. There’s a good chance the nest is nearby to that, but you might have no indication until that day.

Another weird one is ants actually can make a little bit of sound as they work inside the walls. We used to believe this was the actual sound of the ants plucking little pieces of wood off your house. Just little consistent clicks and snaps. We’ve since learned that that’s the actual sound of the little hooks on the ants’ feet clicking and clacking around inside the nest, hooking and unhooking.

Each ant has 24 little hooks. It’s got six legs, and there are four per leg. As the ant is actually going through the wood of the house, it makes a little sound.

If you take a carpenter ant, and just place them on a piece of white paper in a quiet room, as he’s calling up it, you can sort of hear a little sound as his hooks interact with the paper. If you’ve got a thousand ants in the wall, moving around at night, it actually sounds like the sound where you pour rice on Rice Krispies ‑‑ just that low‑level little clicking and scratching.

If you get them moving with a pesticide application, you can hear the rustling just begin.

I did one last year in, I’d like to say, Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. The entire back wall was making this sound.

In most cases, carpenter ants aren’t doing a huge amount of damage, but I say “in most cases.” I’m pretty sure that there was some pretty severe damage to this house ‑‑ combination of moisture damage. They had just not repaired anything. They were scheduled to do some work, but they wanted the ants to be gone first.

Probably a smart idea, but a lot of factors there. When the colony started coming out of the side of the wall, it literally looked like someone was pouring oil out of both sides. There were tens of thousands, and I’d say maybe millions of ants. It was quite remarkable. A rare circumstance, but the ants had to be there for over 18 years, or something.

An incredible amount of ants.

Life of an Ant

Katlyn:  What is the ant lifecycle? You mentioned 18 years. Those aren’t individual ants, right?

Tim:  Actually, the queen lives without the king in this setup. The queen ant gets a one‑time mating event with the little wasp‑like male. He pretty much dies after that, or tries to find another female to mate with.

She stores her lifetime supply of genetic material in a little chamber. As each egg is produced, it’s passed by this little gland or duct that secretes the sperm onto each end, thus fertilizing each egg, for the rest of her life. It is quite remarkable. Here’s another neat fact. The worker carpenter ants live over a year.

Katlyn:  Really?

Tim:  It’s conceivable that the ant that you saw in your sink last year is the same one. I just think that’s crazy.

Katlyn:  That is.

Tim:  If nothing’s been done, and the ants are running around, there’s a good chance that this ant may even remember where your sink was. They’re fascinating critters. There have been studies done that indicate that ants actually have some visual navigation skills.

They are able to use the sun and moon’s changing azimuth and shadows. They can switch it around in their head, so they know that they’re going in the right direction and the opposite direction.

They also require some trailing pheromones to get where they’re going to, but it’s fairly amazing when you see ants at work. Let’s say, for example, the colony in your son’s upper bedroom window has found a pine tree that’s just filled with what they’re looking for.

As they go back and forth from the house to the pine tree, and I’ve seen this on many, many occasions, they’ll actually create a path. If you align yourself with the ant trail, you can actually see that they’ve moved the rocks and the little twigs and things to make their pathway easier.

One spot in Nashua, New Hampshire, between eight pine trees, there was literally almost a pentagram drawn out and there were a couple roadways that went in between the middle of this circle of pine trees. It was absolutely paths.

Katlyn:  Like an ant city or something.

Tim:  Yeah, it was great. I sprayed them.

Katlyn:  [laughs] They’re gone now.

Tim:  I didn’t spray the ground or the trees, just the house, but the same ants were working right out of the corner of the house, so I was pretty sure my application over at the house was going to do something to these little fellows. But when you see that much ant activity, it’s quite remarkable.

Carpenter Ant Treatment

Katlyn:  Now, you mentioned treatment and you also have mentioned people who don’t do any repairs or take care of this. What carpenter ant treatment options are available?

Tim:  There’s quite a wide range of treatment options for carpenter ants, starting with you could try to work on it by yourself with a boric acid type of bait. There are some recipes where you mix boric acid material and sugar water and try to get them to eat that. That’s kind of a long, drawn out process, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

As a professional, we try to stay away from the things that aren’t going to work that well. There are bait treatments for carpenter ants, but they work generally in the early springtime when the ant nest first wakes up. That’s when I think they do their best work, because there are really no competing food sources.

If I can get an ant colony that’s just woken up to find one of my gel baits, there are some contact poisons, there are some stomach poisons that, again, get back to the larvae of the colony and then contaminate and kill those guys, which starves the colony.

That can be super effective if you do it at the right time of year before there are any competing food sources.

Also, those methods can be used and applied in sensitive locations where you just can’t use any pesticides. Like you’ve got a medical laboratory or something like that, so baits can be a tool that’s used. Maybe not as effective as some of the other treatments, depending on the time of year, but it’s certainly an alternative.

There is a granular bait treatment. Some of the gentlemen that I work with think that that is just a great way to go, the ants pick up the granules, carry it back to the nest. I’ve got various thoughts on that.

The one tried and true method is if you can find the nest and apply material directly to the ant nest, you’ve pretty much got them if that was just what the situation was. If I go to an area where there’s sawdust falling out of a window frame and you can hear some crackling, oftentimes drilling and injecting that local area will be all it takes.

Obviously, doing that giant whole wall of the house, I was forced to drill and inject every single wall void there. We use a dust product into the wall void and a quick acting material to liquidate the ant colony.

In most cases when we’re doing a systemic treatment with the chemicals, we will use an exterior material that’s what we would call a non‑repellant, without mentioning the actual name of the chemical. The ants walk through this material and it actually is translocated back to the colony.

Not only does it kill the larvae itself that are feeding everybody, but this material sets up inside the ant colony itself so that when the pupas hatch out, they’re also contaminated by this. It takes about a month to kill the ants themselves, but it’s a very effective treatment using maybe half a gallon of chemical around the outside.

In a lot of cases with an ant treatment, because it’s a slow acting process, as the material gets back to the ant nest, these dead and dying ants will start to come out. They can live for three or four days before the chemical actually kills them.

If you’ve got 400 ants coming out every day, walking around for four days, that can be upsetting and unsettling. Rather than just let them walk around, I’ll use a little bit faster acting material inside. So even though you’ll have a bunch of ants coming out, they’ll at least die in a couple hours, rather than three or four days. Which is kind of interesting, if you’ve got a really big, established nest, there’s a lot of these pupa.

As we do the first day of the treatment is like day one, any pupa that was getting set to hatch is going to hatch that day. Any pupa that’s going to hatch tomorrow will hatch tomorrow. The pupa that’s going to hatch in three weeks, it’s going to hatch in three weeks. If you’ve got a thousand of these, the ant job is going to take until that last guy hatches and lives for three or four days.

That’s what the timing is. A lot of times we’ll say give it about 30 days and see what happens, because that’s about how long it takes for everybody to hatch.

Katlyn:  30 days, well, that’s not too long. Yeah, that’s reasonable.

Tim:  Then we can come back and take a look at it, if all the ants are really messed up and they’re still coming out, we can maybe reapply a little stuff inside to kill them faster. We may even find out where the nest is based on what you’ve shown us.

Let’s say there was nothing going on in the basement and then we come back in 30 days and the basement is just filled with dead ants. We may be able to find out where they were hiding down there. Sometimes we get a little bit extra clue.

In Part Two, Tim Chase will break down the differences between termites and carpenter ants.  

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