Carpenter Ants are Awake!

By Chris Williams on February 26, 2016.

Carpenter ants T Chace Ant Photos (2)Q:  Just this week we started seeing lethargic black ants in our bathroom and kitchen.  The ants were different sizes; some were fairly small while some where quite large.  They seemed to be sort of looking around for something.  Could they be carpenter ants, and what could they be looking for, I thought carpenter ants ate wood?

A:  It does sound like you have a carpenter ant nest in your house somewhere.  Here is the good news; carpenter ants eat insects that they either capture or find dead.  Carpenter ants cannot digest wood, unlike termites (small white insects associated with soil).  Carpenter ant damage is caused by the creation of galleries used to hold eggs, larvae, and pupae.  In many cases, carpenter ants make use of existing void areas within a structure and little damage is caused, so do dot assume there is massive damage when you see ants walking around.  Carpenter ants can do massive damage but most cases involve small local nests.  A 20-year-old ant colony can and will eventually cause structural damage.  A carpenter ant nest starts when a mature colony swarms, or releases reproductive forms.  Male ants are much smaller than the female ants and resemble small wasps.  Males mate with the females then die. Once the queen ant is fertilized, she chews off her wings and looks for a place to hide.  Every animal that eats insects loves to eat big fat pregnant ants, so it is important to find a safe place to lay eggs.  Queen carpenter ants can squeeze into very small openings, and when swarming takes place warmer months, queen ants can be seen all over the place with or without wings (now you know what that means).  Once settled the queen starts laying eggs. The eggs are sensitive to desiccation and excessive moisture so the location must be right.  Once the eggs hatch, the queen feeds the first brood of larvae.   Pupation takes a week or so, and then the first small worker ants are born.  Worker ants forage for food, clean, and build nest sites.  All the food that is brought to the ant colony is fed to the larvae, which produce a sugar like fluid to nourish the adult ants.  As the colony grows, more food and space is required, so the population quickly expands.  More pupae start hatching and different sized workers are created based on the needs of the, colony.   Queen ants communicate with pheromones, or chemical signals.  It takes 3 to 5 years for the colony to mature, at that time reproductive forms can be released to promote the species.  Large colonies may produce hundreds of reproductives.  Queen carpenter ants may live 15-25 years, that a long time for an insect!  Now that we have covered the life cycle of carpenter ants, we have look at what is happening at your house.  The warm weather we have been having in New England this winter has been great for humans, lower heating costs, less shoveling, etc.  The ants have also had an easy time, well maybe not.   Many animals and plants in temperate regions have specific requirements regarding cold temperatures.  We refer to these as “degree day“  requirements.   Apple trees, for instance must have a certain number of days below freezing in order to move forward in the spring with bud formation.  Once this requirement is reached, budding can begin on the first warming days.   Global warming and other planetary weather process can play havoc plants and animals that have evolved in one climate setting, but have arrived in a novel situation.  Scientists are unsure of the extent of the potential negative effect that may take place in the future.  Say the apple flowers are produced before bees and other pollinator are flying, and miss that magic moment of pollination, no apples will develop.  Carpenter ants also need to hibernate, clustered together in a ball somewhere in a rotting tree, under the old stump, or in your wall.  Once the degree day requirements are met, the colony will wake up on the first warm days.  Once they awaken, they do not sleep until the next winter arrives.  The first ants to wake usually appear groggy and lethargic, moving slowly and sitting for long periods.  Some may die from exposure to dry conditions, or simply not make it back to the nest.  There is no food for the ants, but they may be attracted to wet pet food or trash items for the moisture.  The first foraging ants are mostly looking for a drink.   Toilets, showers, bathtubs, sinks, and dishwashers all have water residue, if not standing water.  Carpenter ants are able to detect water molecules with their sensitive antennae.  Once a source of water is located, a scent trail made with pheromones directs other workers to the location.  As the trail is made stronger by more traffic, the ants almost run to and from the nest, sometimes resting in informal groups.  Once the leaves and insects that live on them start to come alive, the ants will mostly ignore indoor water sources because they get most of their water from the insects they consume.   Once eaten, any left over body parts, dead carpenter ants, and debris from the nest is expelled from the nest.  This frass material can be used to locate a nest in some cases.

If you have ants walking around your house now, do not despair. Much can be done!   You have a captive ant colony that is awake.   This is the best time of year to use indoor ant baits and indoor non-repellent treatments, as the ants have no choice but to carry the materials back to the nest.  If you can hang on a few more months until the soil is thawed, we can use some really effective material on the outside of your home that the ants will also transport directly to the colony from out side.   If the nest is able to be located any time if year we can kill it.  Colonial Pest Control Inc. uses only licensed technicians who use safe and effective methods to control carpenter ants and many other common household pests.  We also provide services to control or remove nuisance wildlife, rats, mice, and bats.  Specific warranties apply, see contract for details.  If you suspect a pest problem, call the pros at Colonial Pest Control Inc.  1-800-525-8084


Tim Chace




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