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Summer Pests: Ants

By Chris Williams on August 27, 2019.

Seeing ants in the summer is a given, but how will you know when an ant issue is out of control? Zack Ciras, quality manager with Colonial Pest Control, discusses the types of ants seen in New England and a variety of strategies to get rid of them. Listen or read more to find out about summer pest: Ants.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Zack Ciras, Quality Manager with Colonial Pest Control. Today our topic is summer pests: ants. Welcome, Zack.

Zack Ciras:   Thanks, John.

Types of Ants Found in New England Homes

John: Sure. So, Zack, what types of ants are active in the summer, especially here in New England?

Zack:  All types of ants. We have a large variety of different types of ants. Most of them are living out in the trees and the yard, in the foliage kind of away from the structures. There’s a lot of varieties out there, but those aren’t the ones that we really are super concerned about around the home that are just going to interfere with your life and with your structure and with your family.

The ones that we are constantly concerned about, I’d say, we’ll break it down into four categories. One is the more rare ant, so something like a Pharaoh ant. It’s a tiny, tiny, less than an eighth of an inch size ant. It’s a pale red color. It is very invasive. They used to call them hospital ants or nursing home ants. Because once they get into a structure, it’s difficult to get them to leave.

And a lot of people spray over the counter and spray over the counter and spray over the counter. And what ends up happening with this type of ant is they readily bud. So, you’ll have a colony with however many hundreds of individuals and you’ll have basically one queen. But you’ll have some supplemental reproductors who might become queen.

And if they’re trailing along an area, they’re very happy. They’ll just keep to their family. But they’re introduced to a harsh chemical, something that’s going to be more of a deterrent to them, a repellent, and they’re going to bud off. They’re going to split up that one trail and they’re going to go, “Okay, you and your family go this way. Me and my family, we’re going to go this way.” And they might be even more than two or three buds. So now you’re dealing with not just one colony, but multiple colonies within the house. Pharaoh ants, one of the more common of the more rare ants, if I could say that. So that’s kind of category four.

Category three is the pavement ants. Everybody knows the pavement ads. These are the ones that are always on the lower level. These are the ones who were making the sand piles around your patio, all the cracks in the driveway, getting into all of those annoying areas, maybe even the expansion joints in your garage or in your basement. When you see those big sand piles, the ant mounds, those are nine times out of 10 in New England, the pavement ants.

You can take a look at them. They’re an eighth of an inch or so. They have actually a cool grid from their front to their back of their head and it’s very rigid. It almost looks grooved. So that’s one way to tell those apart from something like a carpenter ant.

A carpenter ant is the most worrisome in the area, especially in the summer. It can have large colonies. They’re always looking to expand. Once the colonies mature, in three or four or five years, they’re going to expand. They send out the swarmers, the reproductives, and that could be any time. You’ll have reproductives moving around the house in the winter even, especially the male reproductives. You’ll have one primary colony with multiple satellite colonies. You’ll be looking in many thousands of individuals of those ants. The carpenter ants are the ones that don’t consume the wood, they’re not getting any nutrients out of the wood. They eat it and they chew it up, spit it out just to make their nest.

And then another type of ant that we see in the summer, fall, winter, spring, all year round. It can have very small compact colonies. A lot of individuals, but a small territory. Those are what we call the odorous house ants. They’re kind of cool. They smell, if you pick one up and rub it in your fingers, they release like a skunk sprays and it has a certain distinctive smell. These ants have a similar mechanism for deterrents, but it smells like rotten coconut, which is really wild. The first time you smell it, you think I know what coconut is, I know what rotten is. I’ve never smelled a rotten coconut. I eat the coconut before it goes rotten. You smell this ant, you’ll say, okay, that’s a rotten coconut.

I’ll add one more in for you. We’re seeing some of these moving around right now, but you’re going to see a lot more in the fall. See some in the springtime when they’re brooding, when they’re starting new colonies, but when the colonies move to find some longer overwintering area, you’ll see citronella ants. So, the carpenter ant is a quarter of an inch to a half an inch. They’re a larger ant. Citronella ant is around a quarter of an inch, maybe a little bit smaller, a little bit bigger, but right around a quarter of an inch. They’re usually orange, almost like a fluorescent orange. If you get them in the right light, it can be brownish as well, depending on the individuals and the colony.

Like the odorous house ants smell like rotten coconut, a citronella ant, you guessed it, smells like citronella. It’s like an orange-y lemony kind of smell, just like the candle or the plant that keeps away mosquitoes. But they’re not invasive. They’ll move their colony. They scare people. A lot of people confuse them with termites because they’re swarming in the same time in the year, in the springtime when they’re brooding. But they’re subterranean ant specie. They actually live underground most of the year except for when they’re moving or brooding.

And they’re almost sophisticated in that they’ll take aphids who feed on the sugars of plants and the aphids produce honeydew. Well, ants love honeydew. Carpenter ants do, pavement ants do, and citronella ants do. Citronella ants take it a step further, they’ll actually farm the aphids to get the honeydew just like it was a dairy cow.

What to be Concerned About When Ants Invade Your Home

John: Wow. That’s interesting. What are some of the issues that I need to be concerned about? Obviously I don’t want ants in my kitchen going after my sugar bowl and crawling around on my counter, bothering me while I’m sitting on my couch and watching TV and they’re crawling on the couch and things like that. So, I mean that’s the obvious issue and I want to get rid of them. But what are some of the other issues that that might happen in my house if I have these ants?

Zack:  You’re right, the obvious issue is they’re a nuisance. So, the nuisance ants, that’s more the pavement ants, although they can make it uncomfortable on your patio because if they really push a lot of stand up, it kind of compromises the integrity of it or make the cracks bigger in the sidewalk.

But the odorous house ants, really, really common to see inside the house. Those are what most people call the sugar ants. So, they’re going to get into your food and they’re crawling on your countertop. So, they’re going to the sugar bowl, but they’re also crawling over where you cut the chicken, where you put the baby up for a minute while you’re moving things around and getting the diaper ready and all that stuff. All the salmonella and all the other things that you don’t want in your sugar bowl might be carried there by something like this, the odorous house ant or any kind of ant that’s crawling through that.

John: Okay.

Zack:  The primary concern though with ants in the house is structural and that’s where we talk again about the carpenter ant. The black eastern black carpenter is highly destructive. So, you might see a few, but a lot of folks don’t realize that they’re nocturnal. Most ants are mostly active between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. — in that range. So, if you’re seeing, you know, six, eight, 10, 12 every single day during the day, then you know what’s going on at nighttime is going to be exponentially worse than that.

John: Wow.

Carpenter Ants Can do Real Damage

Zack:  The carpenter ants, they’re going to find the wet wood. They’re going to find the areas where there’s harborage, where there’s moisture, that’s close to a food source, but really someplace that is already somewhat compromised, whether it’s spray foam insulation that they can easily chew through or it’s water-damaged wood or underneath a bath trap, someplace where there’s moisture. They’re going to get into those areas and expand and expand and expand and in the process do some damage to the house.

John: And how can I tell the difference between those carpenter ants and like odorous house aunts and pavement ants?

Zack:  Odorous house ants, carpenter ants, very easy to tell apart and that’s based on size. The odorous house ant is small, is an eighth of an inch or smaller, so really small and if you pick it up like I always do, pick up an odorous house and you squish it and smell it, the smell will tell you it’s an odorous house ant in addition to the size.

Odorous house and pavement can be confused on the size as well because there’s eighth of an inch, odorous house, eighth of an inch to a quarter of an inch, and you’re really not a full quarter of an inch, but right around that area. Actually, odorous house might even go down to about a 1/16th, so really small. So, the size for odorous house and carpenters is obvious. Odorous house and pavement, a little bit closer.

Those grids from front to back on their head on a pavement ant is easy to tell and also where they are. Odorous house ants, they’ll follow a pipe or a wire or a countertop or some door trim and just kinda see where it goes. There’ll be a lot of them trailing back and forth and back and forth. You drop one piece of food, one sweet piece of food on the floor or the kids drop a lollipop, you’re going to be covered in odorous house ants in short period of time.

Pavement ants, they usually typically stick closer to the pavement, closer to this mat, closer to the ground where they’re digging underground and then moving around looking for food sources but not as aggressively. Typically, the trailing isn’t as heavy with those.

The carpenter ants, to tell those apart from the pavement ant, because they can be pretty similar in size as well. If you really want to get scientific about it, you look at the node. So, you have the head, you have the thorax, which is the middle section, and then the abdomen and then in between the thorax and the abdomen, so the middle section in the butt end, there’s a little bit of ant body. It’s very thin, almost like a threaded waist and that’s called the petiole. And the petiole has nodes on it. Nodes are just another word for bump.

So, bump on a little piece of ant in between the middle and the last section, a carpenter has a single note on their petiole where a pavement ant has to nodes. So, if you’re looking at ant and you’re not quite sure, and maybe you can’t see the grid on the head of the pavement ant, you look at it and say, well I know the carpenter ant has one little bump on that section between the middle and the butt. And then a pavement ant has two little sections.

And once you get the hang of it, you see a few of those or look online to see what they really look like, it’ll be pretty easy to tell, but you really have to get close. We have a lot of people who take pictures, they email it into info@colonialpest.com to get an identification on their pests or what their concern is in the house. And I love the ones it’s like with an iPhone 6 across the room in a dark room. Don’t want to get any closer. They’re not gonna get an inch closer than that. It’s tough to tell unless you’re really up on them.

Ant Prevention

John: Right. So how can I prevent ants from getting into my house? Or if I do have ants in the house, how can I get rid of them?

Zack:  The common way for the industry to address any pest control issue is first identification. So, we want to see what we’re dealing with and then the next step before any kind of chemical application is habitat alteration. So, what can we do to the environment around the house or inside the house that makes it less attractive to the ants? Water or water-damaged wood is a big problem attracting any kind of ant or pest specie, especially carpenter ants who will chew into that water-damaged, that compromised would already. So, any kind of leakage, any wet siding, unpainted siding, unpainted trim, leaky pipes, that kind of thing, want to be really mindful to make sure to take care of those areas.

So, the water compromised or the otherwise compromised areas of the house, caulking around doors and windows so that we’re getting a little bit more into the mechanical exclusion. Keeping things out of the house by mechanical means. If you have gaps around your doors, windows, siding, where the deck attaches to the house, or even where the penetrations for the oil or the gas line, where the electrical gets into the house, where the sconce lights are up against the side of the house, you want to take some good caulking, make sure you’re safe, of course, but close up those gaps as much as possible to restrict how many doors or windows, literal doors or windows but also when we talk about windows for an insect, it’s the entry to their nesting area. I want to limit how many entry points they might have.

Keep things away from the house. If you have a pile of firewood and you have it within 50 to 80 feet of the house, if you can by any means, get that further away from the house and only bring in what you’re going to burn in a relatively short period of time. That gives the ants less opportunity to have a satellite home near your home, further away from their main colony, have a little satellite colony there. Then it’s really easy, a short trip to work to get back inside the house.

So those are the environmental, the habitat alteration steps you can take to try to just make it not so attractive. A lot of it comes back to water, but long-term we know ants, we know these species, they’re going to be around. We’re not going to eliminate all the ants around the entire neighborhood. So eventually they’re going to come back.

So, having some kind of program in place where you’re really mindful to have a barrier around the house, not just a mechanical barrier, but a chemical barrier in the right ways. You don’t have to go overboard and drench the house and hope for the best. Using a professional like Colonial Pest Control to really make a targeted barrier around the house where the siding and the foundation come together, the foundation in the ground right around the foundation, only about a foot or two away from there, the posts on the deck, the penetrations where the wires, or the trees you want to trim back the trees and the bushes from the house too.

But all those areas where the insects might get onto the house or find refuge to the house, those areas having a chemical barrier. It doesn’t need to be a lot. It doesn’t need to be worrisome about exposing the environment or your family to a lot of chemicals. If you use this chemical, this medicine, in the right way, then you’re going to go a long way with just a little bit. If you go to the box store and get your own stuff to cover all the areas you need to, you might be using three or four gallons to really get a good coverage if you don’t know where exactly to put it. But if you have a professional do it, it might be a gallon, a gallon and a half and you’re going to have great coverage.

We find in most cases doing that just twice a year, that cuts back on most of the population that’s going to be trying to get to the house. We can always do it more if you need it. If you’re in a high-pressure area, we can assess those situations individually. Our maintenance program is twice a year. We treat the exterior of the house, try to prevent problems from coming in. The best thing with that, I think, besides controlling the pest is the better job you do on the outside of the house to prevent problems, the fewer materials and fewer chemicals you need inside the house.

Again, I always talk about the life inside the house we love, we want to keep that as chemical-free as possible. And that house outside we love, out in the trees and the flowering plants, we love that. We want to keep that chemical-free too. But that no go zone, that area right in between, we want to let nature know, in no uncertain terms, do not pass here.

Getting Rid of Ants Inside

John: Right. I think that’s great advice. There’s some things that a homeowner can do themselves. Like you said, keeping their yard clean, cutting back the trees and bushes that are maybe touching the house, things like that. Maybe you could do your own spraying, but it sounds like you guys can be a lot more efficient with that in terms of how much spray you’re using and you guys know all the right places to apply that and that sort of thing. But you know, ultimately if I do end up with some ants inside the house, what can I do then to get rid of them once they’re inside?

Zack:  Yeah, there’s a couple of different approaches. I would say it depends on the severity of the issue in the house. So, if you’re only seeing a few, you might only be dealing with some foragers, some scouts if you will, who are out there looking for a place to maybe set up shop. Is there a food source nearby? Is there compromised wood or a void that we can get into it?

And in a lot of those cases, doing the exterior spray treatment or the extra area application, whether it’s sprays or dusts or whatnot, that can go a long way to controlling what’s in the house, crossing back and forth over the material. If you do have a persistent problem inside of the house, especially with carpenter ants, we want to spend some good time trying to target the nest, find any satellite nests, any kind of pockets, any harborage areas, inside the wall voids, in the basement, in the attic, wherever they might be.

We have a machine called the micro injector and we always use this. It’s fantastic. ULD or ULV are the terms for the method of application for that. And it’s ultra-low dose or ultra-low volume. So, you’re really not using a lot of materials, but when you put it through the machine it ionizes. It comes out as a fine mist or a fog inside the wall void. A little goes a long way in that respect.

So, we want to spend some time focusing in on the nesting sites, but then you still have to deal with all the individuals that might be traveling along foraging, looking for food, going up and down. So, we use a variety of materials inside the house to really try to keep it to cracks and crevices, where the baseboard in the floor come together, where the ants might be crawling out from around the door, maybe the windows, basement up along the sills, there’s a lot of activity there.

So, some targeted application inside the house, that’ll control the population with residual outside, residual inside, and then really trying to target where the pockets might be, where the little satellite colonies might be.

Ant Bait Traps

John: You know, I go to my hardware store and I see this little ant bait traps and things like that they advertise they kill the whole colony. And do you find that those work, if a homeowner wants to buy some of those and spread them around their kitchen or the living area?

Zack:  Sometimes, sometimes. Things like the odorous house ants, most people refer to as sugar ants, they will respond very well to a sugar-based bait. So, whether it’s the sugar and Boron products or some other sugar-based food with a material inside of that, they will be more receptive to that.

We use for the odorous house ants inside the house, one of our favorite products, is a sugar-based bait with a gel formulation. So, it’s easy to apply basically out of a little syringe so we can get it right into the cracks and crevices where they are, where they’re traveling and they go crazy for this. I should send you some pictures of this one time, actually in the office, we had somebody’s office seeing ants trailing back and forth. Took this sugar-based bait, had a couple of trainees with me. Said, hey guys, let’s watch this. Put a few drops of this bait out and the odorous house ants jumped on it. Within 30 seconds there was a hundred ants on one piece of bait. So, they respond really well.

The carpenter ants, if there’s not competing food sources, if they need a sugar-based bait or if they need a protein-based bait, if they need more carbohydrates, you have to know where in their cycle throughout the season they are. There’s a lot of competing food sources and they’re not looking to brood or expand or start to get ready to overwinter, they might not go for the bait. I’ve seen plenty of times, they walk right past it, but it makes sense. If you have something to do, you’re going back to work after lunch, you’re not thinking about food. You’re full. You don’t want a snack. You’re going to walk by the donut cart and not even think twice, maybe.

So, the carpenter ant is a little bit more like that. So, they’re trickier, especially with the over-the-counter baits. You don’t always know how fresh it is. You go to the gas station and you get the sandwiches in there and you’re not quite sure how well you’re going to feel later on. But if you go someplace with fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh meat, you know, everything’s going to be fresh.

That’s kind of more in line of how we deal with our distribution chain. We’re going to make sure that our supply is fresh. We always rotate. We get new things in every week, sometimes twice a week. So, we’re dealing with the freshest food. With any kind of bait, it’s essentially a food with a little bit of poison mixed inside. If they don’t eat it, if it’s not fresh and delicious, they’re not going to eat it and it’s not going to work.

So, if it’s been sitting on the shelf at the corner store for three months, it was in a warehouse for three months before that, the manufacturer made it and then it didn’t sell, so they sold it to the distributor company for cheap six months prior. You’re dealing with year old bait and I don’t want to eat that. I don’t think an ant would really want to eat that.

Getting Rid of Carpenter Ants

John: Yeah, that’s interesting. Definitely something that that your average person just walking into their hardware store might not be thinking of, so that’s good advice.

Like we said before, there’s some things that a homeowner could do themselves, both outside and inside their house, to take care of some of the aunts, especially if there may be just the odorous house ants. But it sounds to me like, especially if you suspect that you have carpenter ants in your house, that’s the kind of thing that’s really going to need to have a pest control company like yourself come out and treat. Is that accurate or when do you think that people should really contact a pest control company in terms of ants?

Zack:  Carpenter ants are the big sign. Carpenter ants are something to be taken seriously. All ants are. Some ants might not be a problem for long, like the citronella ants. We get calls for those in the springtime. We get calls for those in the fall. If they talk to me, they know it’s one of my favorite ants in the area because they’re just so cool between the smell and the farming aphids. I usually just say by the time we get there, they’re going to have moved on. They’re not causing any damage, no cause for concern.

Pavement ants, odorous house ants, they’re nuisances. They’re easier to control in a lot of situations. Sometimes they can get out of hand, but if you feel like you can do on your own, it’s worth a try, I think. I’m supposed to be pitching the company and our professional services, which are always going to be better. But if you can do it, if your funds are tight or whatnot. The carpenter ants though, I would take those seriously every time.

John: All right. That’s really great advice. Zack, thanks again for speaking with me today.

Zack:  My pleasure, thank you.

John: And for more information about Colonial Pest Control, you can visit their website at colonialpest.com or call 1-800-525-8084. That’s 1-800-525-8084.

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