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Winter Ant Problems (Podcast)

By Chris Williams on December 11, 2019.

Ants can quickly become an out-of-control problem in your home, even in the winter. Learn about the three main types of house ants and how to effectively get rid of them. Zach Ciras, Quality Manager with Colonial Pest Control, discusses winter ants. Listen or read more to find out how to keep ants out of your home this winter.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher and I’m here today with Zach Ciras, Quality Manager with Colonial Pest Control. Today our topic is winter ant problems. Welcome, Zach.

Zach Ciras: Thanks, John.

Ants are a Year-Round Problem!

John: So, Zach, we usually think of summer as being the time that ants are a problem in the home. We might see them in our kitchen or something like that. Can some ants live inside the home all year long, including in the winter, up here in New England when it gets really cold?

Zach: Oh yeah, absolutely. The big ants that we’re concerned about, primarily in New England, is the black carpenter ant, and you do see that more in the warmer months. You see it going from the trees or a ground nest into the house trying to find a moist area to build out and move their colony inside eventually, to bud off, start a new colony and do some damage inside the house in the process. You will have some of those carpenter ants that do overwinter inside the house if they have already moved in. It might not even be a colony, really, it might just be a small congregation or a satellite colony, or just a small pack of them that might be in a wall void, especially in a moist area. They’ll try to overwinter inside the house.

Towards February, right when the sun is lowering its angle getting the warm side of the house a little extra toasty, you’ll see, especially, that the winged reproductive males — the potential kings, if you will — a lot of those will overwinter inside the house, so you might see those moving around. But even the workers, the foragers, they might be trying to overwinter inside the house and, as the temperatures change inside the house or the sun changes its angle, you’ll have those moving around.

Those aren’t the primary ones that we see typically in the winter, anyway. It’s more the sugar ants. You call them sugar ants but it’s either odorous house ants, little black ants, or pavement ants. Those are the big three common winter ants that we do see.

I’ll start with the pavement ant, the larger of the three species. The pavement ant, a lot of people confuse it with a carpenter ant. If you really want to grab one and take a look at it, the carpenter ant has a furry bum with some stripes on it. In between the abdomen and the thorax, those two sections, is a thin piece of ant called a petiole and on that petiole there’s a little bump. The bump is called a node. For a carpenter ant, there’s one node there, and for a pavement ant there’s two nodes. If you look at them with a magnifying glass, you’ll be able to see both nodes or a single node.

The two-node pavement ant, they’re a little bit smaller than a carpenter ant. They’re about a quarter of inch so you might have a small carpenter ant that looks like a large pavement ant, so it can be pretty confusing, but you can count the nodes. Also, on the head of the pavement ant they have a grid, front to back. It’s a texture pattern. It almost looks like straight lines back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. So, those two grids and the nodes, those are two ways to tell them apart.

Pavement ants . . . usually ground level as you’d imagine. They’re coming up from the pavement. When you have little sand mounds in your garage or along your driveway or, if you live on a slab house, wherever there’s a crack that goes into the slab, you’ll have little mounds of sand in those areas. Typically, that’s going to be the pavement ant.

Those are pretty easy to take care of. The perimeter treatment, especially if you get on our maintenance program with the twice a year spray with us, those prevent a lot of those from coming in, but they could be coming from underground or under an expansion joint or something in the garage or in the basement. They respond well both to sprays that we can provide or also some gel baits that we can put out. They eat the sugary-based gel bait, bring it back, share it and take care of those ones.

The next one is a little less common in our area. As we get into the warmer climates down south you see more of them. Monomorius minimus, a very good Latin name for these, it’s the little black ant. They are little and they’re black and they’re an ant. The little black ants, they have huge colonies. They have multiple queens per colony and, if you don’t have that barrier on the exterior perimeter, they will continue to come in and out, in and out, in and out.

My in-laws live on the Florida Keys and, whenever they’re down there, there’s little ant cups with bait in the windows. Whenever I go down, of course, I give them a couple sprays while I’m down there on the exterior perimeter. They just keep on coming, so having a two-fold approach with the little black ant, as an exterior spray application to create a barrier, as well as, generally, we’ll use a sugar-based ant bait, a gel bait on the inside to eliminate them. The little black ant, they’re not too dangerous. If they’re crawling on your countertop and you haven’t washed it since you cut chicken on there, they could transfer some of the salmonella or whatnot around, but they’re not going to do damage to the house. They’re not really going to be a major structural issue. It’s more the ick factor of having ants crawling around the house.

Then the third —

John: — If you leave things out, like you leave your sugar bowl out or you leave some candy on the counter, or something like that, they’re going to be all over it.

Zach: They will find it. They’ll find every little crumb and it’s their job, so you can’t blame them too much for it.

Ant Habits

The other one that we’re talking about does the same thing. People call all three of these ants sugar ants where there’s no real sugar ant. All of these ants go for sugary foods. The odorous house ant, it’s actually kind of cool. If you get into it, they’re kind of cool. If you smoosh them — you pick one up and smoosh it and smell your fingers or smell the ant — it’ll smell like a rotten coconut. Even if you haven’t smelt a rotten coconut before but you know what coconut smells like . . . ‘You know, that kind of smells like a rotten coconut.’ There’re different ways to describe it, but it’s a very specific kind of musty rotten coconut type of smell. It’s their way to warn predators: ‘Don’t eat me, I’m a rotten coconut,’ or whatever they’re trying to say.

These ones, they’re a little bit bigger than the little black ant, but they’re definitely smaller than the pavement ant, about an eighth of an inch or so. The odorous house ants, I think they’re probably the most common ones that we see, especially in kitchens and bathrooms. They really like moistened areas, so kitchen and bathroom makes sense, around slider doors, around doors with kick plates that might need to have some caulking around them to prevent the water from going in. Those areas they like. They’ll always find every little crumb that you might have dropped, the grandkids drop, the kids drop, whatever you have out for them, they’ll find it. They’ll go into the cabinets, they don’t care. They’ll follow the pipes or the wire chases and just see where they’re going.

Generally, they’ll have one queen per colony so if you can eliminate the queen and the colony then you don’t have to worry too much about supplemental reproduction taking over and having multiple queens. The caveat with that is, when folks see ants inside the kitchen, a lot of times the first thing they do is not call us, but they go to the corner store or their hardware store and they buy something and spray.

With odorous house ants and a lot of these small ants, the issues with these spray and disrupt where they’re trailing, they engage in a behavior called budding. Budding is when you have a colony with a single queen and you have something in the way from where they’re normally trailing, they’ll split off. ‘You go that way, you go this way, we’ll go this way. Maybe we’ll meet up in the future but you’re on your own now.’ So, some of the supplemental reproductive females, they’ll say: ‘Okay, I’m queen now.’ They’ll develop into a queen so, instead of having one colony to deal with that you could easily use their behavior against them, you might have three or four or more colonies because you’ve sprayed and now we’re chasing them all the way around the house.

Ridding Your Home from Ants

Zach: So, the best thing to do is to give us a call, let us identify what kind of ant we’re dealing with and, especially with the odorous house ants, it could be as easy as putting out some gel bait of different formulations based on the season of what they’re normally eating and then let them do the work. Let them eat it and share it and bring it to the queen and eliminate the whole colony, rather than spraying and trying to chase a colony around the house.

We had some odorous house ants in the office this past spring. One of women on the first floor in her office, they were trailing back and forth on the baseboard and they were trailing pretty heavy. There were hundreds that we could see in the middle of the day. I had a couple of new guys with me and I said, “Hey, let’s do some training on baiting for small ants.” We grabbed some delicious bait that was fresh, it’s clean, we’re wearing gloves, we’re not contaminating the bait with any kinds of sprays or any kinds of bad smells. If you smoke, you don’t want to have that nicotine, which is a pesticide, onto the bait. You want it to be a delicious last meal.

We’ll put out a few drops of this gel bait. I’ve got some pictures, John, incredible. Within minutes they were circling the bait, 50 per drop, they were just circling. They ate it and it went away within a day or two. There were a few scroungers, a few survivors kind of wandering around getting the last bits of it, but it had pretty quick control and that’s without spraying. That’s was just using bait. If we can use their behavior against them, that’s the best way, as long as we know we have the correct identification of what ant we’re using and if we can use the right bait for that ant.

Ants Change Homes During the Seasons

John: Okay. So, with these different types of ants, do you find that, are they actually outdoors, mostly, during the summer and then, when it gets cold out, they’re actually moving into the house in order to find warmth, or what’s the reason that we find them in the house in the winter?

Zach: A lot of times, you’re right, they’ll be outside in the summer. There’s warmth outside and in the winter they move inside for the warmth and for the moisture. But also, it’s a resource thing as well as the habitat or the conditions. In the summer, you have a lot of sugar excreting plants and then you have aphids who feed on those sugars and turn it into honeydew. There’s little in the world that ants like better than honeydew, to the point where a lot of ants species will actually farm these aphids like they’re dairy cows. They’ll keep them safe; they’ll keep them protected and keep them working so that when they excrete the honeydew, they can eat that honeydew and it’s a great food source for them, a lot of sugar and very yummy.

When there’s less of those plants that are active in the winter in New England, you don’t have the aphids producing the honeydew so they have to move inside looking for different resources. A lot of times you will have them back and forth summer and winter but they really seem to be more noticeable, also because we’re spending more time in the house in the winter, but the lack of resources on the exterior makes them move inside looking for different sugar sources.

John: All right, that’s really great information and good advice for homeowners to get rid of ants during the winter. Thanks, Zach.

Zach: Thanks, John.

John: For more information you can visit the Colonial Pest Control website at colonialpest.com or call 1-800-525-8084. That’s 1-800-525-8084.

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