Ants are some of the most successful insects when it comes to living in our homes and not the easiest insect to get rid of. Understanding a few facts about ants makes their eradication easier for us all.
To rid your home of ants safely and without it costing very much, we need to use their habits against them. Knowing the ant’s life cycle, feeding habits, how they divide up colony work, specifics about some common types of ants and how to use a couple of low cost options makes ridding your home of this pest much easier.
With a certificate in Pest Control Management and a few years experience I’ll share how to get rid of ants that might be invading your home or buildings.
To eradicate ants you need to understand how the ant society lives and works. This will be explained, along with a couple of low cost methods for exterminating these determined and pesky ants from invading your dwellings.
Ants Life Cycle
The life cycle of an ant is from the time an ant egg is laid by a queen until an adult ant is ready to join the colony work force which is usually between 4 to 8 weeks.
The length of time depends upon factors such as:
- environmental temperature, takes longer in cooler temperatures
- how available food is for the larva and pupa – the intermediate stages between eggs and adults
- whether the nest is disturbed and has to be moved to a new location
Ants Feeding Habits
In most types of ants the adults only feed on liquids. The older larva can be fed small particles of solid food but younger larva must be fed liquids. Depending on the types of ant, they may have a large variety of foods they can feed on or a narrow variety of foods they feed on.
Ants live in colonies with specific work assignments for the different orders of ants. The different orders of ants are:
- Queens which produce and lay the eggs after mating with a male ant
- Ants which care for the eggs, larva, pupa and queens are called nest tending workers
- Workers who locate and bring food to the colony
When the queen ants are producing a lot of eggs the workers look for protein food for the queens. At other times the workers will look for sweets or grease for their own needs or to feed the nest tending workers and larva.
So the terms “sugar ants” and “grease ants” are actually misnomers, since most ants feed on both sugars and grease at one time or another.
Trophallaxes Or Mouth-To-Mouth Feeding
Trophallaxes or mouth-to-mouth feeding is the method of feeding that the ants use. The workers bring food and water back to the colony and pass it along to the nest tending workers by a mouth-to-mouth process. The nest tending workers then pass the food and water along to the larva and queens by the same process.
Because of this method of feeding, workers to nest tending workers to larva and queens, the proper use of a slow acting poison can achieve a complete kill of all but the eggs! If the workers and nest tending workers and queens are killed there are no ants to care for the larva which hatch from the eggs and they will die.
Ants And Aphids
Several types of ants feed on the sugary honeydew excreted by aphids which suck on plants. Some types of ants will guard aphids because of their value as a food source.
By controlling aphids on plants in and around the house or homestead, you can decrease the ant population.
Sources Of Protein And Fungi For Ants
The main sources of protein for ants include dead insects and dead earthworms. Indoors, ants use dead flies and gnats found on window sills or inside light fixtures as sources of protein.
Leaf cutter ants carry portions of leaves to the colony where they are used to grow fungi that ants feed on.
Ant Colonies And Nests
Some types of ants will live in a main nest or colony away from the house. It is in this main nest or colony where the nest tending workers and queen ants live. Eggs are laid and larva and pupa are raised in the main nest or colony. It is not uncommon for several types of ants to have satellite nests in several locations within a building where several hundred worker ants live.
The workers mark their trails to food sources, satellite nests and to the main nest with chemicals called pheromones. These pheromones are made in specialized glands located in the ants abdomen.
Ant antennae are very important organs. It is with the antennae that ants taste and touch. It is by the antennae that the chemical trails are traced.
Some Ant’s Life Cycle Includes Wings
Yes, there are times when some types of adult ants have wings. These winged adult ants swarm and fly to a new location to start a new colony.
These winged ants swarm when a colony becomes over populated. So all small swarming insects are not termites as many people believe!
There are four ways to tell swarming ants from swarming termites:
- Both ants and termites have 4 wings. On ants the front pair of wings is longer than the back pair. On termites all four wings are the same size
- Most ants have clear wings while termite’s wings are milky or translucent
- Ants usually have a thin waist. Termites have a broad waist
- Ant’s antennae are elbowed, termite’s antennae are straight
Types Of Ants
There are many varieties of ants in North America and the World. However, we will limit our discuss to some of the major types of ants in North America.
Carpenter ants are large and black or very dark colored. Some of them have faint gray bands on the abdomen and others may have some reddish or brown along with the black and they have a two-toned look to them. They can be from 1/4″ to almost 3/4″ long.
Carpenter ants nest in stumps, hollow logs, telephone poles, fence posts and other large pieces of wood. They can be carried into the home in firewood. They make nesting cavities in wood but do not do near the damage that termites do. Often these ants enter a home or other building in search of food. Their main colony may be 100 yards away from your house.
Indoor nests can be found in hollow doors, windowsills, large boards supporting a porch, roofs, baseboards, fireplaces and other areas with cracks or hollows. Winged Carpenter ants usually swarm in the spring but on occasion may swarm at other times of the year.
Carpenter ants eat a large variety of foods including living and dead insects, sweets, including syrup, honey, and jelly. They also eat meats, grease and fats.
One particular type of Carpenter ant, Camponotus modoc can do substantial structural damage. They are found primarily in the American Pacific Northwest.
The Argentine ants are severe pests in the southern US, California and many other parts of the world. They can be found occasionally in northern climates. It is not unusual for them to forage in or inhabit every home in an area.
Argentine workers are 1/12″ to 1/8″ long and light brown to dark brown in color. Queens are larger and there can be more than one queen in each colony. They usually nest in moist soil beside or underneath buildings, beside sidewalks, underneath boards and plants that are near sources of both food and water.
They have been known to nest under bathtubs set on slab-on-grade foundations, under cracks or expansion joints in concrete slabs, under insulation in an exterior wall and in potted plants or flower boxes.
Argentine ants prefer sweet foods such as sugars, syrups, fruit juices, secretions of plants and honey dew from aphids. Workers establish trails in every area around their nests. They enter houses in large numbers during wet and very dry weather. Many times their colony nests are located on adjacent property.
Argentine workers are very aggressive and often eliminate other ant types in the area. There can be several very large super colonies in close proximity to each other.
Fire ants are called fire ants because they inject a venom through a stinger and causes intense pain or irritation. In persons allergic to fire ants the venom can cause sever reactions and even death. They are very aggressive and can kill young wildlife and produce sores and nausea in humans.
There are four types of fire ants in the US:
- The southern fire ant Solenopsis xyloni
- The fire ant Solenopsis germinata
- The red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta
- The black imported fire ant Solenopsis richteri
The Southern Fire Ant
Found in southern states from the Atlantic coast to California the Southern Fire ant has a brown to black abdomen and the head and part of the thorax are yellow or reddish. Workers are 1/15″ to 1/4″ long.
Their nests are usually in loose soil but can be in the woodwork or masonry of houses. Nest entrances may be small craters in the ground and can be found scattered over an area of 2 to 4 square feet. Other nests may be entered under boards, stones, by tufts of grass or cracks in concrete or soil in crawl spaces.
Workers look for a variety of foods; meats, grease, butter, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
The Fire Ant
Found along the coast of the southern US, especially in Florida we find the Fire ant. Workers have a high variability in color and habits similar to the other fire ants.
The Red Imported Fire Ant
The Red Imported Fire ant is a very important pest in both agricultural and suburban areas. They typically nest in the soil and make characteristic earthen mounds. They are found in the coastal plains from South Carolina along the Atlantic coast into northern and central Florida, across the lower southern States and into the eastern half of Texas.
The Red Imported Fire ant is also found in the urban and coastal areas of southern California. It’s northern range is controlled by winter weather. It is not found where moderate to hard frosts are common.
This ant is found in lawns, gardens, parks, cemeteries, athletic fields and other areas where humans are found. These ants have very aggressive stinging behavior and the disturbance of their mounds can cause a swarm of ants to boil out of the ground and sting repeatedly anything they can get to.
Workers are a dark reddish brown and come in two sizes which are called major workers and minor workers. Their size varies from 1/15″ to 1/4″ long. There can be several mounds in each yard or area.
These Red Imported Fire ants are both predators and scavengers. They attack, sting and kill other insects and small animals as well as feed on dead animals. They also feed on honeydew from aphids, portions of plants or plant secretions and other sweets.
Sometimes they will nest inside homes or other buildings, especially in the wintertime. Their favorite nesting areas in homes seem to be under bathtubs and next to hot water heaters or other warm areas.
The Black Imported Fire Ant
Similar in behavior to the other fire ants are the Black Imported Fire ants and are a darker brown in color. In the US it is only found in a small area around the northern border of Mississippi and Alabama.
It was once quite common in the southern US but it has been displaced by the Red Imported Fire ant.
The Thief ant is a very small ant averaging from 1/25″ to 1/15″ long. The worker’s color varies from yellow to dirty brown. They are common to most areas of America and often live in the nests of larger ants and feed on the larva of the larger ants. Hence their name, Thief ants!
They mostly eat greasy materials like cheese and meats when the workers forage in homes but they can feed on sweets. Bacon, ham, prepared meats are very attractive to Thief ants but they may also feed on stored seeds and dead animals.
Thief ants are so small they may not be noticed around the kitchen sink and cabinets. People may complain about the flavor of food without realizing the food is infested with Thief ants!
Thief ants usually come into the home from nests in the out of doors. However they may nest in cracks and crannies of walls or cabinets or underneath tile countertops in kitchens.
Pharaoh ants are light yellowish to reddish brown in color. They are 1/15″ to 1/12″ in length and many times confused with Thief ants. Their range extends over most of the US and portions of southern Canada. They are the most common ant pest within the area where they are found. Being small allows them to get into almost any crack, crannie and void areas in buildings.
Their nests are rarely found but those places where nests have been found include inside walls, behind baseboards and switch plates, in old trash, among folded linens and towels, in gardens and alongside walkways. They seem to prefer porous areas near warmth and moisture. So they are sometimes found near furnaces, heat ducts and hot water heaters.
In the warmer climates of the southern portions of the US Pharaoh ants can be found nesting outside of buildings and even in landscaped areas. This includes around sprinkler systems and even underneath roof top evaporative cooling systems. In more northern areas or areas where cool nights are common, they are rarely found nesting outside.
Pharaoh ants feed on a wide variety of foods including; syrups, fruit juices, honey, jelly, cakes, pies, greases, dead insects, meat and blood.
These Pharaoh ants forage over a wide area and the application of dust such as Diatomaceous Earth or any type of stress can lead them to split into sub-colonies scattered in other locations in the same building.
Their colonies can have several hundred to several thousand ants in residence. Larger sized colonies frequently split forming many sub-colonies and workers readily switch from one colony to another. Mature forms of Pharaoh ants may have wings but they do not fly so you will not observe swarming of Pharaoh ants.
Cost Effective Methods To Rid Your Home Or Other Buildings Of Ants
The safest methods to rid your home or other buildings from an ant infestation, from the standpoint of not causing harm to children, pets and homestead animals, is to use Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth and ant baits including a slow acting insect poison such as borax.
Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth and Borax costs a mere pittance compared to what a pest company would charge to use toxic chemical methods to eradicate your home of ants.
Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth is the shell of single celled organisms that lived in either fresh or salt water. Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth kills by disrupting the waxy shell of insects such as ants so they desiccate and die. Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth, (DE), does not harm humans, pets and homestead animals. Diatomaceous Earth, (DE), is placed where the ants or other insects will walk through it and carry DE back to the nest to kill others.
Only use Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth (link to read reviews on Amazon). Pool Grade or Filter Grade Diatomaceous Earth has been heat treated, a process called calcinated that makes it ineffective as a method for killing insects.
There are two methods of using Diatomaceous Earth, (DE):
- Sprinkle some Diatomaceous Earth along the trails you see ants or other insects using as they forage
- Puffing Diatomaceous Earth into cracks, crannies and hard to access places
Making A Diatomaceous Earth Puffer
Take an empty mustard container that has a long tip and a cap to cover the tip when not in use. Thoroughly wash it out and let it completely air dry. Fill it about 2/3s full of Diatomaceous Earth. Remove the cap from the tip and point it in or next to cracks, crannies and hard to access areas and squeeze the container rapidly several times blowing DE into those areas.
Caution: Do not fill the mustard container completely full! There has to be some air inside the container to push the DE out when you squeeze the container.
Diatomaceous Earth’s Effectiveness
Diatomaceous Earth is very effective in killing insects. It is slower than using toxic chemical sprays. It takes time for the DE to work plus enough needs to be taken back to the colony or nest to kill those adults who are there. It can take 2 weeks or more for a complete kill of most insect pests. Once the waxy shell is disrupted the insect desiccates and dies.
If DE gets wet or moist, it looses the ability to disrupt the waxy shell of insects. So DE needs to be reapplied frequently in humid parts of the country or after a rain if used outdoors. In more arid parts of the country an outdoor application of DE should be made weekly and DE reapplied as needed indoors. (Every 3 or 4 days for at least 2 weeks).
For further information on the effectiveness of Diatomaceous Earth for killing insects, you can read a detailed article on this site, “Does Diatomaceous Earth Work As A Method Of Pest Control?”
Diatomaceous Earth’s Safety
An added benefit of Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth is that it is completely non-toxic to humans, mammals and other homestead animals. Avoid inhaling it if you have asthma or other lung problems as it may cause shortness of breath. Wash arms and hands after using DE since it can dry out the skin.
Diatomaceous Earth is a product we have used quite successfully for many years and would highly recommend it’s use. This is a good Diatomaceous Earth to get (link to read reviews on Amazon).
Borax Bait To Rid Your Home Of Ants
Ridding your home of ants with the use of Borax for bait is a slow method of killing ants when ingested. This allows ants to return to the nest and feed the borax to other ants. Over time, by using this method, a complete kill of the adult ants in the nest is accomplished.
What Is Borax
Borax is used in laundry detergent as a booster for cleaning and stain remover. Its chemical name is Sodium tetraborate, sometimes listed as Sodium tetraborate decahydrate. Borax is a natural mineral (link to read reviews on Amazon) found in the earth. In the US there is a large deposit of it in Death Valley California.
Borax, Na2[B4O5(OH)4], is not Boric Acid, H3BO3, which has the chemical name Trihydrooxidoboron. For some reason many people seem to think they are one and the same but they are not. You can learn about the uses of Boric acid in pest control by reading this article.
Borax Toxicity In Humans
The Material Safety Data Sheet for borax lists it as a 1 out of 4, the lowest level possible, as a health hazard. Precautions include to avoid inhaling borax, wash hands and bare arms after using borax powder and avoiding oral ingestion. (https://www.aquasolutions.org/download/msds/SYN023.pdf)
According to TOXNET (http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov) Borax is not classified as cancer causing agent in humans. Ingestion of large amounts of borax can cause nausea, vomiting and severe abdominal cramps in adults and convulsions and death in small children.
Precautions: Store borax where children can not get it. Avoid inhalation of borax dust which can cause coughing and shortness of breath in those with asthma.
Making Borax Ant Killer Bait
Cooked method: Mix together 1 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon borax (link to read reviews on Amazon) and 1/2 cup water in a small sauce pan. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil while stirring. When it reaches the boiling point cover it with a lid and let it boil on reduced heat for no more than 3 minutes. Leave it covered and let it cool completely. It will thicken some as it cools.
The reason for covering the mixture as it boils is to keep the steam from escaping and the mixture becoming too thick. The steam will condense on the inside of the lid and drain back into the mixture. Without the lid the mixture will form a film over the top.
Alternative no cook method: Replace the sugar as stated in the cooked method with 1 cup of corn syrup. Add the 1 tablespoon of borax and 1/2 cup water. Stir the mixture until all borax is dissolved. You can add a little more water, if you want a slightly thinner mixture.
Place the borax ant killer bait mixture in a glass container with a tight lid and label it. I like to put a skull and crossbones under the words Ant Killer.
Using The Borax Ant Killer Bait
Place the borax ant killer bait in or on thin lids or pieces of aluminum foil. Used narrow mouth canning jar lids would be one option. Place the lid with a small amount of ant killer beside the trail you have seen the ants use. Place one beside each trail you know about.
Monitor the amount of ant killer left every day and replace as needed. The ant population should be much less or gone after 3 or 4 days.
If there are no small children or pets that might get to the ant killer, some people just place a spot of ant killer right on the counter or floor beside the ant’s trail.
When there are no more ants to be seen, pick up the lids and either throw them away or wash them in hot sudsy water and save for the next time you see ants. I’d store the ant killer lids separately from other lids and also label them ant killer lids.
Once the ants have been eradicated a good method to clean the counter tops and non-rug covered floors is to use a equal part vinegar and water solution. As an example, mix one cup white distilled vinegar and one cup of water.
The vinegar solution will remove the pheromone trails left by the ants. By removing the pheromone trails it helps prevent new ants from following the old trail to food sources in your home.
Borax Ant Killer Bait Safety
Using baits such as this borax ant killer markedly reduces the chances of health problems that are associated with killing chemical sprays, bug bombs and other more toxic methods of getting rid of ants.
The borax ant killer bait is used in small amounts which reduces the chance of small children or pets accidentally ingesting enough to get sick. That said, if you have small children, you may want to put out the bait when the children are napping and take them up when the children wake up.
Another method is to place the baits out during the night and remove them the next morning. Do not be surprised if you find some dead ants in the ant killer itself. If the ant killer is in jar lids with a rim, some ants may fall into it and drown.
If you have house cats that might get up on counters, you may want to get creative in ways to keep the bait from being accessed by your cat. One method is to invert a heavy bowl over the top of the bait and place something small like a round toothpick under the edge of the bowl to give the ants a place to enter and leave.
What If The Ants Won’t Eat Borax Ant Killer Bait?
Remember from the section above about the various types of ants? Most ants will eat sweets but there can be sometimes when they prefer grease to sweets.
Instead of sugar or corn syrup, mix the borax with shortening or another edible grease. You may need to warm the grease slightly and stir until the borax dissolves. Then put the borax ant killer grease bait out by the ant trails.
Some people like to make a smaller amount of the sweet borax ant killer bait and also the grease borax ant killer bait first. They place a little of both ant killers along the ant trails and see which one the ants prefer and make more of that one to use to kill the ants.
Using Borax Ant Killer Outdoors
If you can trace an ant trail to the outside and find out where the ants are entering the house, use the borax (link to read reviews on Amazon) ant killer bait outside.
This presents another type of problem if you have outdoor pets or do not want to harm birds who might like to try your ant killer themselves or take some back to the baby birds in their nest.
One method is to use an aluminum soda pop can. First dent or flatten the side of the pop can a little where the opening will be just above ground level. Place the borax ant killer in the pop can and put a large rock on top of it to keep it from blowing away and to discourage children and pets from getting to it.
Pharaoh Ant Infestation – Special Considerations
There are several factors that make Pharaoh ants a challenge for the homesteader or homeowner to eradicate who wants to use the safest methods. Their small size and the fact that they commonly have many nests in the same building is one of the challenges. Another unique challenge is their tendency to split and make new nests whenever the colony is stressed.
Pharaoh ants prefer warmer and moister conditions than most other types of ants. This means they nest and forage in sink areas, near or underneath dishwashers, inside near windows where moisture condenses in cold weather, near aquariums, in or near house plants, etc.
While they forage for liquids and semi-liquid forms of sugars they continually look for sources of proteins to maintain breeding and production of new ants in the colony. Thus they will forage for dead flies and gnats on window sills and in light fixtures, especially ceiling light fixtures.
Baiting with a liquid borax ant killer should focus on both known ant trails and these areas described in the last two paragraphs. It may be easier to dust Diatomaceous Earth into light fixtures as well as cracks and crannies and focus on the borax ant killer bait near areas of moisture. Remember, DE looses its ability to disrupt the waxy layer of insects when it gets moist or wet.
Pharaoh ant activity should see a marked decrease in 1 to 2 weeks but efforts continued or the areas where these ants were known to nest being observed for at least 2 more weeks.
Remember, the nests or colonies tend to split when stressed and move to new areas. It may be beneficial to continue DE and borax ant baits for a while after there does not appear to be any more ants around.
In warmer climates such as the American south, placing the Borax ant bait outside is essential for Pharaoh ant control. Areas to focus on include roofs, exterior walls and around building perimeters. Roof top ventilation equipment, if present, is a prime place they will nest.
Other outdoor areas can include bark mulch around plants against or near the house, under side walks and steps to the house. It is easy for a colony split from these areas to re-infest the inside of a dwelling or other buildings.
Baiting near these outdoor areas and puffs of DE into outside cracks and crannies on walls will go a long way in reducing the chance of re-infestation and the complete elimination of Pharaoh ants.
Caution Using Baking Soda To Kill Ants
There is a recipe on the web for mixing water, sugar and baking soda together and placing it out in much the same way as you would place the Borax, sugar and water mixture out for ants. This will kill the ants who eat it. In fact they may blow up before they get very far away from the mixture.
Problem is, you kill them before they can carry the mixture back to the nest or colony to give it to others. So you will not get a complete kill using this baking soda method.
To get a complete kill of all adult ants you need a mixture that kills them slowly enough that they can take some back to the colony and feed it to the other adult ants.
What if I use more Borax in the bait mixture? The purpose of using borax as an ant bait is to allow the ants to eat the bait and return to the nest and feed other adult ants the bait. Achieving a complete kill of all the adult ants in the nest.
If you add more borax there is a chance the ants will die before getting back to the nest and you will not get a complete kill of all the adult ants.
How long can I store the borax ant killer bait? The borax ant killer bait can be stored as long as the liquid bait will pour. This year’s left over bait will be good next year if it still pours.
Will the borax ant killer bait work when made in a solid form? I know of someone who claims she uses a candy thermometer and boils the mixture to the hard crack phase. Then she pours it out onto wax paper and after it hardens breaks it into small pieces which she places by the ant trails. Remember, adult ants feed mostly on liquids.
Some of the solid bait may liquefy while being carried back to the nest and be ingested by the worker ant. However, the best and fastest results should be obtained from a liquid or grease form of ant bait.
Danger: Making a solid form of sweet borax ant bait could be mistaken by children for candy. This is a potentially dangerous situation that should be avoided at all costs.