Ants are some of nature’s most hard-working creatures. Whether we consider ants patiently laboring to build a colony, dragging food over long distances back to their homes, or swarming over a much larger insect, we are amazed by their industrious habits and phenomenal strength.
Ants are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, distantly related to wasps. Worker ants are easily recognized by their combination of a constricted waste at the front of their abdomen combined with their lack of wings. The constricted part of the abdomen, called the petiole, has one or two nodes (check out a diagram of the major ant body parts here). Some ants emit an acidic odor that serves as a defense mechanism, while others do not.
At certain times of the year, ant colonies produce large numbers of winged males known as swarmers. These winged ants emerge from the nest to mate (in mid-air) and establish new colonies. If the swarm is sighted in a home, it’s certain that a nest is already present somewhere within the house. Except for carpenter ants, the most swarming ants are unable to successfully set up a new colony within a home.
Swarming ants (sometimes called “flying ants”) are often mistaken for termites. There are three easy ways to tell the difference between a termite and a swarming ant: (1) the antennae of a termite are straight while the attennae of a flying ant are curved, or “elbowed”; (2) the fore wings of a flying ant are larger than the hind wings, whereas the fore and hind wings of the termite are of equal size, and (3) a flying ant has a constricted waist, whereas the termite has a broad waist (click here for a good illustration of these differences from the University of Florida).
Ant society is hierarchic, composed of a queen, non-fertile females (workers), “soldiers” (ants with larger heads and mandibles) and breeding males, who will later develop wings and mate with the queen in flight. Ant workers may be monopophic (all the same size) or in some species, polymporphic (of a variety of sizes). Ants, communicating by pheromones, are able to solve complex problems together, a characteristic that has baffled human researchers. Pheromones are also used to find food and signify the presence of threats.
Ants are omnivorous, feeding on vegetation but also other animals, including rival ants. All ants share a liking for sweet foods, especially those high in sugar. As ants collect food, they leave a trail behind for other ants to follow and are capable of moving a tremendous amount of food back to the colony, relative to their size. Persons with an ant infestation should take care that sweet foods are not left out and that crumbs are cleaned up.
Ants are known for their tremendous strength. Most ants are capable of lifting and carrying objects 20 times their body weight. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent of a 150 pound man being able to carry a full grown elephant on his back!
Ants of Michigan
There are six species of ants commonly found in Michigan. Each of these species has different habits and identifying characteristics; they each infest homes in different ways and need to be treated differently. It would be helpful to look at each individually.
Carpenter ants are some of most easily identifiable ants because of their black color and large size (1/2 inch when full grown). These are the “big black ants” that people commonly see in their bathroom or kitchen. Carpenter ants make their homes in wood, especially wood that is moist or rotting. Carpenter ant nests are more likely to be found in wood dampened by water leaks, such as around sinks, bathtubs, poorly sealed windows and door frames and roof leaks. Nests are especially common in moist, hollow spaces (such as the wall void behind a dishwasher), or in a hollow porch column. In Michigan, carpenter ants will often have their colony outdoors and forage indoors for food; many homeowners start to notice the presence or carpenter ants after a nearby tree has been removed. The ants that lived in the tree will seek a new location for their colony and will consequently forage into the house. Common harborage areas for carpenter ants in Michigan homes are under window jambs, in rotted wood under loose shingles on the roof, and in the walls of the kitchen behind the dishwasher – however, they can make their home anywhere there is wood.
Treatment of carpenter ants will vary depending on whether the colony is nesting in the house or outside, and how advanced the colony is (it takes 3-4 years for a colony to fully mature). Unfortunately, many homeowners do not see evidence of an infestation until the colony is already quite advanced. Infestations within the home usually require professional pest control measures with several treatments. The University of Kentucky Department of Entomology has a great page on carpenter ants and their characteristics if you are interested in more information.
Slab ants, also called pavement ants, are the small, black-brown ants that build up little piles of dirt in the cracks of your sidewalk or driveway, which are endemic in Michigan. Slab ants become a real problem if they get into your garage or basement, as their mound-building can break up concrete and become destructive over time. Unlike carpenter ants, slab ants nest in soil and will displace dirt around concrete objects such as sidewalks, patios, driveways, curbs, pavers and tile; the “dirt piles” are actually composed of displaced soil, debris and parts of dead ants thrown up from the nest. These piles are seen mostly in the warmer months, when ant activity is at its highest. Whether indoor or outdoor, the approach when dealing with slab ants is a systematic baiting program.
The thief ant is one of the smallest of all ants; they are usually between 1/32 to 1/16 of an inch long. If you are able to get them under a magnifying glass, you can always identify them by their antennae, which have ten segments. An easier way to identify them is by their color, which ranges from yellow to brown. Thief ant nests occur in a great variety of locations outdoors, most commonly under rocks, especially rocks up agains the home. Thief ants may get indoors and prefer to nest in cracks and cupboards. Thief ants will feed on the larvae of insects but also are attracted to greasy or high-protein foods, such as nuts, meats, cheese and sweets. It is easier to find a thief ant nest outside than inside; the location of thief ant nests inside usually requires the services of a pest control professional.
Thief ants get their name from their tendency to make nests close to other ant colonies, from which they will steal food. Thus, location of a thief ant nest may mean the presence of another ant colony nearby.
The acrobatic ant resembles the carpenter ant, but smaller (usually they are no bigger than 1/8 of an inch). Their back end is also pointed upwards at the end, unlike other ants whose rear faces down. They get their name from their tendency to hold their abdomens upright in air while walking, sometimes giving the appearance that they are doing ‘hand stands”; this is the easiest way to identify them. Acrobatic ants may get into structures and are one of the few Michigan ants that will sting or bite aggressively if disturbed. They do not cause much structural damage; they are nuisances just from their presence within the home.
The odorous ant is a small, reddish-brown colored ant that usually only reaches 1/10 of an inch in length. They may nest in any number of location; when indoors they prefer to nest inside the walls or beneath the floor. They are most likely to invade buildings during rainy weather. Like other ants, they travel in trails and forage constantly, both day and night. In the wild they feed almost exclusively off of honeydew from aphids and mealy bugs, but in the home they will be attracted to anything sweet. If you crush an odorous ant between your fingers, you will smell a bitter, citrus odor, not unlike the smell of an orange rind. This is the clearest way to identify odorous ants. They do not sting or bite, but as their can be up to 10,000 ants per colony, a nest of odorous ants within the house has the potential to get out of control if not treated.
Unlike many other ants that thrive best outdoors, the pharaoh ant is more suited to indoor environments. For this reason, they are considered an especially noxious pest, especially in the food industry and medical field. Because pharaoh ants depend on indoor heating to survive, they tend to nest in buildings that have a constant interior temperature, which usually means hospitals, hotels/motels, restaurants, or anywhere else where a steady, constant temperature is maintained.
The pharaoh ant is very small (1/16 of an inch) and is usually light yellow to red in color with black markings on its abdomen; the thorax is usually the darkest part of the ant. Pharaoh ant colonies maintain multiple queens and, unlike other ants, they are able to quickly move their colonies from place to place if they are threatened, a fact which makes their elimination especially labor intensive. Pharaoh ants can build nests inside walls, cabinet voids, behind baseboards, refrigerator insulation, the hollows of curtain rods, the folds of clothes, sheets and paper and other undisturbed dark spaces; they have even been found climbing inside the I.V. tubes of hospitals. A large colony can have up to several million workers and numerous queens.
Treating pharaoh ants can be a delicate process, and professional assistance is recommended. One challenge in controlling pharaoh ants is that the colony will immediately scatter if a toxic substance is applied to it, something which can lead to the establishment of multiple colonies where there had only been one before.
Getting rid of ants
There is no standard way to treat all ants; successful ant treatment programs will vary depending on the type of ant and the location of the infestation (whether indoor or outdoor). You ought to be wary of commercially sold ant traps that claim to be able to treat any ant problem universally. While ant traps and bait stations may be used in many situations (such as with slab ants), they are seldom enough to take care of a serious infestation alone. Creature Control makes use of a variety of methods, including habitat modification, perimeter pesticide applications, locating and removing the nest, ant baits and structural modifications, as the situation may warrant. Dealing with ants can sometimes be simple; other times it can be a very intricate and time-consuming process (as in the case of large carpenter ant and pharaoh ant infestations, for example). One thing is certain: if you suspect you have an ant problem in your home, it is always good to get it checked out earlier rather than later, as ant infestations only grow worse with time. One of our own technicians, Ron Sutton, who has tackled many ant problems in Howell, Ann Arbor, Jackson and Lansing, has heard of untreated carpenter ant infestations so bad that the houses had to be demolished. Don’t let your problem get that out of hand – call Creature Control today!
Creature Control is a Michigan based, family owned and operated company. We service ten counties in Michigan, including the Ann Arbor, Jackson, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Grand Haven metro areas, including Livingston County and western Oakland County.