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Ants have emerged as the most commonly encountered household pest, found literally everywhere on earth with the exception of Antarctica. There are well more than 10,000 different ant species in the world, each with their own sets of unique habits, tendencies and characteristics. Because not all ant populations can be eliminated with the same treatment techniques or products, proper identification is essential to any ant treatment program.
Ant are social insects, with 6 legs, and 3 body parts consisting of a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Ants come in many colors (depending on ant species) and many sizes, with most ranging between 1/16" and 1/2" long. Reproductive members of many (but not all) ant colonies may have wings at certain times. Ants with wings tend to flutter (rather than fly) for only short distances, and retain their wings for very short periods of time. Accumulation of insect wings on window ledges, floors, or around lights is a likely sign of an ant or termite infestation.
Ant colony size may vary dramatically from one ant species to the next. Some colonies contain only a few dozen members, while other species form super-colonies with more than 300 million members. That said, most commonly encountered ant colonies contain a few thousand members.
Although most people can readily identify what might appear to be some type of ant, many are unaware that many species of termites closely resemble ants to the untrained eye. Like most species of ants, termites "swarm" at different times of the year, during which time winged reproductives, called alates, emerge from their colonies in search of a mate in hopes of starting new colonies. Termites in particular are most readily visible during this swarming activity.
Being able to distinguish between a termite and an ant will be the first step in properly eliminating your pest problem. Fortunately, there are some very distinct differences that can simplify this identification process. Here are the most noticeable differences between ants and termites:Waistline: Ants have a narrow, noticeably pinched waistline. Termites have a broad, thick waistline.
Wings: Although both ants (most species) and termite alates (swarmers) have 2 sets of wings, the front wings of ants are notably longer than the rear wings. All 4 wings of termites are essentially the same size.
Antennae: Ant have elbowed (bent), often clubbed antennae. Termite antennae are straight and unbent.
Appearance & Characteristics: Argentine Ants are a shiny, brownish-blackish ant about 1/8" long.
Distribution: Commonly found throughout the southeastern United States, California, and Hawaii.
Nest Sites: Argentine Ants naturally nest outdoors beneath slabs, logs, mulch, or other protected areas often near sources of moisture. Argentine Ants will also readily move indoors, setting up nest sites near moisture sources such as pipes or plants.
Preferred Food Sources: Argentine Ants primarily feed on sugars, fats, and oils.
Colony Size: Argentine Ant colonies may contain hundreds of queens, sometimes creating networks of interconnected nests forming super-colonies with millions of members.Distinguishing Features: Unlike many other ant species, Argentine Ants do not form new colonies through swarming. Instead, Argentine Ants reproduce through a process called budding, where queens will mate with males within the parent nest before taking some of the worker ants to form a new nest.
Signs of Infestation: Argentine Ants tend to travel in very noticeable trails on the sides of buildings or along trees branches, ledges, or other such areas.
Appearance & Characteristics: Carpenter Ants are most commonly black or red or a combination of those two colors, but some species are also tan. They may come in many sizes, usually 1/4" - 5/8".
Distribution: Carpenter Ants are found throughout the United States, with higher prevalence in northern states.
Nest Sites: Carpenter Ants routinely build nests or colonies in the dead, decaying, or compromised wood of trees or other wood sources. They will also readily nest indoors in wall voids or attics.
Preferred Food Sources: Carpenter Ants feed primarily on insects, insect honeydew and other secretions, plant juices, and other arthropods. Inside, they will also feed on sweets, proteins, and grease.Distinguishing Features: Although Carpenter Ant activity may be observed at any time of day, they are most active from dusk to dawn.
Signs of Infestation: Carpenter Ant infestations may be discovered by seeing foreign workers, swarming carpenter ants, holes in walls or wood members, frass or insect debris, or rustling noises in walls, ceilings, or cavities.
Appearance & Characteristics:Fire Ants are typically 1/8" - 3/8" long, and may come in different colors or species. Species found in the U.S. include the Red Imported Fire Ant, Black Imported Fire Ant, Southern Fire Ant, and Tropical Fire Ant.
Distribution: Fire Ants are predominantly found throughout the southern United States and California, with rising prevalence through the Carolinas on up into Maryland.
Nest Sites: Fire Ants are mound-building ants typically nesting in sunny, open areas. They may become extremely aggressive when disturbed, and may inflict a painful sting that can cause serious health concerns for some people and animals.Colony Size: Most Fire Ant colonies have hundreds of thousands of members.
Preferred Food Sources: Fire Ants prefer feeding on high protein food sources, but will readily feed on most organic plant or animal material.Distinguishing Features: Although often referred to as "bites," Fire Ants actually "sting." Stings can be painful, with some people developing allergic reactions that may require medical attention.
Signs of Infestation: Fire Ant infestations are easily observable by their distinct, sometimes large mounds in or around lawns, patios, pavers, and foundations of buildings. Fire Ant mounds should not be disturbed, as they may become dangerously aggressive.
Ants can be particularly troublesome because of their ability to nest in many locations both indoors and outdoors, often in dark, out of the way areas. Before beginning your ant inspection, make sure you've got a bright flashlight, a pair of gloves, and a bump hat if you plan on inspecting areas such as attics or crawlspaces.
It is important to remember that with very, very few exceptions, any ants inside your home are coming from the environment outside your home. (Please note that some ants, like Pharaoh Ants, may set up colonies exclusively inside the home with no connection to the outside. If the initial identification process discovered one such ant, the exterior inspection may not be needed). By starting your inspection outside, you'll quickly begin to notice potential areas of concern, such as ant trails, heavy foliage, excessive moisture, or other possible contributing factors.
Look Low...Look High....Look Everywhere. Look closely along the foundation of the home, as many ants will trail from the ground up the siding, looking for entry points around cracks, crevices, or utility penetrations. Pay special attention to areas around doors and windows, as improper seals lend themselves to ant intrusion. Look up towards the fascia and eave areas, as certain types of ants love trailing along rooflines and nesting inside attic spaces. Follow fences or utility lines that may attach to the home, as ants may have a tendency to use this as travel routes from the outside environment to your home.
Pay very special attention to bushes, trees, shrubs, or other foliage that may be coming in direct contact with any portion of the home. As a general rule, all foliage should be maintained at least 18-24 inches away from any part of the home, preferably more. Not only does this reduce the likelihood of having any problems inside the home, this clearance allows from optimal ventilation around the perimeter, minimizing moisture concerns and helping your home maintain its integrity.
Now that you've had a look around the perimeter foundation of the home, you can begin to expand your inspection outward from there. If you happened to find ants trailing, seek to follow them back to their point(s) of origin. In general, any populations of ants showing up inside your home are only a small percentage of the associated ant populations outside. If you can locate their primary nest or nests, rapid elimination and ongoing protection will become much more easily attainable. Some ant species are known to travel several hundred feet from their primary nest sites in search of food, water, or secondary nests, so be comprehensive in your approach.
As your search continues, keep in mind that many ant species tend to nest in dark, protected spaces. Look under stones, pavers, blocks, mulch, pots, furniture, knots in trees, and other similar items that may provide them shelter from predators or the environment. Because some ant species, such as Fire Ants, Harvester Ants, or Big Headed Ants are mound-builders, look over the surface of the lawn or bases of trees for noticeable ant mounds. Discovering mounds will not only help you narrow down what species of ant you might be dealing with, but will also help you develop a more targeted treatment plan. Many ant species, such as White Footed Ants, readily nest in various types of trees or other plants. Check tree trunks and branches for foraging ant activity.
Excessive moisture tends to be a contributing factor for ants and many other insect pests. As your search advances, pay special attention to any areas around your property that may be experiencing an accumulation of moisture. This could be do to improper grading, irrigation system failures, leaks, or any number of factors.
Equipped with the information gathered from your outside inspection, your inspection inside the home can now adapt a much more targeted approach. Use the clues discovered outside to lead you to potential areas of concern inside. Keep in mind that you are trying to determine what specific kind of ant you're dealing with, where they are coming from, what they are going towards, and how they may be gaining entry to the home. The most effective treatments are typically applied outside the home at specific points of entry, as opposed to isolated interior regions (some exceptions apply).
Your inside inspection should begin by looking around doors and windows for evidence of activity or intrusion. From there, continue looking along baseboards, paying special attention to cracks or crevices where ants may be able to go in and out. Inspect door frames, beneath sinks, along pipes, and in and around cabinets and appliances. Many ant species inside the home will tend towards the food or moisture available in kitchens and bathrooms, so your inspection should be particularly keen in these areas.
Once you find an ant or ants, your inspection begins to ramp up. Keep in mind that ants are rather simple creatures with rather predictable habits, almost always traveling from their nest site to a food or water source and directly back again to their nest site. By observing even one ant for a few minutes, it may become readily apparent where the ants may be nesting indoors, how they may be accessing, and where any additional nest sites may be.
If you are unable to find any ants or have only discovered a random forager without figuring out where its going or coming from, consider putting out a few test bait placements in strategic locations in proximity to where you think they may be trailing or emerging. Some ants, like ghost ants or white footed ants, will quickly begin trailing towards the bait placement in very large numbers if the bait is accepted, providing invaluable information for how to proceed with treatment.
How To Get Rid of Ants: Treatment & Prevention GuideAnts can be a pervasive, persistent nuisance, and long-term control seldom happens on accident. Effective, lasting ant control almost always involves a combination of sanitation, exclusion, habitat modification, and pesticide measures, with no one element necessarily being more essential than another. All are critical components of effective pest management.
Although every ant species and sub-species will have its own set of pesticidal measures that may work best for elimination and control, Pest Supply HQ's step-by-step guide for ant control provides a general outline for how to proceed.
When dealing with most ant infestations inside the home, proper sanitation will make or break your treatment program. Available food or water sources will provide a pathway for ongoing prevalence, and until these are eliminated, pesticidal intervention is likely to yield only short-term results. The first step in controlling ants is eliminating any access to food or water. This includes maintaining trash properly, food storage, dirty dishes, clean floors and counters, and other similar items.
Because ants are so small, eliminating all conceivable potential access points is unlikely. Eliminating the most likely ones, however, will go along way in keeping ants from getting into the home. Check around all windows and doors, and make sure they are adequately sealed. Inspect for foundation or settlement cracks through which ants might penetrate, and seal those whenever possible. On the exterior, seal all areas where plumbing or utility lines enter the foundation so that there is no space for ants to penetrate. Keep in mind here that totally sealing the home is an unrealistic expectation. The objective should be to eliminate the areas that are likely to become most susceptible to ant intrusion.
As a general rule, ants will usually only persist inside your home if the environment outside your home is conducive to their habitation. Ants will seldom set up camp in areas that are inhospitable to them. So when it comes to habitat modification, your objective should be to make the outside environment as unattractive as possible, and limit the accessibility from the outside environment to your home.
Proper maintenance of lawn, trees, shrubs, bushes, and other foliage is an essential part of any ant control program. By keeping them trimmed to recommended levels and eliminating any direct contact between foliage and home, typical ant travel routes will be disrupted, making intrusion into the home less likely. In addition to proper foliage maintenance, consider minimizing ground cover that creates ideal ant nesting sites, and eliminate sources of standing water or excessive moisture.
When selecting an ant control product, it is important to recognize that the effectiveness of your treatment will be as much about how and where you make your applications as about which products you choose to use. If labeled for your particular ant species, most ant control products CAN work, IF properly and optimally applied, and probably won't work if they are not. So it is critically important to not just choose the right products, but to also make sure they are being properly applied.
Ant Baits: Ant baits can be great, and are often an ideal starting point for many do-it-yourself pest controllers. They are typically ready to use, easy to apply, and effective against many different types of ants. But not all baits are effective against all species of ants. Granular baits, for instance, tend to have little impact on White Footed Ants or Pharaoh Ants, but are probably the best choice for mound-building ants such as Big Headed or Fire Ants. Gel baits may be ideal for Pharaoh Ants and Ghost Ants, but placement is critically important.
When applying any type of ant bait, keep in mind that ants will be drawn to whatever area you choose to make the application. So putting bait on your dining room table, for instance, is almost certain to increase the ant activity on your dining room table (at least in the short term), and probably won't every resolve the problem. When working with baits, start from the outside and work your way inside. Baits work best when placed as close in proximity to the primary nest site(s) as possible.
Ant Sprays: When it comes to spraying for ants, there are several options from which to choose. Repellent sprays, such as Talstar, function by creating a barrier through which ants and other insects are unable to pass. These repellents tend to kill quickly upon exposure and drive insects away from the treatment zone. Repellent sprays are typically not advisable in conjunction with the use of ant baits due to their competing modes action. Non-repellent sprays, such as Termidor, are undetectable to ants, allowing them to unknowingly pick up lethal doses of the toxins and transfer those toxins to other members of the colony. This slower kill and transfer effect functions more similarly to the functionality of baits, making non-repellents often compatible with other types of baits.
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