Noticing a few ants in your home is annoying, but livable. But when those critters happen to be carpenter ants, it’s a whole new ballgame.
These large ants like to hang around wood (hence, the name), making your home a big ol’ chew toy. As if that’s not bad enough, they also bite. But how you can tell carpenter ants from “regular” ants? And how can you get rid of them and their wood-destroying habits? We consulted the pros.
What do carpenter ants look like?
Carpenter ants, aka Camponotus spp., are on the larger size, as far as ants go. "Carpenter ants are generally easy to tell from other ants because of their size," says Ben Hottel, technical services manager at Orkin, LLC. "These are some of the largest ants you will see in the United States."
They usually range in size from 3.4 to 13 millimeters long, according to Howard Russell, M.S., an entomologist at Michigan State University. Carpenter ants are often black, but some types have a reddish or yellowish shades to them. In carpenter ants, the thorax is evenly rounded—there’s no indentation, unlike with other ants, Russell says. Worker carpenter ants also have large mandibles, or mouth parts.
What do carpenter ants usually eat?
For the record: Carpenter ants don’t actually eat wood. But they do damage wood by excavating and creating galleries and tunnels for their nest, according to Desiree Straubinger, a board certified entomologist and market Technical director for Ehrlich Pest Control.
Carpenter ants typically eat insects, meats, pet food, syrup, honey, sugar, jelly, and other things that are sweet, Russell says. “They’ll feed on pretty much anything they can find, depending on how hungry they are,” Russell says.
How much damage can carpenter ants do?
It depends. When carpenter ants build nests, they created tunnels in wood, and that can weaken the material, Straubinger says. The more ants you have, the more damage they can do. “Carpenter ants can do considerable damage to the timber in your home. It may be necessary to replace timbers,” she says.
Where you live matters, too, says entomologist Roberto M. Pereira, Ph.D., a research scientist with the University of Florida. “In Florida, they usually come into damaged wood—people piling wood around their homes—and it’s not really a problem most of the time,” he says. “But up north, there is a species of carpenter ants that builds their nests in the house and can be there for quite some time.”
Worth noting, per Pereira: Carpenter ants won’t nest in wood that’s sound. “Usually the wood they build their nests in is already damaged,” he says. Often, the woods is wet, moldy, or rotting in some capacity, Russell says.
If you're freaked out, "It is fairly uncommon to have carpenter ants infesting your home, but it is highly likely that you have carpenter ants in your yard if you have large older trees present," says Hottel.
Also, keep in mind that carpenter ants can bite, although they don't do it often. “They typically do not bite people,” Straubinger says. “If they do, however, it can be painful. Carpenter ants can get formic acid into the bite as well, which brings a burning feeling.”
How to get rid of carpenter ants
There are a few steps you can take, and they’re slightly different from what you might do with regular ants.
Try to locate the nest. This is crucial, Straubinger says. “The most effective way to get rid of carpenter ants is to find the nest and destroy it,” she says. “Common places to find carpenter ant nests include hollow doors, window sills, roof areas, and wall voids.”
Use insecticide. Once you locate the nest, using an insecticide like Raid can take out the pests, Russell says.
Use ant baits. Regular ant bait is unlikely to be effective with carpenter ants, Pereira says. That’s why he recommends looking for bait that’s specially designed for carpenter ants. The hope is that the ants will take the bait back to the nest, where it will destroy the nest.
Do some home repairs. This is a pretty crucial element, Pereira says. “Carpenter ants are a fairly avoidable problem if people are doing regular maintenance with their house and noticing if there is a problem with the wood,” he says. Russell recommends specifically paying attention to areas like bathroom walls where grout is missing or spots where there are plumbing leaks.
Be mindful of wood around your place: Hottel specifically recommends that you don't store firewood next to your house, and try to keep tree branches trimmed and away from your roof.
If you’ve tried that and you’re still spotting the bugs, it’s a good idea to call for help. “Carpenter ants set up a series of satellite nests, which ensures the colony’s survival if one nest is destroyed,” Straubinger says. A pest control professional can do things like use dust material treatments, which flush out hidden ant nests and remove carpenter ants, perimeter treatments around the outside of your home, and nest and barrier treatments to directly treat the nests, she says. If it's done right, you should be able to get carpenter ants—and their wood-chewing habits—out of your home.
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