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Noticing a few ants in your home is annoying, but livable. It’s when they happen to be carpenter ants that the situation becomes a whole new ballgame—you’ll quickly be Googling “how to get rid of ants.” These large insects 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 can you tell carpenter ants from “regular” ones? And how can you get rid of them? We consulted the pros for advice.
How to identify carpenter ants: What do they look like?
Carpenter ants, a.k.a. Camponotus spp., are pretty big compared to their cousins. “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 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. They also have large mandibles, or mouth parts.
What attracts carpenter ants?
Soooo, carpenter ants don’t actually eat wood—they damage it 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.
Signs of a carpenter ant infestation
When carpenter ants build nests, they create tunnels in wood, Straubinger says, which leave visible holes and saw dust remnants.
Where you live determines where you might find them, adds 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, Hottel says it’s “fairly uncommon” for carpenter ants to infest homes, “but it is highly likely that you have carpenter ants in your yard if you have large older trees present.”
Carpenter ant threats: Are they dangerous?
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.” The bigger threat they pose is to your house—Straubinger says they can do “considerable damage” structurally, adding that “it may be necessary to replace timbers.” The more ants you have, the more damage they can do.
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.”
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 and destroy it.
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.
When to seek professional extermination
If you’ve tried everything 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 the critters—and their wood-warping habits—out of your home.
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