All About Ants

Learn all about ants, because if you disturb a colony, these social insects might make your skin crawl.

Fire Ant Warning

Disturb a Fire Ant nest, and you might just have a mess on your hands.

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My wife spotted the first one in early summer. Black, maybe a quarter of an inch long, cautiously exploring the surface of our kitchen counter. She smacked it with a newspaper and deposited the carcass in the trash can. There. Done.

Or not. In the following days, a progression of ants began invading our house. We whacked ’em, smashed ’em and trashed ’em, but they just kept coming. One by one, we found them crawling in the laundry room, along the kitchen floor, and across the countertops. When I found one in the sugar bowl, nearly comatose from a sugar high, I decided it was time for armed military action. It was time ... for ant bait.

No matter whether you live in the country or in the city, you’ll find ants nearby. More than 12,000 species have been identified worldwide, with hundreds of known species existing in North America. They’re found in every region of Earth except Antarctica, and some species can create supercolonies containing hundreds of thousands of individuals. All ants come equipped with sharp mandibles, and some are armed with stingers loaded with venom. Yikes!

Celebrated in fables, songs and movies, ants are among the hardest working of all insects. They follow a rigid social structure, live in colonies that include one or more queens and thousands of worker ants whose job it is to care for the queen(s) and the young, provide food for the colony, and fend off invaders. While the life expectancy of a worker ant is just 45 to 60 days, the queen can live for up to six years, producing as many as 2 million offspring during her life span. It’s good to be queen, if you don’t mind being perpetually pregnant.

Ants possess a sophisticated pheromone system that functions every bit as well as the GPS unit in your car. When the worker ants march off in search of a food source, they leave a pheromone trail behind them, making it easy for the next ant to follow. Lacking ears, ants can’t hear you calling them names. But they do have an advanced sense of vibration, picked up through their six legs. Ants also use pheromones to communicate danger, to help identify their own kind, and to summon additional ants to the attack.

Ants can be found in deserts, tundras, rain forests, swamps and fields. They construct their nests in the soil, in trees or rotting wood, under rocks and concrete, in leaf litter, or in hollow twigs and stems. While they are outdoor creatures, ants have a sweet tooth, and some species will invade your home in search of food. The ants you find in the kitchen may be small Ghost ants or black ants, or their larger cousins, the Pharaoh ants, all hunting for spilled sugar, syrup, cookie crumbs, or the sugar sludge at the bottom of your child’s morning cereal bowl.

Carpenter ants are also known for inviting themselves inside the house. Measuring a quarter-inch to a half-inch in length, Carpenter ants are named for their habit of hollowing out wood to build a nest. They are more commonly found outdoors in and around wooded areas, but they will establish colonies in your basement, or the walls or attic of your home. If you find a small pile of sawdust inside the house, it may be a sign of a carpenter ant nest.

Garden ants, of which there are many species, feed on plant sap, fruit, and the honeydew secreted by aphids. In fact, some ants are so fond of aphid honeydew that they’ll round up aphids like cowboys on a cattle drive. They then herd the aphids into their nests where they massage aphid abdomens to encourage the production of more honeydew. Some ants also feed on insects, seeds, meats and grease, and flowering plants. Leafcutter ants, found from the southeastern United States to South America, are gardeners. They use their mandibles to cut out pieces of leaves, which they carry back to the nest and chew into a pulp to help cultivate an edible fungus.

Ants in the garden are both beneficial and detrimental. On the plus side, ants help speed the natural decomposition process. Tunneling garden ants can improve air circulation in heavy soils, and their burrows can improve water drainage. On the negative side, a colony of ants that builds its nest in your vegetable or flower garden can damage plant roots and cause plants to wilt or die. And if your lawn or garden is infested with red ants, there’s always the chance you’ll get bitten.

Speaking of ant bites, if you live in the southern one-third of the United States, you probably know all about fire ants. Now found in as many as 18 states, fire ants are notoriously aggressive. If you happen to be standing near a fire ant colony, the entire colony may swarm out to attack you if you don’t move away in a hurry (this I’ve learned from painful experience). Fire ants possess both pincers and stingers. They use their pincers to anchor themselves in place while they turn in a circle, stinging their victim repeatedly.

Fire ants are omnivores that will feed on almost any plant or animal material. They can kill and feed on ground-nesting animals like field mice, snakes, turtles and birds. They also will feed on and destroy dozens of species of cultivated plants, including the germinating seeds of crops such as corn, sorghum and soybeans, and the buds and developing fruits of citrus and okra. Tunneling fire ants also can damage potato tubers and peanuts.

Heaven help you if fire ants find their way inside your home. They will nest within the walls of homes and offices, inside heat pumps, air conditioners, telephone junction boxes, transformers and traffic lights, and will establish colonies under sidewalks and roadways. And they will bite and sting you. I have nothing good to say about fire ants.

Finally, every species of ant is capable of lifting 20 times its own body weight, which would be equal to a 10-year-old child lifting a full-grown cow! As the song “High Hopes” says, “Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant!”   

Jerry Schleicher lives in Parkville, Missouri, and while he’s never lived around fire ants, he’s certainly experienced their wrath.