If you live anywhere in the developed world it is likely you have seen ants in and around your home. There are thousands of species of ant and they are located on every continent on the planet with the exception of very cold places such as Antarctica.
Ants colonies work together in a kind of hive mindset. If this sounds familiar to some species of wasp, that’s because ants are related to wasps and likely shared a common ancestor millions of years ago. In general, an ant colony works together to provide for the colony as a whole. Each ant has a very specific role, thus making the colony almost like one living organism with the individual ants like cells within a human body, tasked with performing percise actions.
Ant infestations are one of the most common types of specialist calls we get at Western Exterminator. On this page, we attempt to answer the most common questions about ants. Click on one of the questions below and be taken to the answer. If your home has been invaded by ants, contact your local Exterminator office and discuss ants extermination today.
Basic ant questions
What is an ant?
An ant is a social insect in the family known as Formicidae which is part of the order Hymenoptera. This means they are actually related to wasps and bees and probably evolved from a similar wasp-like ancestor more than 140 million years ago during the Cretaceous period of the planet’s history.
Ants are similar to most species of bee and wasp in that they form social colonies where there is a queen, workers, scouts and other defined roles for the various members of the colony. During the early stages of a new nest, it is also possible for some of the ants to have wings and fly as they set out to find a new place to start a colony.
Ants are easy to spot compared to other insects because of their bent antennae. They also have a distinct body shape which usually includes a fairly large head with mandibles for chewing and carrying food and their segmented body. Ants usually have narrow waists and a larger hind end. The narrow waist also usually has nods or bumps. Ants also have six legs.
Most ants are known to share a kind of “hive mind” and have been shown to think almost in unison with each other. They work together for the colony, protecting the colony, feeding the young and finding food. It has even been shown that some species of ant can work together to solve complex problems and find solutions to solve these problems.
Throughout much of North America, ants are nuisance pest. However, there are some species of ant that sting and have been known to attack en mass if the colony is threatened. Ants are also located throughout the world and some species of ant have even been known to bring health problems to people who are stung or bitten by them. Some species of ant can damage crops and some can damage wooden structures.
Ants are found on all continents save for Antarctica. Even isolated islands such as Greenland or Iceland, which had no native ants, have had ant colonies transported there via shipping and international travel and now have established colonies.
What do ants look like? What does a queen ant look like?
There are many species of ants and they all have distinguishing characteristics that separates them from other species. Ants come in a variety of colors, sizes, shapes, head-sizes, mandible-sizes and more. However, there are some traits that all ants share. They include:
- Three distinguishable body segments. There’s the head, the waist area, and the abdomen. This is one of the key factors that separate flying ants from flying termites because termites do not have three distinguishing segments.
- Six legs. This separates the ants from some species spiders (eight legs) which actually have body shapes and markings that try to disguise them as ants. Ants are insects, not arachnids, so they have six distinguishable legs.
- Bent antennae. Another trait which separates ants from termites is the fact termites have straight antennae and ants have bent antennae.
The queen can vary based on species, too, but there are some traits which seem common to all species of ant.
- Size. Most species of ant have queens which are very noticeably larger than the worker ants. The one exception are the species known as army ants, which have queens that are not much bigger than the other ants.
- Wings. Although there are males who also have wings, most of the time it’s the queen ant who has the wings. They will shed their wings once they find a place where they want to build a nest, but if you see an ant with wings that looks much larger than other ants, you may be looking at a queen ant.
- Thorax size. The queen ants tend to have much thicker and larger thoraxes. The thorax is the part of the body just behind the head that connects the head to the waist and then to the back end of the ant.
- Location. The queen ant is usually right at the center of the nest. Of course, to find this out, you’d need to dig into an anthill to find her. This is not recommended for all species of ant since some species will bite and may even be venomous.
Where do ants live?
Ants live on every continent on earth with the exception of Antarctica. Ants make their nests in the ground and they will build very elaborate tunnels and chambers to house eggs, food and their young underground. The telltale sign of a small mound of earth with an opening at the top, known as an anthill, is very common in all areas around the globe.
Not all ants make their nests in the earth. Carpenter ants, for example, will use wood such as fallen trees or old, abandoned logs.
Most of the time ants prefer to be out in nature where they can have easy access to food and good places to build their nests. However, humans have encroached upon their territory so much, that human and ant interaction is inevitable. Ants have been known to build their nests in the cracks of pavement, within lawns, and right near or beside homes. Sometimes, while foraging for food, ants will find their way indoors and if they find a good source of food, they leave behind a trail which will bring more ants and create an indoor infestation of ants.
What do ants eat?
Ants are one of nature’s biggest scavengers. The vast majority of ants are opportunistic and will eat meat. This includes insects and dead things. Ants are famous for being able to take apart even dead lizards using their very sharp mandibles to then transport the pieces back to their nests. Most ants are carnivorous, but there are some species which feed exclusively on plants. For example, Leaf-Cutter ants are almost exclusively herbivores.
Some species of ant will actually seek out living creatures and consume them. Driver ants, for example, are infamous for going on massive hunts which will clear out entire rainforest floors of nearly every living thing from other insects, small animals, and other living things.
Ants are also known to get inside properties and homes. They look for sweet things, primarily, and are famous for swarming over sugary things such as candy, ice cream, and other things dropped on the ground. Ants will take whatever they find palatable and bring it back to the nest which can include fruits, too. This is why you will find ants in a kitchen going for food on counters, in cupboards and located beneath kitchen sinks or within pantries.
Their scavenging tendencies are actually one of the key benefits ants bring to the world. They will clean up dead animal carcasses, help with pest control in some areas, and clean up other garbage and debris left on the ground. The problem comes when the nests grow out of control and they threaten people, children and pets.
Where do ants come from?
Ants have been around for millions of years, but they are closely related to wasps. In fact, it is believed that modern ants evolved from a common wasp ancestor. Some species of wasp evolved off of that common ancestor, but the species which became ants shed their wings and preferred to build nests in the ground. It is thought this divergence in species happened during the Cretaceous period which was roughly 140 million years ago.
In the modern world, ants are found out in nature and areas of grass and dirt. They get inside through small openings, drains and other methods while looking for food.
Where do ants enter houses? How can you find out how ants get into your home? Why are there ants in the house? Why are there ants in the kitchen?
Ants, in general, are very small and can get into homes and other buildings through even the tiniest holes. Since they make their nests underground, they can also find weaknesses and holes not easily visible from the outside and beneath the surface. Cracks in the foundation, any opening in the exterior walls such as holes or openings made for venting, drains or cables. Scout ants will explore new territory seeking out a food source and will lay down a chemical trail for other ants to follow if they find food to bring back to the nest.
Ants will also get inside underneath doors, which is why having door sweeps that go all the way to the ground are important on garage doors, front doors and any doors leading outside. Ants will get in via holes in screens, too.
The best way to find out where ants are accessing your home is to follow the ant trails that they leave behind. Ants will leave behind chemical trails that allow other ants to find the food source. Ants also work in tandem with each other to break apart food into smaller pieces and then carry them back to the nest. If you follow the ant trails, you can find the areas where they are getting in and then seal up those cracks. A trained professional can also find the places where ants are either getting in or likely to get in and provide a treatment plan which will get rid of the nest and prevent further infestations.
Most of the time ants are inside your home because they are looking for food. It takes just one scout finding a scrap of food it can take back to the nest for the ant to lay down a chemical trail for the rest of the ant colony to follow.
Ants are most likely found in the kitchen because this is the easiest source of food in your home.
Where do ants lay eggs?
The only ant which can lay eggs is the queen ant. Males will mate with the queen ant and the queen ant lays the eggs within a special chamber in side the ant nest. Usually, the queen ant has the colonies built around them and they are the center of most of the activity around the colony. Queens can lay thousands of eggs over time.
Why are ants important to the environment?
Although ants are very much a nuisance and not something most people likely want inside their homes or kitchens, they do play an important role in the environment.
- Ants, because they build their nests underground, help aerate the soil, which makes it nutrient rich for plants to grow.
- Ants will feed on about anything that they can get their mandibles on. This can include seeds. Most of the time, the ants will eat only part of the seed, which leaves the rest of it to grow within the soil and thus, ants help propagate species of plants and flowers.
- Since ants are scavengers, they will clean up dead animals, plants and other things left on the sidewalks and roads. They help clean up the environment.
- Ants also eat decaying plant matter, which helps keep nature clean from rotting plant and vegetable matter.
- Ants will often prey on other pest insects that pose a far greater risk to plants and animals than ants, such as termites or aphids.
- Finally, ants are also a part of the food chain. There are birds and other insects which feed on ants, thus making the ants part of the natural order of things.
Why do ants like sugar?
Ants eat a wide variety of things. They will eat fruit, vegetable, decaying matter, other insects, meat, dead matter and, yes, they will gladly eat sugar. Why? Because sugar is a great source of easy energy. Much like why humans like to eat sugar, ants, who are active much the time and need a tremendous amount of energy in order to function. Sugar digests into energy they can use and the rest of the colony can use to keep going.
Why are ants considered pests?
Ants are considered pests because they can be destructive at times. Carpenter ants, for example, who create their tunnels and nests in wooden structures around a home can cause serious damage to that home. Red Imported Fire Ants will defend their nests and can sting pests and humans who stumble into their ant hills.
Ants will walk across carcasses and dead animals. They also walk through feces and other materials which they can transfer to cooking surfaces around a home, which can infect food and make people ill. Ants will also chew their way into food packages.
How do ants communicate?
There are a variety of species of ant and different species communicate in various ways. Most species of ant communicate via chemicals. Ants secrete pheromones, which they can sense using sense organs on their bodies. Scouting ants will lay down a chemical trail to food sources they find which can lead the rest of the workers to that food source for the colony. Ants will release a distress chemical, much like some species of wasp, to indicate there is a threat to the colony and cause the nest to swarm and attack the threat.
Ants are also known to use sound as a way to communicate. There are other species which use touch with one another to send signals and communicate information. Some species of ant use multiple methods of communication based on the situation and what the colony is experiencing at the time.
How do ants work together?
One of the most remarkable thing about ants is they have a very close sense of community and their instincts tend to be geared toward working together to help and protect their colonies. Some of the behavior ant colonies have shown when working together have been remarkable, but can vary from species to species.
Almost all species of ants will work together to bring food to the colony. Scout ants will head out from the nest to find a food source and then use various means to let the rest of the colony know where this food source is. If you have been outside and seen thousands of ants swarming over a piece of food or candy, you have seen ants working together to break apart the food item and bring it back to their nest.
Driver ants have been known to swarm en mass over the floors of rainforests. The ants do not have any form of venom, but they have powerful jaws which they use to pull apart their intended prey while it’s still living. Although driver ants are blind, they excrete powerful chemicals to let other ants know where to go and they do more than that. Driver ants have been seen standing atop one another to create tunnels, bridges and other structures for the rest of the colony to cross or move while sheltered.
Red Imported Fire Ants have also been known to work together. For example, they will attack a potential threat as one unit to destroy that threat. However, when ant hills have been flooded, it has been shown fire ants will group together to create rafts allowing the colony to float on top of the water instead of drowning in the deluge.
In order to work together for all of these various reasons ants use sound or chemicals or touch methods to communicate with one another, convey information or distress to the rest of the colony.
How do ants find food?
Worker ants, or scouts, will leave their nest (colony) in search of food. When they do so, they lay down pheromones or chemicals in order to find their way back to the nest. They will walk quite far from their nests in some cases, using their antennae or other senses to find a suitable food source. Once they find a food source, they lay down more chemicals which the rest of the colony will use to make their way back to that food source until that source is depleted. Ants follow the pheromone trail using their antennae, which will feel along the ground to sense the chemicals. This can be a very long, slow process for the ants.
How do ants mate?
Only queen ants lay eggs. Queen ants will engage in an initial “nuptial flight” with several males. The males will lay down sperm cells which the queen harvests and keeps with her. The queen ant, once established within a new colony, begins to lay eggs constantly. She is tended to by the other ants who provide her with food and remove waste. These worker ants also communicate the needs of the colony to the queen and she will either allow the eggs to be fertilized or not. The eggs that get fertilized will become female worker ants while unfertilized eggs become males.
There is even a species of ant, Cataglyphis cursor, which reproduced asexually. The queen lays eggs which contain, essentially, clones of the queen. The embryos grow within the eggs without needing to be fertilized. All of the subsequent offspring are females. It is a process known as parthenogenesis.
How do ants eat?
Ants use their powerful mandibles to break apart things in which they want to eat. Often ants find objects to eat which are much larger than they are. Worker ants will carry much of the food back to the nests to be eaten by the rest of the colony.
Ants break apart the food they are trying to eat and then use the mandibles to shape it until it fits within their actual mouth. Ants do not have teeth within their actual mouth, as their teeth are external and more commonly called mandibles. Thus, they use those mouthparts to make sure the food is just the right size and shape to be swallowed.
How do ants see?
Ants, like most insects, have what are known as compound eyes. This means their eyes have multiple lenses, but in general, most species of ant do not have particularly great eyes for seeing very far. Ants can detect movement and see the areas around them, but rely more on senses and information they get from their legs and antennae than from their eyes. Ants tend to use sounds, touch and chemicals called pheromones to communicate and get around than their eyes. There are even species of an that do not have eyes at all.
Of course, there are also exceptions. The Bulldog ant found in Australia is set apart from other species of ant because of their abnormally large eyes and are known to be able to see much further than other species of ant.
How do ants build their homes? How do ants build ant hills?
Ants use their jaws (mandibles) to excavate earth and create tunnels. The type and size of the tunnels, chambers and anthills varies based on the species. Some species create barely-noticeable anthills on the surface but will create a tunnel many, many feet deep below ground before branching out. Some anthills, when excavated, show massive networks of connected tunnels and chambers that go dozens of feet deep from the surface. Some species create massive anthills that tower many feet into the air at the surface.
Ant nests and hills are actually very carefully constructed by the ants and surprisingly complex. The hills are comprised mostly of soil or sand. The worker ants are not usually capable of transporting rocks to make the walls of the anthill, so they are rarely found within. However, they will also transport sticks or pine needles to embed within the walls to add strength to the walls of the hill and the tunnels beneath.
Ant hills or colonies can stretch for miles. Sometimes different species of ants find themselves connected via tunnels within their anthills. The anthills can just keep growing and growing if the nest is not disturbed. An ant colony in Europe was found to have a nest stretching from the Italian Riviera all the way to Spain, a distance of over 3,600 miles.
Do ants rest?
Ants actually do sleep. Queen ants may sleep the longest at one time since they are buried within the nest and lay eggs constantly. The workers and scouts, however, are constantly moving around and looking for food. This causes them to use up a tremendous amount of energy and they will take potentially hundreds of short naps during the course of the day to rebuild their energy. Of course, these ants also seek out high protein or sugary foods to build up their energy as well.
This imbalance in activity and energy may also account for the fact that queen ants can live for years, but worker ants tend to burn out and die after about a year.
Do ants hibernate?
Yes, some species of ant will hibernate during the cooler or cold months. Of course, most ants will die off when it gets cold. However, ants will seek a way to get indoors or to find a warm place to overwinter if they can. Ants will burrow further into the ground, too, during winter, and then come together for warmth during winter months. Although a large percentage of the colony may die off due to the cold, as most ants will not survive cold weather, there is a percentage of the colony that will survive (such as the queen) and be able to rebuild the colony once the weather warms up in the spring and summer.
How organized are ants?
Ants are among the most highly organized organisms in nature. Every ant has an assigned task and the entire colony works together as one living creature to keep the colony alive, protected and fed. Ants have been shown to work together as a team to break apart large food elements to bring down into the nest. Ants also have been shown to create bridges and tunnels with their own bodies to shelter the rest of the colony as it rushes out to find food. Ants work together to attack threats from people, animals and other ant colonies. Ants have even been shown to group together to create rafts to ensure the colony survives flooding.
Ants are also very clever when it comes to work. They build chambers underground to store food, to rest in and to store their eggs. During the day, worker ants will transport eggs to chambers closer to the surface, where it’s warmer, until the day begins to cool off. The workers will then transport the eggs back down further into the ground and closer to the combined heat of the colony.
What species of ant bite?
There are many species of ant that are known to bite. All species of ant have strong, powerful, mandibles in front of their heads. These mandibles are used for tearing apart food so the ant can carry it back to their nests. There are some species of ant which are known to be aggressive and which will sometimes bite people. The most common biting or stinging ants in North America are:
- Red Imported Fire Ants – very common in warmer climates. These are small red ants native to South America who have found a foothold here in the U.S. They are known to be very aggressive and defensive of their nests. They will bite with their mandibles, grabbing on to the potential threat, then sting using a stinger much like a wasp, to repeatedly sting someone. RIFA can pose a health risk for those who are sensitive to insect stings.
- Crazy ants – a common type of ant in the U.S. who get their name from their erratic movements. They are known to bite in defense of their nests.
- Carpenter ants – these ants have very powerful jaws which they use to carve out wooden structures. They very rarely bite, but like most ants, if they feel their nests are being threatened they have no problem using those powerful jaws on the potential threat.
- Field ants – a small type of ant which has been known to use their mandibles to bite.
- Harvester ants – more likely to sting a potential threat, but they may bite and sting in defense of their nests.
- Acrobat ants – these ants love sweet foods and have to sting their prey when they are feeding on live creatures. They will also sting people if their nests are disturbed.
Why do ants bite?
The reason ants bite is usually because they are doing so to defend their nests. People are generally not on their menu, so they are not trying to eat people. Nearly all species of ant will react to potential threats to their nests and response by swarming over the threat and using their mandibles to bite and deter the threat.
This is one of the key reasons finding a large ant hill or ant invasion of your home is so important to take care of by calling a professional. Attempting to take care of an anthill can cause them to swarm all over you and you can be bitten or stung multiple times.
What types of ants eat wood?
There is a misconception here. Ants do not actually eat wood. Termites have to eat wood in order to chew it up into a type of paste and get to the cellulose within. There are ants, however, that will use their mandibles to chew tunnels and chambers into wooden structures like walls in order to build their nests, lay eggs, store food and raise their young.
Carpenter ants are the species of ant which will burrow into the wood in order to build their nests. They are most often found out in nature and will use the softer wood from old tree stumps or fallen trees for their nesting purposes. However, sometimes carpenter ants find themselves in contact with humans and will chew their way into walls, joists, wooden furniture, decks and other wooden structures found all around a residential or commercial property.
Carpenter ants can create very large nests and there are times when multiple nests can be within close proximity of each other. These species of ant may not be as relentless as termites but left unchecked, they can cause tremendous damage to homes and buildings.
Are ants poisonous?
There are types of ants which are poisonous, although the more accurate term is venomous. In the United States, the most common venomous ant is the Red Imported Fire Ant, which carries sacs of venom that they can inject into prey or potential threats using their stingers.
Another venomous ant that has been known to sting people is the Harvester Ant. Species of Harvester Ant are found all over the world. But the Red harvester ant is found in the southwestern United States. Given their reddish color, they are often mistaken for the Red Imported Fire Ant.
In other parts of the world, there are very dangerous ants which can be poisonous and very aggressive. For example, the Bulldog Ant found in Australia. They are known to have very painful and venomous stings and can be fatal to some people if not treated properly. These ants are known for having particularly good vision and for being relentless and aggressive to potential threats.
In South America, the Bullet Ant is said to have one of the most painful stings of any insect in the world. They get their name from the fact that being stung by one has been compared to being shot by a gun. Some native cultures create gloves with Bullet ants woven into them as a rite of passage for young men into adulthood. They wear these gloves and the ants sting them multiple times.
When do ants attack?
Ants do not seek out humans to feed on. However, ants are notorious for being very defensive of their nests. They seek to protect their young, their eggs and their queen. Thus. anyone who attempts to disrupt their nests or damage their nests is likely to end up with a swarm of ants coming right at them. For a lot of species of ant, this is a nuisance and might result in some pinching, but no real health risks. However, if you attempt to get rid of red imported fire ants, you could end up stung repeatedly and might have a reaction to venom from these ants.
For the most part, ants are nuisance pests. They will consume food and food products around your home. They are not particular about what they walk across and this can lead to the transfer of bacteria on to food surfaces which can create a health risk in that way. However, ants, since they are distantly related to wasps, share some characteristics such as an instinct to protect their nests. Soldier ants will send out a chemical signal to other ants to come to defend the nest and this is when they can swarm.
Ants versus termites
What ants have wings? Can ants fly? What do flying ants look like?
It is a commonly held belief that flying ants are some other species of ant that can fly. In fact, flying ants are just members of an established, common, ant species. There are a few of them and they only have their wings and only fly for a short period of time.
So, to answer the question, yes, ants can fly. Why do they fly? Well, it’s much like termites. The queen and potential mates have wings and will fly away from an established nest in what is often referred to as a “nuptial flight” to establish a brand new nest. When the queen and her potential mates and workers find a spot they feel will make a good nest, they lose their wings. They then set about breeding and creating a brand new network of tunnels or creating a new nest.
Often, flying termites and flying ants are confused for one another. They do have certain similarities. However, there are noticeable differences between the two species of insect.
Ants have bent antennae and their sets of wings are unequal from one another. They also have a very noticeable abdomen that separates the front and back halves of their body.
Termites have wings which are the same length. They have straight antennae and their bodies are just one long segment with no noticeable “waist” area.
The biggest difference is behavior once the two species lose their wings and start to build their nests. Termites will bore into wooden structures and set about chewing up the wood to use as food. Unless the ants in question are Carpenter Ants, the flying ants will be looking to build their nests in soil or other places. Even Carpenter Ants do not eat the wood, they just use their powerful mandibles to chew the wood and create tunnels and then nesting areas for eggs and for their colonies.
What’s the difference between an ant and a termite?
Of course, the biggest difference between an ant and a termite is what they feed on. Ants eat a lot of things, but they do not eat wood. Termites devour wood so they can turn it into a pulpy mass they can consume. However, ants and termites do look very similar and many people confuse them when they first see them. There are certain physical traits they have which distinguish them from each other.
- Body shape. Ants have very distinct waists and three body segments. They are noticeable even for the tiniest of ants. Termites have just two body segments. Termites have a head and a large abdomen area.
- Antennae shape. Ants have bent antennae. Termites have straight antennae.
- Wings. Both termites and ants fly when they separate from an existing nest and set off to create a new nest. If you are seeing small insects with wings and you want to know if you have termites or ants, look at the wings. Termites have four sets of wings and they are larger than their body and uniform in size. Ants have four sets of wings, but the two sets of wings are of different sizes and their bodies are longer than the wings.