Carpenter ants are black with reddish legs and vary in size from small to medium to large. During their mating season, you may see large black ants with wings; these are generally carpenter ant swarmers.
Unlike termites, carpenter ants do not eat wood. Rather, they excavate tunnels through the wood in order to expand their nest. Over time, excavating weakens the wood and eventually results in structural damage. Structural damage typically occurs over a long period of time.
Carpenter ant colonies consist of a single queen and thousands of workers. Once there are 2,000 or more workers, a colony may also consist of swarmers (winged males and females). A mature colony can have 10,000- 20,000 workers, while a large colony can have up to 100,000 workers.
A swarmer’s job in the colony is to reproduce. They emerge from the nest during the first warm days of the year, January through June, for their mating flight. After mating, the males die and the inseminated females (now queens) break off their wings, select a nest site, and lays eggs. This is the beginning of a new colony. The initial nest site is called a parent colony or main nest; this is where the queen will remain. When the nest expands, several sub-colonies are created, called satellite colonies.
Habits & Habitat
Carpenter ants primarily feed on insect honeydew, plant and fruit juices, and insects. Workers will forage for food up to 300 feet from their nest – that’s nearly the length of a football field! Indoors, carpenter ants will feed on sweets, eggs, meats, cakes, and greases.
Carpenter ants will establish nests in damp and/or dry wood. Prime nesting sites include standing trees (living or dead), stumps, logs, woodpiles, driftwood, railroad ties, landscaping mulch, and rotting fence posts. They tend to prefer decayed wood and are therefore associated with moisture problems. Parent colonies are established outdoors, often times in decayed wood. Satellite colonies are established outdoors and/or inside of a structure.
Carpenter ants will often enter structures around door frames, window frames, eaves, plumbing lines, utility lines, and shrubs and trees that are in contact with the structure. Indoors, they will nest in insulation as well as a variety of voids including walls, doors, and even drawers.
Signs of an Infestation
Although most people associate carpenter ants with spring and summer, they can actually start moving as early as January. If you see ants inside during the winter months it means there is a nest within the structure.
As the weather gets warmer and spring and summer arrive, you will notice ants hustling and bustling outside as they look for food (aka foraging). It’s not uncommon to find one or two ants inside during this time of the year – they might accidentally wander into a house as they search for food, or they may hitch a ride from a pet or shoe. Seeing one or two ants during the spring and summer does not always indicate an infestation; however, several ants in or around the structure could. Likewise, frequent sightings of swarmers inside could mean there is a nest within the structure.
Other signs of an infestation include rustling sounds (similar to the sound of crackling of leaves) coming from the wall voids and/or ceiling, small openings on the surface of woods, and/or piles of frass. Frass is a result of the carpenter ants excavating through the wood and kicking out debris; it is made up of wood debris and insect body parts.
Reduce the Risk
Getting rid of carpenter ants can be tricky. Ideally, both the parent and satellite colonies should be targeted; however, it’s not always possible to locate the parent colony since it may be located on a different property or in a surrounding wooded area. Store bought products will only eliminate visible ants, not the nests. Therefore, getting rid of carpenter ants is best left to a trained and licensed pest professional. It may take several treatments to eliminate all nests.
To reduce the risk of an infestation, follow these steps:
- Remove stumps and logs from the property.
- Remove (or use minimally) railroad ties, driftwood, and decorative mulch.
- Stack firewood away from the structure and in a manner that allows good ventilation.
- Vegetation such as shrubs and trees should be planted/pruned at least 18-24”away from the structure. This will prevent ants and other insects from using the vegetation as a bridge way to gain access.
- Seal/caulk gaps around electrical, utility, and water lines entering the structure.
- Ensure the crawlspace and attic areas have proper ventilation. The crawlspace should also have a proper vapor barrier in order to manage moisture levels within the crawlspace.
- Mulch and soil along the foundation should not be in direct contact with wood siding or supports for decks and porches; supports should rest on cement. Soil should also be kept away from wooden door frames, windows, and sill plates.
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