Carpenter Ants

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Carpenter ants are not as destructive as termites, but they are much more common, occurring in as many as six, out of ten homes, throughout North America. Some one once described life as a movable feast or a picnic. What's a picnic without a few ants.

Black carpenter ants are a common species throughout the United States. The ants are called "carpenters" not because they build from wood, but because of the material called "frass" - they leave behind as they destroy wood. Frass, which resembles sawdust from a handsaw, is the result of the ants gnawing away at wood to create tunnels and nests in the wood, called "galleries." Unlike termites, carpenter ants do not eat wood; they only chew it to provide nesting sites. Nevertheless, carpenter ants can easily cause several hundred dollars worth of damage to a structure, and if left untreated, up to several thousand dollars in damage. Fortunately they are detectable, partly because they come out of their nests to forage for food. Carpenter ants are often found where wood touches the ground, causing the wood to rot and attract the ants. Carpenter ants are commonly found in and under porches, in outside stairs, and in windowsills. They can also be found under sinks or in bathrooms if there are small leaks causing wood to soften. These ants are large, measuring 1/8" to 1/2" long. In the northeast, they are usually black, but can come in combinations or red and black, all red, or all brown. Workers are capable of emitting a strong formic acid odor. Although carpenter ants do not sting, their bites can be quite painful, especially when they inject formic acid into the wound. Some carpenter ants, known as swarmers, have wings and are often mistaken for termites. The swarmers are the reproductive members of the ant colony and have three body segments; in contrast, termites have two segments. Swarmers appear from May to August. Outdoor nests usually contain more than 3,000 workers and are typically located in rotting fence posts, stumps, old firewood, dead portions of standing trees, and under stones or fallen logs. Nests in a house are typically "satellite" nests to an outdoor nest. Inside, most carpenter ant species establish their first nest in decayed wood, frequently softened by dry rot fungus, and later expand or enlarge this into sound wood. Nests can also be located in rigid insulation or in walls. The presence of a carpenter ant nest is sometimes indicated by a rustling sound coming from wall voids or from wood where the colony is located. Otherwise, the emergence of swarmers indoors may be the first indication of an indoor colony. Carpenter ants feed primarily on plant and fruit juices, insects, and other arthropods. Inside they will also feed on sweets, eggs, meats, cakes and grease. The workers forage for distances of up to 300 feet from the nest. They typically enter buildings around door and window frames, eaves, plumbing and utility lines, and shrub and tree branches in contact with the building. Although some workers are active during the day, most activity is from dusk until dawn, with peak activity between 10 pm and 2 am. The only external indication of infestation other than the presence of workers and/or swarmers are the appearance of small openings or "windows" on the surface of the wood. Through these, the workers expel debris which consists of frass and/or fragments of insulation and insect body parts. The accumulation of such debris below such holes is a good indication of an active colony and infestation. The preferred method to deal with carpenter ants is prevention. Remove any wood touching the ground and replace it with plastic, metal, concrete or pressure-treated lumber. Also, repair any leaks in your plumbing system. All branches of trees and shrubs in contact with the building should be trimmed back. Be sure to check where electrical and water lines enter the building and caulk any gaps. The best time to take these preventive steps is in the spring and early summer. (The ants themselves are most active in the summer.) If you find that despite your best efforts that you do have ants, you have two choices. One is to hire a licensed pest controller. Hiring a controller to remove a typical infestation should cost around $250 - $800, usually no more than $500. The second choice is to remove the ants yourself, using pesticides available to the public.

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