Ants: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on January 09, 2024
7 min read

Ants are insects in the biological order hymenoptera. They perform many different functions in the environment, including: 

  • Aerating the soil 
  • Controlling pests by eating other insects like fleas, termites, and caterpillars
  • Eating dead and decomposing insects
  • Providing food for other organisms like birds  

Many species of ants can get into your home and become a nuisance. Ants are social animals and live in colonies. The worker ants you're likely to see in your house can range in size from 1/20th of an inch to 1/2 of an inch long. All ants have the following characteristics: 

  • Two bent antennae on the head
  • A pinched area between the thorax and the abdomen that has either one or two nodes

There are over 12,400 species of ants around the world, but only a few of these are common household pests. 

Identifying the species of ant you've seen in your home or yard can help with pest control, but it may be difficult since ants are so small. You can contact your local extension service for help identifying ants. Some identifying characteristics you can look for include: 

  • The number of nodes on an ant's abdomen and if they're hidden or easily seen
  • The shape of the ant's thorax
  • The number of segments on the antennae and if the tip is enlarged
  • Whether the ant has eyes on its head

One-node ants

Some common species of nuisance one-node ants include: 

Fire ants. These are a type of stinging ant. They’re small and reddish in color. You may want to call an exterminator to deal with this painful species. 

Carpenter ants . These are larger dark-bodied ants that damage wood by burrowing through it. They’re typically one-half to one-quarter of an inch long. 

Odorous house ants. These are more of a pest than an actual problem — they don’t carry diseases or damage your home. They have dark bodies that are usually less than an eighth of an inch long and release a unique smell when they’re crushed. 

Argentine ants.These are particularly common in California. They look very similar to odorous house ants but don’t release the same smell when they’re crushed. 

Honeypot ants. This type of ant is less than half an inch. It scavenges for nectar and small prey and lives in scrublands and grasslands.

Cornfield ants. Also known as lawn ants, you'll find these brown-colored ants in cornfields and lawns. They make their homes in the soil under large stones, bricks, sidewalks, and inside rotting logs and tree stumps.

False honey ants. These ants are common in the U.S. and tend to forage when other ants are less active during cool weather. 

Field ants. Field ants are on the larger side at up to 3/8 inch long. They range in color from pale yellow to black. They nest in fields, parks, gardens, and lawns, and you can tell them apart from other ants by the mound of soil they make from the dirt they dig up for their nests.  

Larger yellow ants. These ants build their home in open areas and use the soil under logs, rocks, patio blocks, porches, and concrete patios to make large mounds They give off a citronella scent when crushed or moved and defend themselves from other insects by using formic acid. 

African driver ant. You'll find this species of ant in parts of Africa and Asia. They nest underground and swarm in large groups on the ground and in low vegetation.

Two-node ants

Some common species of nuisance two-node ants include: 

Acrobat ants. These ants are native to Florida, and you'll find them across the state and other parts of the Southeastern U.S. The small, shiny species is known as an acrobat ant because of the flexibility the worker shows in holding up its abdomen over the rest of its body.

Pavement ants. This ant species is common across the U.S. They build their nests under the foundation of buildings and can come into your home to search for food.

Pharaoh ants. Some people believed that this type of ant was one of the plagues of ancient Egypt, and that's how it got it's name. It's a common household ant and one of the hardest to control because they nest in hard-to-reach areas of your home.

Thief ants. These ants are known for nesting near or inside other ants' nests and stealing their food. They're smooth and shiny and range in color from yellow to bronze or dark brown.

Ants with wings

Called "swarmer" or "alate," ants have wings during their reproductive stage. They lose them through shedding or chewing after reaching the ground before creating a nest.

Ants live almost everywhere on the planet. If you want to escape them, you'll have to go to Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, or some island nations. Ants usually make their nests in soil, leaf litter, or decaying plants. 

The most common sign that you have ants is seeing them inside your house. When scouting ants find food, they leave a chemical trail for their colony mates to follow to help collect the food to take it back to their nest. Another sign that you have ants is an increase in aphids on your houseplants. Ants protect and herd aphids so they can milk them. 

You may also find that ants have invaded your pantry food items. Except for carpenter ants, most ants don't cause damage to your house. Carpenter ants bore into wood structures, leaving behind little piles of sawdust.

Ants often come in through cracks and crevices. They don't usually nest indoors, so they come in to find what they need to survive: food and water. They're quick to find crumbs of food and drips of water. Ants can make their way into any building, including:

  • Homes 
  • Schools
  • Nursing homes
  • Office buildings

Usually, it takes some sort of need or disturbance to send them inside. Examples include: 

  • Searching for a new home — construction projects, like home additions and deck construction, can disrupt the location of ant colonies and force them to seek out new shelter
  • Searching for food
  • Extreme drought
  • Flooding
  • Normal seasonal changes

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a method of controlling pests that starts with the safest method, using information about the pests as a guide. 

Nonchemical prevention and treatment

Start by sealing any areas where they're entering your home. Repair any cracks and seal openings with caulk or other methods. Don't leave food out. Clean any spills and stop any leaks immediately. 

Vacuum ants and either empty the bag immediately or add cornstarch to the bag. When you've eliminated the ants you can see, wipe up the area with warm, soapy water to eliminate the chemical trail they've left for other ants in their colony to follow. 

Empty your trash regularly, and wash your trash cans and recycling bins. Store food in hard-sealed containers, and store sugary foods in the refrigerator. If ants are attracted to your house plants, put them on an elevated platform in a shallow dish of soapy water to create a moat around them. 

Keep your shrubs and plants that surround your house trimmed back so ants don't have easy access to your house. Remove any debris next to your house that provides attractive nesting areas for ants, including wood, branches, leaf litter, and tree stumps. 

You can try to eliminate or discourage ants by digging up the nest or soaking it with warm, soapy water. 

Using pesticides to get rid of ants

You may be able to get rid of ants using preventative measures. If not, you should make sure you're using the right pesticide for the ants you want to get rid of and that has the least effect on other plants and animals. 

Indoors, you can use enclosed bait traps that have pesticides premixed with food. The worker ants will carry the food back to the colony to feed the queen, destroying the colony. Look for baits that contain one of the following ingredients: 

  • Hydramethylnon
  • Boric acid
  • Fipronil
  • Sulfluramid
  • Abamectin

Diatomaceous earth is another option. It's a natural powder-like substance made of fossilized remains of diatoms, which damage an ant's outer covering and cause fluid loss. You can use diatomaceous earth inside and outside your home. 

Avoid using sprays, bombs, or foggers since these don't kill the colonies but can damage your lungs and be accidentally ingested. 

It's not practical to attempt to get rid of all ants in an outdoor environment. Ants serve beneficial purposes in the ecosystem. Using granules and sprays outside poses environmental risks and can contaminate water. A bait-based IPM program is the most effective and safest way to eliminate colonies outdoors. If you can't handle the problem yourself, hire a professional trained in IPM practices.