Pharaoh Ants: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 20, 2023
6 min read

The ant Monomorium pharaonis (Linnaeus) is commonly known as the Pharaoh ant. This species is believed to be native to Africa, but it can currently be found throughout the United States. Pharaoh ants, sometimes called sugar ants, may be one of the most difficult household ants to control. The name of this species is attributed to the mistaken belief that these ants were one of the plagues of ancient Egypt during the time of the pharaohs.

A Pharaoh ant looks like a typical ant. It is a very small insect with six legs and two antennae. It ranges in color from golden yellow to reddish-brown, and its hind end is typically a darker color than the rest of its body. At approximately 1/16th of an inch long, Pharaoh ants are one of the smallest species of ants. While they don't sting people, they do have stingers that are not always visible. In addition, some Pharaoh ants have wings, but they do not fly. 

Pharaoh ants live in large colonies with many nests, and some colonies have multiple queens and thousands of workers. Queen Pharaoh ants live for about a year and lay around 35 eggs each day. Ants go through several stages — larvae, prepupae, and pupae — as they mature. It takes worker pharaoh ants 36 days to become adults, and winged ants mature at about 45 days old. The average lifespan for a worker ant is around 70 days.

It takes worker pharaoh ants 36 days to become adults. Winged ants mature at about 45 days old. The average lifespan for a worker ant is around 70 days.

Unlike many other ants, they breed year-round and often move colonies if one becomes disturbed. They follow set trails searching for food and can travel along floors, counters, baseboards, and even electrical wires or pipes.

Pharaoh ants may have originated in Africa, but thanks to global commerce, they now live all over the world. They thrive in hot, humid climates, so unless they are in a very warm or tropical climate, they build nests inside heated buildings.

Pharaoh ants can be found in nearly every type of building including houses, apartments, hospitals, hotels, schools, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Pharaoh ants prefer to make their nests in warm, dark areas. For example, they often nest near heating pipes, in the small spaces between walls, under floors or baseboards, in trash cans, under rocks, or inside the soil near buildings.

Most often, the first sign that you have a Pharaoh ant infestation is seeing live ants in your house. However, other signs that you have an ant problem include seeing ant trails and finding a nest. However, finding the ants' nest is less likely because they are so small and can often fit inside a thimble.

Pharaoh ants are common indoor pests because they like dark, warm spaces and may be drawn indoors during colder weather.

Pharaoh ants have the ability to sense food in their surrounding environment, and many infestations occur as a result of the ants’ food search. Pharaoh ants are drawn to and eat many different types of foods. Some of the most common foods include:

  • Sugar or sweets
  • Honey
  • Corn syrup
  • Jelly
  • Peanut butter
  • Fruit juices
  • Baked goods
  • Soft drinks
  • Grease and shortening
  • Dead insects

Pharaoh ants have also been known to eat non-food items such as shoe polish and to chew holes in silk, rayon, and rubber. In hospitals, they have been found in glucose solutions for I.V. bags, packs of sterile medical dressings, and even surgical wounds.

One of the primary health risks associated with Pharaoh ants is the spread of disease. In hospitals, they have contaminated sterile materials and have been linked to bacterial infections. Pharaoh ants can carry more than a dozen potentially harmful bacteria including salmonella, staphylococcus, and pseudomonas.

Are Pharoah Ants Dangerous? 

Bacterial infections spread by Pharaoh ants can range from minor skin problems to food poisoning to sepsis, a potentially life-threatening blood infection. Newborns and people whose immune systems have been weakened by diabetes, cancer, HIV, or other health issues are at a significantly higher risk for bacterial infections.

Do Pharoah Ants Bite?

Pharaoh ants don’t typically bite people. If they do bite, it is usually not painful because the venom is not particularly toxic. For some, however, Pharaoh ant bites can cause an allergic reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include:

  • Hives and swelling anywhere on your body
  • Itchiness throughout your body
  • Abdominal pain
  • Tightness in your chest and/or difficulty breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness

Bites from Pharaoh ants usually go away on their own and do not require treatment, but treatments are available to alleviate your symptoms if they cause discomfort. Most treatment options are available over-the-counter, but you should visit your healthcare provider if your symptoms are severe.

If you notice you have an ant bite or sting, immediately wash the bite area with antibacterial soap and water to prevent infections. Some treatments for ant bites and stings include:

  • Applying ice to the bite to reduce swelling
  • Taking antihistamines or using topical creams such as hydrocortisone to stop itching
  • Taking acetaminophen to alleviate pain
  • Taking corticosteroids for swelling
  • Receiving an injection of epinephrine for an allergic reaction

Pharaoh ants are notoriously difficult to get rid of because they continuously reproduce, start new colonies, and make their nests in inaccessible, hard-to-find places. You can start by finding the ant trails and following them back to their food source. In the winter, Pharaoh ants will move toward heat sources, but they will spread out over an entire building during warmer months.

One effective method for eliminating pharaoh ant nests is to use baits. Pharaoh ants are attracted to sweet and greasy foods, so baits that mimic these types of foods can be used to lure the ants into a trap. Once they take the bait, they will carry it back to the nest and share it with the other ants, eventually killing off the entire colony.

Another method for getting rid of pharaoh ants is through the use of insecticides. Insecticides can be applied directly to the nest or to areas where the ants are known to travel. However, insecticides can be toxic to humans and pets. 

Liquid or powder insecticides aren't usually effective at getting rid of Pharaoh ants and are better left to professional exterminators. If you choose to use liquid or powder pesticides, make sure to treat the entire building, including:

  • Ceilings
  • Walls
  • Baseboards
  • Electrical outlets
  • Cracks and other small spaces

In addition to using baits and insecticides, there are steps you can take to prevent Pharaoh ants from entering your home in the first place:

  • Seal off cracks and crevices in walls, floors, and foundations.
  • Keep food in sealed containers.
  • Keep floors and countertops clean and free of crumbs and spills. 
  • Removing trash and debris from the area around the building.

In addition, bug bombs or total-release aerosol insecticides aren’t very effective at getting rid of Pharaoh ants. Often, the fumes never reach the nest, and even if they do, the ants may simply move the colony to another place in the building. 

Homes, buildings, or healthcare centers with people who might be sensitive to chemicals, like pregnant people and small children, or buildings containing special technology, may not be well suited for the use of chemical insecticides. In these scenarios, there are still many options to help control ant infestations. For example, sticky traps, tapes, glue boards, or even a petroleum jelly barrier can help keep Pharaoh ants out.

If you find Pharaoh ants in large numbers and can’t handle the infestation on your own, it is highly recommended that you consult a professional exterminator.