Honey Ants: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 24, 2023
5 min read

Small honey ants are not considered serious commercial pests throughout most of their natural range. However, because they can enter households and other buildings, some people think of them as nuisance pests

Luckily, they are not nearly as problematic as some other ant species, like imported fire ants. Learn how to identify the small honey ant so you know what to do if you see one in your home.

The scientific name for the small honey ant is Prenolepsis imparis. They are of the order Hymenoptera which also includes bees and wasps, and are in the Formicidae family which includes all ant species.

Common names for the honey ant include small honey ants, false honey ants, and native winter ants.

Unlike most ant species, small honey ants are the most active during the cooler months of the year, and they tend to remain deep in their nests throughout the warm summer months. So, you are most likely to notice this species in the early spring when they mate. During this time, winged reproductive ants form huge swarms all over vegetation to begin the mating process.  

The exact body and build of the adult honey ant depend on its role within its community. Worker ants are the most plentiful. On average, they are a tenth of an inch long with light to dark brown bodies. 

The queens are in charge of reproduction, and one hive can contain multiple queens at the same time. Queens are the largest ants in the colony with an average length of about one-third of an inch — approximately three times the size of a worker ant. Their bodies are reddish-brown which is distinguishable from the workers.  

Male honey ants are smaller than the queens but slightly larger than the workers — approximately and have black bodies.

Some ants are bred exclusively to reproduce in the spring. Reproduction honey ants are distinguishable from the others because they have functional wings. However, all forms of honey ants have:

  • Smooth, shiny bodies
  • Hourglass shapes
  • Antennae   

Throughout their lifetimes, honey ants undergo a full metamorphosis. Adult females lay eggs that become larvae, and then the larvae become pupae before taking on their adult ant forms.

Honey ants originated in North America, so their native range spans most of the continental U.S., some of Canada, and Mexico.

The U.S. states where they are most commonly found include: 

  • Nebraska
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New Mexico 
  • California
  • Oregon
  • Washington

They prefer to build nests in cool, shady areas, so you are most likely to find a honey ant nest at the base of a tree. Although they prefer soil that is rich in clay and sand, you can also find them underneath rocks and fallen trees. Because of these preferences, honey ants are still mostly found only throughout their native range of North America.

You are more likely to notice the presence of small honey ants when they appear in large numbers because the swarms are more visible to the eye. This could be in the spring when the winged ants begin to swarm for mating, or when they form foraging trails somewhere in your home. 

One of the main reasons that small honey ants infest homes is due to tasty food in places they can access. Honey ants are omnivores — they eat both plants and animals. They prefer diets that are rich in both carbohydrates and proteins. Their main sources of nutrients include: 

  • Honeydew
  • Rotting fruits
  • Flower sap
  • The waste products of other animals — including galls and earthworms

But — if they can access them — they’ll happily help themselves to sweet foods throughout your home or building. Examples of foods that attract small honey ants include: 

They could also be attracted to potted plants near your home like roses and oranges, essentially bating them to enter the home.

The main risks that honey ants pose are that they can behave like a nuisance pest in your yard and home, and they can contaminate food. They form such large swarms when they are mating that they can take over your yard. When they find an adequate food supply, they also form the commonly depicted long trails, called foraging trails, for which ants are typically known.  

Although they invade from outdoors, small honey ants can form their nests indoors, too. There has been evidence of entire communities living within a single potted plant.   

On top of these issues, small honey cants can cause damage to the plants that they come across. For example, they damage the flowers of oranges and roses by chewing on their buds.

You might be worried that honey ants bite. Technically, all ants can bite. However, it is unlikely you will notice any effects from a small honey ant bite, and even more unlikely you would develop an allergic reaction. While they might leave an undetected bite, luckily, small honey ants cannot sting.

To be safe, you should discard any food that is exposed to a trail of honey ants. You should not use contaminated food in your own cooking, and restaurants should throw out any food that the ants have come into contact with.  

The way that you manage small honey ants depends on where you find them. You can try to manage indoor problems with sweet ant baits, then move on to an insecticide powder if the bait is not effective.

You can also use insecticides to eliminate outdoor nests. You can inject liquid insecticides into the entrances of the nests to quickly address the population.  

Make sure to carefully select an appropriate pesticide. Thoroughly read the instructions and follow safety procedures exactly as stated as insecticides can be dangerous for your health as well as the health of children and pets. Seeking professional extermination is also a great option.