Ants – The Biggest Builder in Town

Matthew D. Terry Ph.D, Entomology

Scientists group all ants in the Family Formicidae and place them in a larger group that includes wasps and bees. If numbers are any indication, ants are one of the most successful organisms on earth. In fact, in some tropical areas it has been estimated that ants represent nearly one third of the total body mass of all the animals in the area. A large part of the success of ants is due to the social structure of their colonies. Ants are classified as social insects; which means that the day to day necessities of life, finding food, defense from enemies and reproduction are divided up among different classes of individuals within the colonies.

These classes are called castes and each one focuses solely on a particular need of the colony. Workers provide basic labor and forage for food, soldiers defend the colony from outside threats, and the queen produces the eggs that hatch into each member of the colony. Although we tend to think of ants as wingless insects that crawl along the ground there is even a special class of ants called alates that have wings and fly away from their home to become the founding kings and queens of new colonies. These alates often emerge after a heavy rain and are readily attracted to bright lights.

In Arizona there many different ant species with a wide range of sizes and colors. Any one of a number of these species can become a pest issue when colonies are founded in the proximity of human dwellings. Ants enter houses through tiny spaces near doors or window, or even through small passageways under your foundation. Initially they are exploring, but once an individual ant has located food it will lay a chemical trail that allows other members of the colony to find and help collect the food source. This makes ants very efficient gatherers of food, whether it is dropped from a picnic table or sitting in your pantry. Most ants can and will bite if provoked, but many ants also possess a stinger at the tip of their abdomen that can cause an uncomfortable and often long lasting sore. Depending on the ant species and the sensitivity of the individual being stung these wounds range from unnoticeable to the pain and discomfort of a bee sting, but only cause serious problems in large numbers.

There has been a great deal of attention recently on the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). This species was an accidental introduction from South America and is now common throughout the southeastern United States. It is a very aggressive species and often has disastrous effects on the native flora and fauna of the area it invades. Although this ant has been found it Arizona it was eradicated and is not currently a problem, however, there are several species within this genus that are native to the state. While not as aggressive, these species can still cause problems if present in large numbers.

Control Measures: Ants are able to find tiny, sometimes convoluted pathways into houses, so it can be extremely difficult to eliminate all entry points. The best way to keep ants outside is to make sure there is no ready source of food for them to take advantage of. This can be accomplished by storing food in airtight containers, sweeping regularly and not keeping unwashed dishes in the sink. Ants can also be kept away from your house with regular pesticide treatment around its foundation. If ant colonies are located too close to a home or causing undue problems then targeted treatment of both the workers and the queen can eliminate the colony altogether.

About the author: Matthew Terry is the contributing entomologist for Blue Sky Pest Control. He did his post doctoral work at the University of Arizona and currently continues his research and teaches at the University of Texas in Edinburg. If you have questions, contact Blue Sky Pest Control at (480) 635-8492.

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