Tips on dealing with ants in your home.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Last week, Sharon Cage walked into her kitchen and found ants marching across the counters. They were dark in color, all the same itty-bitty size, squeezing their way in around the window sill.
Ants in the house creep her out, especially when they crawl around the kitchen.
“I don’t want to eat them, I don’t want to drink them,” said Cage, a retired hospital administrator who lives with her husband in Kansas City, Kan. She grabbed the bug spray.
The ants invading homes like Cage’s around town are odorous house ants, pests that some researchers say are making a run at becoming the Midwest’s public enemy No. 1 among ants in urban and suburban areas.
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That’s bad news for homeowners, entomologists say, because these little guys are notoriously tough to control.
Kill the ones crawling around the bathtub and 95 percent of them remain alive and well back home in the nest.
And that’s not all.
“It seems the season for them is longer now,” said Grzesiek Buczkowski, an urban entomologist who researches these ants at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Professionals “would usually only treat in spring and summer. Now they’re treating for them in winter. We are hearing from exterminators that they are getting more calls, and at really odd times, like the middle of January.”
The ants started their march on Kansas City a few weeks ago when the weather began warming up. Now they’re “bugging us,” said Beverly White. She manages Euston Hardware in Prairie Village, Kan., where she has moved a display of her most popular ant products to the front of the store.
The odorous house ant, which many people call the sweet ant, has bad body odor. Squish one between your fingers and sniff. It smells like rancid, coconut suntan lotion. That smell is a defense mechanism, an alarm to alert other ants that something is amiss.
This stinky ant, native to North America and found from coast to coast, is living in a supercolony under you. It seems to like the Midwest and its comparatively moderate climate.
“If you go into the forest, the colonies are very small, one queen, maybe 100 ants,” said Buczkowski. “But in urban situations, lots and lots of nests are connected by trails, with thousands of queens in just one colony, probably millions of workers.
“We’re just seeing the colonies are getting more common and larger. We have one colony on campus here at Purdue that’s basically one city block, 10 to 15 acres in size.”
Ants are some of the “main victims” of Cisse Spragins, chief executive officer of Rockwell Labs in North Kansas City.
In a nondescript gray building just north of downtown, Spragins, who is a chemist, and her employees create pest control products for killing all kinds of creepy-crawly things, including cockroaches and silverfish.
In bright, white-walled laboratories, they experiment with recipes that get mixed up in industrial-size batches out back in a warehouse. Spragins makes products used by professional exterminators. Her newest one this year is a bait for killing ants and cockroaches.
The problem for homeowners, she said, is simply this: Odorous house ants don’t stay where they belong.
“They prefer to stay outside. They actually only come in when the conditions outside are not good, like after a big rain, and they’re looking for a drier place to move their nest,” said Purdue’s Buczkowski. “Or if it gets dry in the summer or their food source runs out.”
The ones you see in the house are the older, more experienced ants foraging for food and water, said Spragins.
“They’re generally about 5 to 10 percent of the colony. The rest are in the nest,” she said.
Cities and suburbs have become prime ant real estate, said Buczkowski, because there are fewer natural competitors for food, better access to food and better nesting sites. In the wild, home might be inside a hollow stick or a space as tiny as an acorn.
“But in an urban area, they can nest in a building, which is obviously much larger, or in a pile of mulch or leaves or in some kind of landscaping … inside brick walls, watering hoses, in a potted plant,” he said. “We’ve found them in the trash, inside drink cups and soda cans.”
In the war on ants, baits are an increasingly popular form of management for homeowners.
“It’s kind of a stealth way to get the toxin into the colony,” Spragins said.
Ants drink the liquid bait, store it in their bodies and regurgitate it back in the colony where the queen, her young ones and other worker ants eat the poison and eventually die.
The downside: Putting up with swarms of ants that crawl out of seemingly nowhere to take the yummy bait. That process can go on for days before the feasting abates.
When it comes to killing ants, homeowners will try just about anything. But entomologists say many weapons of homemade destruction are futile.
Building a bunker of cinnamon around the perimeter of the house? Leaving cayenne pepper and oatmeal on the kitchen counters and window sills? Not really effective.
“It’s a lot of fun this time of year,” said Jeffery Preece, an entomologist and owner of ZipZap Termite & Pest Control in the Northland. “Everybody has a remedy for ants. … They’ll spray them with hair spray, gasoline, Windex.
“Putting cutup peppers all around your counter? I don’t know if that will stop the ants. But they will rot and you’ll have a secondary infestation of fungus gnats. … Now you’ve got fungus gnats flying up your nose.”
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ATTACKING THE ANTS
Tips from K-State Research and Extension on dealing with nuisance ants:
— Home infestations are often traced to the lawn, so treating the lawn often solves the problem. A chemical barrier is a temporary but effective treatment if applied around the outside of the house.
— Foraging worker ants are quick to find crumbs, grease, food scraps and food in open or partly open containers. Keep the kitchen clean.
— Insecticides can get rid of ants indoors, but they don’t eliminate the root of the problem — the colony. If you use an insecticide indoors, buy one made for indoor use.
— Treating the trails that ants follow inside from their outdoor nest will often discourage them from coming in again. If you can find the trail, follow it to the nest and treat it with a labeled insecticide. Always read labels before using one of these products.