There are few things equivalent to ants in setting off our creepy-crawly feelings of alarm.
And there are also few things more depressing than coming into your kitchen in the morning and seeing a thick, black swarm of them on some forgotten food item.
There’s not much mystery as to why there are ants invading our space – after all, some 270 species of the insect live in California – but there are some ways to discourage them from inhabiting our homes and yards.
One of the most common ants is the Argentine ant, which made its way to North America from its native habitat and now is particularly good at infesting human spaces in urban and suburban areas. The Argentine ant not only goes after and kills native ants, but also establishes dense populations wherever it settles.
Californians will often see ants inside their homes at two particular times of the year: in the winter after heavy saturating rains, and in the summer when things get very dry.
There are two entirely different reasons for this, according to Wayne Bellville, pest control department manager for Casner Extermining Inc., based in Castroville, California, and serving 10 California counties.
“During the summer, ants come in the house looking for water, and while they’re there, they forage for food,” said Bellville. “In the winter, you see them when they get flooded out of their nests and are looking for dry places. But you’ll see them more when the weather is warmer, because they’re usually not too active unless the temperature is above 65 degrees.”
Now that it’s summer, ant visitors are stopping by- typically in the kitchen and the bathrooms, where they climb up the water pipes and into the house. But sometimes they can turn up in unexpected places.
Helaine Tregenza of Del Rey Oaks, California, owner of The Raised Bed gardening service, said she got a shock when she went to water her orchids and found that the pots were full of ants.
“Oh my gosh, all these ants came out,” she recalls. She’s also had problems recently with ant infestations on certain plants.
Gardeners may observe plenty of ant activity in the yard this time of year, particularly on plants that harbor aphids. Aphids exude a sweet substance that the ants crave, so the ants find them and “milk” the aphids to get this food.
It’s not unusual to find ant nests in the yard, notes Bellville -whether one, two, or many. But there are some steps that can be taken to draw the ants away from the home.
“You want to bait them away from the house,” he said. “I usually use white corn syrup because they go after sweet things.”
He’ll drizzle the syrup in a far corner of the yard, leading the ants there, and then he’ll put out ant bait made from a mixture of corn syrup and boric acid.
The website Living With Bugs (www.livingwithbugs.com) provides a recipe for homemade ant bait made of 1 tablespoon corn syrup plus ¼ teaspoon boric acid, mixed with an equal amount of warm water. Since some ant species seek fats rather than sweets for sustenance, the site recommends adjusting the recipe if the ants aren’t responding, by adding a few drops of vegetable oil.
The bait can be put out in the yard on pieces of wax paper or in a small plastic dish.
This is a relatively non-toxic solution. Boric acid is a naturally occurring mineral in California, and although it affects ants greatly, such small amounts won’t harm pets.
Of course, commercial ant bait with boric acid is also readily available, with some popular brand names being Terro and Hot Shot. The idea, said Bellville, is for the ants to take the substance back to their nests, which will eventually eliminate the nest.
So what if the ants have already taken up resident inside the house? Again, said Bellville, ant bait is the best solution, because it will go to the source of the problem.
Bellville said a common mistake by homeowners is to use a spray like Black Flag or Raid when you see ants. This ultimately does not work, because all it will do is split the colony. The ants will move away from the toxic substance, but they’ll just set up shop somewhere else in the house.
Instead, use ant bait and give it a chance to be effective, which could take a few days.
And when is it time to call in the exterminator?
“When you’ve tried everything else and nothing works,” Bellville said.
Interviews with Wayne Bellville and Helaine Tregenza, July 2010
Living With Bugs: www.livingwithbugs.com