JoAnne Skelly: Ants go marching

Ants seem extremely prolific this season. They are everywhere — tiny ones coming up through the seams of the patio, big red ants swarming under the trees and in flower beds and even huge black carpenter ants looking for wood to eat.

There are more than 12,000 known species of ants in the world and they make up at least one-third of all insects. They are related to bees and wasps, with most living in colonies headed by a queen. The females do the work while the males’ only function is mating after which they die. Ants are one of the earth’s strongest creatures relative to their size. They can move tons of soil per year in one square mile. Ants can live up to 30 years.

I have always wondered about what purpose ants serve, besides being annoying. They are actually ecologically valuable. They loosen and aerate soils, improving air and water penetration. They are food for many different organisms including birds, frogs and even carnivorous plants. They break down decaying animal and plant matter. They eat other insects including termites, fleas and caterpillars. Every year, people bring ants in to Cooperative Extension worried they are termites. They look similar, but ants have “waists” and termites don’t.

While all this is fascinating, ants are still aggravating. Of course, we can’t eliminate them all, but there are tactics we can take to reduce their populations to a more tolerable level. Fortunately, for me, we don’t have ants in the house. However, for those of you who do, try to find where they are getting in, then, seal those areas up with caulk. Wipe down ant trails on indoor surfaces with soapy water and you shouldn’t have to use an insecticide indoors. Reduce outdoor sources of ants near the house, such as tree limbs touching the roof or mulch or plants next to the foundation.

Ants on trees or shrubs are probably “farming” aphids to harvest the sweet honeydew the aphids produce. Band the trunk with sticky substances, such as Tanglefoot, painted on collars of tree wrap or heavy paper. Insecticidal baits and baits stations are available.

My favorite ant control is baby powder. I sprinkle it on the mounds, entrance holes and along ant trails, whether inside or out. The ants walk through it and the powder covers their bodies. When they return to the nest, they carry the powder in with them. It coats their exoskeleton, prevents them from absorbing oxygen and they die.

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JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

She can be reached at or 887-2252.


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