Ants are fascinating insects and they play an important part in our ecosystem. But in the wrong place, they can be a real pest.
So what do ants eat? And if they’ve invaded somewhere you don’t want them, how do you get rid of them?
That’s what we’re here to find out!
What Do Ants Eat?
Ants are very efficient eaters. In other words, there isn’t much they won’t find a way to turn into fuel for their activities! But different species have different preferences. We’ll find out more about those in a moment.
Ants use their advanced sense of smell to sniff out food. They do this through their antennae, and it’s by far their most important sense. You can find out more about how ants use their sense of smell in this YouTube video from The New York Times.
So what kind of foods get those antennae twitching?
- Dead or decaying animals – some species of ants, like harvester ants, eat carrion. Freshly dead insects are a great source of protein, as are dead mammals like mice or birds.
- Other insects – some ants will hunt down other insects for dinner. And because ants are immensely strong as well as voracious, they can consume insects many times heavier than they are.
They often eat insects with soft bodies, like mites and the larvae of beetles and flies. They can even eat ants from other colonies. And a species known as vampire ants feed on blood from their own larvae.
- Honeydew – one of the most fascinating things about ants is that they are farmers. They love the sweet nectar, known as honeydew, that’s produced by aphids.
They will actually help aphids feed by placing them on succulent greenery, and they’ll protect them from predators. Sometimes they even bring them into their colony. That allows the aphids to eat the exposed roots from when the nest was built.
The ants then “milk” the aphid. They do this by using their antennae to lightly tap the aphid’s back. The aphid responds by secreting honeydew.
- Sugary substances – as well as honeydew, ants will eat pretty much any sugary source of food to give them energy. Adult ants can survive on sugars, although protein will be needed from other sources for them to reproduce.
- Seeds, stalks and fungus – some species of ants will also eats seeds, as well as the stalks of certain plants. And others are gardeners, bringing chewed up leaves into their nest to feed on the fungus that grows on them.
Harm Caused by Ants
In most cases, ants aren’t particularly dangerous to humans. They will, however, bite or sting if they feel threatened, and the result can be painful. And of course, if you disturb a nest, you could be looking at multiple bites and a very unpleasant experience.
In some cases, a bite can be more serious. The red fire ant, for example, injects alkaloids when it bites. Those can cause an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis in some people. The symptoms include difficulty breathing, feeling faint or anxious, and an elevated heartrate.
Anaphylaxis can be fatal, and is treated with an urgent dose of epinephrine.
One species, carpenter ants, can also damage your home. They can be spotted by their black or dark brown color and large size – they’re between a quarter and half an inch long.
In the wild, carpenter ants provide a valuable function, helping to break down dead or dying trees. But if they invade your home, they can cause significant damage to woodwork by tunnelling through it. Small piles of regurgitated wood shavings are a classic sign of an infestation.
One other type of ant to watch – or perhaps sniff – out for in your home are odorous house ants. This is a much smaller species, with worker ants measuring between 1/16th and 1/8th of an inch.
They don’t cause damage, but if there are lots of them in your house, you’ll know all about it. They emit a powerful and unpleasant stench of rotting coconuts.
8 Tips to Get Rid of Ants
1. Avoid attracting them in the first place
Prevention is always better than cure. And the good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to avoid attracting ants to your home.
Start by ensuring there aren’t any areas that are appealing to ants near your home. Keep waste receptacles away from the building, and make sure they’re covered with a tight fitting lid.
The same goes for woodpiles. Keep them away from your home, and if you can, raise them above ground level.
Trimming back vegetation around walls and entry points will stop ants using it as a bridge to get inside. Take a good look at your walls and foundations, and use caulk to seal any small holes that could admit an ant. Installing door sweeps on exterior doors will also help stop them getting inside.
Good hygiene in your home will prevent ants seeing it as a source of food. Wash up dirty dishes promptly, sweep up crumbs and food debris, and store your leftovers in airtight containers.
2. Use natural ant repellents
There are lots of different ways to get rid of ants without resorting to toxic chemicals that can also harm humans. If you spot ants in your home, try to follow them to identify their entry point. You can then seal any holes or add a door sweep to provide a physical barrier.
But you can also use natural ant repellents. A line of chalk or cream of tartar poured at the ants’ entry point will prevent them crossing it.
Because ants have such a delicate sense of smell, strongly scented substances also act as effective deterrents. Try placing chili peppers, paprika, a cinnamon stick, coffee grounds, cloves, lemon juice, garlic or dried peppermint leaves near entrances.
Another good option is to plant mint near your house. That will both keep away the ants, and give you a fresh source of herbs for cooking!
3. Use Orange Guard
Orange Guard is a non-toxic product used to drive away ants. Its active ingredient is a substance called d-Limonene, which is extracted from orange peel. The strong citrus fragrance is very effective at repelling ants.
Orange Guard should be sprayed around the entry points to your home, but not at the ants. If it gets onto their bodies, it will destroy the waxy membrane they need to breathe. There’s no need to do this – just send them on their way, and they won’t bother you again.
4. Give them somewhere better to go
Another way to get ants away from where you don’t want them is to provide a more attractive destination. This YouTube video from Born to Behave shows how successful that can be in getting rid of ants from a deck.
Mix up a solution of honey and water. Then use a squeezy bottle to drip it near where the ants currently are, and away to another spot. You’re using it to lead the ants away to a new location. Once they’ve taken the bait, they’ll leave a new pheromone trail for other ants to follow.
5. Once they’re out, keep them out!
Once you’ve got rid of the ants in your home, you’ll want to prevent them finding their way back in.
All the deterrent measures we’ve already discussed, like keeping waste and woodpiles away from the building, will help. But it’s also important to erase the pheromone trails that the ants will have left behind to guide their buddies to food.
This means a thorough cleaning is in order. To do it, you’ll need to mix up a cleaning solution using equal parts vinegar and water. Put this into a spray bottle and spray your counters and cupboards with it liberally. If you have a hard floor that won’t be damaged, use the solution on that too.
Now wipe down every surface you’ve sprayed. That will ensure the ants can’t use their scent trails to find their way back to where they think there’s food.
Next, vacuum everywhere thoroughly. Use a nozzle to get into nooks and crannies. And don’t forget to clean beneath chair cushions and down the sides of sofas. Your aim is to remove even the smallest crumb that might entice an ant into your home.
6. In severe cases, seek professional help
If you’ve tried humane methods without success and you have a serious problem on your hands, call in the professionals. That’s particularly important if someone in your household has an allergy to insect bites, or if you’ve got carpenter ants damaging the fabric of your home.
Ask for references before you engage someone, and check that their pest control operatives are fully licensed. Its easy to verify a license – just call the State Departments of Agriculture.