Small Ants and Their Control
There are more than 12,000 species of small ants, but fortunately for us, only a few ant species are common in Washington and Oregon.
Ants are common pests in most of the world. They belong to the taxonomic order Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and wasps. And like bees and wasps, ants' bodies are easily identified by their hourglass-like shape, with a very noticeable narrow, wasp-like part between the abdomen and thorax, corresponding to the waist on a human.
That narrow "waist" part is known as the petiole, and it's one of the places we look when we're identifying an ant. But for most people's purposes, the only thing they really need to know is that if the insect has a narrow, wasp-like petiole, then it's not a termite. Termites' bodies are more cigar shaped and don't have a narrowed petiole.
Better yet, a picture being worth a thousand words, you can view a chart with some of the differences between ants' bodies and termites' bodies by clicking here.
This is a very important distinction to make. You may be willing to tolerate a certain number of ants in your home, but termites are another story. So right now, take a look at the insect that brought you to this page, and make sure it has a narrowed petiole. If it does, then good. You're in the right place. If its body is cigar-shaped, on the other hand, then please click here to visit the termite page.
Okay, now that we're sure you're on the right page, let's talk about ants.
Most of the small ants that are common to the Portland and Vancouver areas prefer to live outside, and come inside mainly for food. Quite often, these ants can be controlled entirely by exterior treatment. We usually treat for them using baits or non-repellent sprays like Termidor of Phantom.
These products are very effective, but they are intentionally slow-acting. This is to allow the worker ants to bring the products back to the nest, where they eventually kill the whole colony. That's why it's important to be patient after we treat your home, and not to kill the ants as they return to their colonies. They need a few days to carry the insecticide back to the nest and eliminate the colony.
That being said, let's talk a bit about the most common small ant species in the Portland and Vancouver areas.
Odorous House Ants
Odorous house ants are one of the most common small ants in Portland and Vancouver, and in most of the United States for that matter.
Odorous house ants are brown to black in color, and they range in size from 1/16" to 1/8". They have one node on their petiole, but it's obscured by the abdomen when the ant is viewed from above.
One of the peculiar habits of odorous house ants that helps in identifying them is that they raise their rear ends up in the air and scurry about when they're alarmed or threatened. But the fool-proof way to identify an odorous house ant is to squish it and smell it. They smell like rotten coconut or rancid butter, which is why they're called "odorous." They stink.
Another thing that stinks about odorous house ants is that they're difficult to control. Although they're preferential sugar feeders by nature (in fact, many people call them "sugar ants"), they don't care much for ant baits. Maybe they're smart in addition to being smelly.
We find that the best control is achieved using source reduction and exclusion, combined with precision treatment of wall voids, cracks, and crevices. Exterior barrier treatments can also be helpful when infestations are very large.
Pavement ants are dark brown or black in color, and average about 1/8" in length. They're common ant pests in the Pacific Northwest and pretty much everywhere else in the country.
Some entomologists and exterminators believe that pavement ants get their name from the parallel grooves on their head and thorax, which they say resemble the lines on pavement. We say that requires quite a bit of imagination and a pretty good magnifying glass.
Personally, we tend to think they're called pavement ants because that's where most people see them -- on the pavement. They like to live in the gaps under concrete, paving stones, and asphalt, and emerge from the cracks to do their foraging. They can be a real nuisance in the summer, especially when grilling or eating outdoors.
Pavement ants usually can be controlled entirely by exterior treatment. Because they live outside most of the time, it's usually not necessary to treat for them inside homes.
Attention to sanitation is also very important to effective pavement ant control. In particular, promptly washing dishes and cleaning up after meals is very helpful, as is removing pet food between feedings. The main reason pavement ants come inside is for food. Take that attraction away, and they lose interest.
Harvester Ants and Thatching Ants
Harvester ants and thatch ants are the two most common groups of mound-building ants found in Washington State and Oregon. The ants in the photo are harvester ants.
Customers often mistake both harvester ants and thatch ants for fire ants because all three groups build mounds; but we don't get actual fire ants in the Pacific Northwest. Like fire ants, however, both harvester ants and thatching ants are capable of inflicting painful stings that can sometimes be medically serious.
Most harvester ants are red in color, and most thatching ants are red and black or brown. They're fairly large ants, averaging around 1/4" to 1/2" in size, and there may be ants of different sizes in the same colony. Both groups usually (but not always) build "mounds" to nest in.
Neither harvester ants nor thatch ants are ants that we come across every day in the Portland or Vancouver Metro areas, but they're important enough to mention here because of their capability of stinging.
That being said, like all insects, harvester ants and thatching ants do have their place in the ecosystem; and both harvester and thatching ants are particularly beneficial because they prey on other insects. So the first step in controlling them is deciding whether there's any need to. If they're living in some place where they're not bothering anyone, then probably they should just be left alone. But if they're under your kids' swing set, then they have to go. Their stings are very painful and can be medically serious in some cases.
Pharaoh ants are very tiny: Workers are only about 1/16" (about 2mm) long. The photo compares a pharaoh ant to the tip of a ball point pen to show you how small that is. But despite their small size, they can be a very big problem. They're one of the most difficult of all ants to control.
Worse yet, common do-it-yourself control measures usually make Pharaoh ants problems worse. They also make it even more difficult for pest control professionals to eliminate the problem. In fact, if there's any ant problem that you absolutely should not to treat on your own, Pharaoh ants would be that problem.
Pharaoh ants are very tiny and range from yellow to light brown in color. They have no spines on the thorax, and the petiole has two nodes. They can be distinguished from thief ants because Pharaoh ants have a three-segmented club at the end of the antenna. But because of their size, you really need a microscope to see these characteristics. A magnifying glass won't cut it.
One of the reasons that Pharaoh ants are so hard to control is because of the way they reproduce. They don't swarm. Reproductive females mate within the colony and form new colonies by "budding," or breaking off from their parent colonies. When you try to treat Pharaoh ant colonies using over-the-counter sprays or similar products, you force the colony to "bud." When this happens, we call it "fracturing" the colony; so whereas you previously had only one colony, now you have two or more.
Pharaoh ant extermination requires very detailed, precise application of baits and non-repellent pesticides everywhere the ants travel, such as in cracks and crevices in moldings an trim, in electrical conduits, and behind switch plates and power receptacles. It really is a detailed job involving the selection of sufficient quantities of baits that are more appetizing than whatever else the ants have to eat, placed where they're going to find it, in sufficient quantities to be effective, but not over-applied as to become repellent.
If you have a Pharaoh ant problem, please don't try to treat it yourself. You'll only waste your time and money, and most likely will make it harder for us to help you down the road. Call us instead. Seriously. This is not a do-it-yourself sort of pest control job.
Other Small Ants
There are other species of small ants that occasionally become problems in our area such as acrobat ants, citronella ants, little black ants, and several others. Although they may look the same -- at least, unless you're an ant -- their biology, habits, and control methods are often very different.
So if you're having a problem with any sort of small ant, please feel free to contact us for a no-obligation consultation.
Little Ant Control Pricing
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