Canada has over 100 species of ants, some of which are structure-damaging species and can take residence in or around your home. Ants can be difficult to get rid of once they establish a colony. Managing and controlling infestations is necessary if ants are frequently seen in your home or there are signs of a nearby nest. Before controlling an ant problem, it is important to know what species of ant you are dealing with. Having basic knowledge on the appearance, behaviour, nesting habits, and type of problems ants cause can help identify the ant species in order to use proper control methods.
Types of Ants in Canada
Common structure-infesting ant species found in Canada include the black carpenter ant, pavement ant, pharaoh ant, odorous house ant, Argentine ant, and thief ant. Most of the ant problems in Canadian homes are caused by carpenter ants, pavement ants, and pharaoh ants. Of all ant species, the black carpenter ant is the largest in size and the most common to cause structural damage. Pavement ants depending on location of nests are more of a nuisance, especially if nesting indoors. The pharaoh ant is another indoor nuisance pest, often attracted to foods high in protein and sugar.
Appearance / Identification
Ants are generally easy to recognise; their colour is usually black, dark brown, red, or tan in colour. Depending on the species, their size can range from 1.5 mm to 13 mm in length. Like all insects, the body of an ant is divided in three distinct parts: head, thorax and abdomen. The thorax is joined to the abdomen by constricted petioles, also known as nodes. Depending on the species, some ants have a single node and others have two nodes. All ants have three pairs of legs used for walking, and they do not have wings, except for the reproductive swarmers, which have two pairs of functional wings used for mating and dispersal flights.
Ants are social insects that live in colonies with populations often reaching hundreds of thousands. Most ant colonies build nests in soil. Some species, like the carpenter ant, tunnel into wood to create nesting chambers. A typical ant colony consists of three distinct social castes: the queen, drones, and workers. Most colonies have one queen and a vast number of workers, but the colonies of some species can have multiple queens. The queen’s function is to lay eggs and control activities of the nest via pheromone communication. The most likely to be seen outside the nest during non-swarming season are the workers. The workers forage for food to carry back to the colony. Foraging often brings ants into the home, because they are attracted to nearly any food humans may leave out. Sugary foods, meats, and grease are particularly attractive to ants.
Most ant species found in Canada are omnivorous, feeding on a wide range of food sources. The dietary requirements of ants change throughout the year, depending on the season and needs of the colony. During mating season, from spring and into the summer, the colony requires ample protein to facilitate the development of the maturing larvae. Consequently, the ants forage for food high in protein, including preying on other arthropods and small invertebrates during this time of the year. As the summer continues, the colony begins to focus on preparing the nest for winter or relocating to a suitable overwintering site. Due to the energy needed to perform such tasks, ants switch from a protein-based diet to one primarily consisting of carbohydrates. Sugary substances, like nectar and honeydew, represent popular sources of carbohydrates for the most common species in Canada. The varied diet of ants regularly includes fungi, plants and organic matter, seeds, and a wide range of food items stored and consumed by humans, as well.
The queens have the sole function of laying eggs in an ant colony. Most ant species have one queen per colony, but some species may have multiple queens within the same colony. The queen controls the sex of her offspring by selectively fertilizing eggs. Fertilized eggs may become wingless, sterile workers or winged, reproductively capable queens. Unfertilized eggs develop into winged males that perform the sole function of mating with new queens. Ant eggs usually take several months to develop and hatch into larvae. Worker ants feed and tend to the developing larvae until they reach the pupal stage. During the pupal stage, the developing ants remain sealed in protective cocoons until they emerge as adults. Fully developed adult workers begin duties of expanding nests, foraging for food, or taking care of larvae. When new queens and males reach adulthood they swarm, mate, lose their wings, and then begin forging new nests.
Do Ants Bite?
The mouth parts of ants have adapted for biting and chewing solid food. Some species have jaws strong enough to bite through human skin, but most cannot. Ant species such as black carpenter ants can bite if provoked. Some ant species including European Fire ants sting and inject formic acid into the wound, hence a burning sensation at the site of the bite. The majority of Canadian ant species rarely inflict bites on humans.
Ants with Wings
Ant colonies feature a hierarchical social structure in which thousands of sterile female workers maintain the nest, forage for food, care for larvae, and protect one or more queens, whose sole responsibility is to ensure the continued survival of the colony by laying eggs. Most colonies form when the new reproductive queens leave their old nest, mate with a male, and deposit their eggs at the site of the new colony. New reproductive queens and males are characterized their wings, which worker ants lack. In a ritual known as a nuptial flight the winged ants, also known as alates, depart from existing colonies when prompted by the weather, fly to a new location, and mate. The alates mate in swarms either aerially or terrestrially. The newly mated queens then fly off to locate a nesting site, detach their wings, and lay eggs. Winged males, on the other hand, die after completing the nuptial flight as they exist solely to mate with the queen. The swarming presence of winged ants indoors, especially during winter, strongly indicates a nearby colony.
Problems Caused by Ants
Ants are unsightly and a nuisance when found inside a home. A few species such as pharaoh ants have been implicated in disease transmission, especially in hospital and long-term care facilities. Outdoor nesting habits can damage lawns and gardens, as well. When dwelling indoors, ants may cause damage to the structure by chewing wood, insulation, and electrical cables during nest building. Some species such as European fire ants can pose significant health risk by their stings.
Infestation – Ants in the Home
Attracted by the presence of food, foraging ants enter houses to scavenge for crumbs, oil or grease spills, sugar, and edible items regularly found in kitchen pantries and easily contaminate food items. Ants gain entry to buildings through cracks in the walls or foundation, as well as through gaps or other small openings that often appear where moulding or plumbing connect with the structure. Large numbers of ants can successfully invade homes by detecting and following an invisible trail produced by scouts sent previously by the colony to search for food.
Keeping the home clean and well maintained generally is the best way to prevent an ant infestation. Residents should keep leftover foods stored in tightly-sealed containers, wipe up crumbs and spills promptly, and sweep the floor regularly. Rinsing food containers prior to disposal also helps eliminate the edible residues that can attract ants. Homeowners need to repair all cracks in the walls and foundation and make sure doors, windows, and other points of entry remain properly sealed, as well. If the preventative measures fail and an ant infestation occurs, contact a pest control specialist.
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