Ask homeowners to name the pests that give them the most headaches, and near the top will likely be one pesky small insect that invades and colonizes their yard by the thousands: ants. To take action in the event of an ant infestation, here is how to get rid of ants in your home and yard.
“You’re in your garden and you run into an ant hill; it’s not a happy time,” says Gary Bachman, Extension and Research Professor of Horticulture at Mississippi State University. “And in those cases, you really need to apply some kind of control measure.”
Inside an Ant Nest
Ants are social animals that live in nests, which are often called colonies:
- A colony begins when a newly mated queen creates a place to care for her young.
- After weeks or months underground, the queen lays her first eggs.
- The first young transform into sterile female adult workers.
- The first workers emerge from the nest to collect food for themselves and the queen, as well as her subsequent larvae.
- The queen continues laying eggs. A queen can live for 15 years and produce thousands of eggs.
- Workers add new chambers as the colony grows.
- The colony will start to produce winged male and female ants after a few years. These winged ants will then leave to form new colonies.
How to Get Rid of Ants Naturally
If You Are Serious About Removing Ants
- Remove potted plants from the house if you see ants on them. Sometimes the best solution is the simple one.
- Pour on boiling water: Pour it on ants, along their trails, and into the holes to their colonies. It is effective on small colonies that do not extend too deeply. Reapply as needed.
- Spread diatomaceous earth: It is a powder that can be spread around foundations, door frames, window sills, anthills, or on visible ant trails. It can be mixed with water and applied with a spray bottle, or a pressure washer. It is non-toxic to humans and pets but will kill ants. It can stop an ant infestation.
- Use a soapy cloth or sponge to wipe away any single ant you see inside. The soap eliminates the trails that other ants would follow. As effective as an insecticide spray in temporarily removing foraging ants in a building — but safer.
Natural Remedies That Have Scientific Support
- Baking soda: Mix equal parts baking soda and powdered sugar, put it in a lid, and place it near the ants and their entry points. The baking soda, safe around humans, reacts with an acidic material in the stomach of an ant and kills them.
- Cornmeal alone: Spreading cornmeal is merciful to the ants and is safe to plants and other living things. The ants take it back to the nest, but it disrupts the scent trail, making it harder for others to follow.
- Lemon peels or juice: Grind up the peels or simply pour juice in a lid and place either of them around the house or the foundation. Ants will stay away from the smell. But that same sense of smell will enable ants to ignore many synthetic scented lemon products.
- Peppermint oil: Mix with water in a spray, or burn in an infuser near a place where you see ants. In a study from the University of Georgia that focused on Argentine ants, it was determined that spearmint, wintergreen, cinnamon, and clove oils work the same. However, peppermint oil is readily available. The oils serve as a repellent.
- Vinegar: You can mix it with water or simply pour white vinegar from the bottle. It repels ants, even after it has dried. But ants will go around it.
Home Remedies That Lack Scientific Support
- Cinnamon: There are people who swear you can put powdered cinnamon on cotton balls and leave them around to drive away ants, or you can simply drop cinnamon sticks down. Certainly, people enjoy the smell. However, the only time cinnamon has been found to be effective on ants is when the oils are extracted and used.
- Cornstarch: Pour cornstarch over a bunch of ants, then water. It immobilizes them, and you can vacuum or sweep them. Messy and time-consuming. Not the best way.
- Pepper: Take cayenne pepper or black pepper, mix it with water and spray. Ants don’t like it, so they will go away. But it won’t end an ant problem, just drive ants from that spot.
- Talcum powder: Safe around babies and animals, talcum powder can be spread over an ant trail, blocking the smell the other ants use to follow it. It is good on walls; ants can’t climb it.
- Tea tree oil: There is little research on this naturally occurring product, but there are people who say it treats acne, athlete’s foot, lice, nail fungus and other things, including ants (leaf-cutting ants specifically). It is applied the same as peppermint oil. But it is toxic if ingested, so you need to keep it away from children and pets.
How to Get Rid of Ants Chemically
Simple and Safe Things To Do
- Borax and something sweet, such as jelly, honey, or even peanut butter. Ants are attracted to sweet things. They will take it back to the ant colony or ant nest, which will wipe it out. But borax can hurt your nose, throat, and lungs if you breathe it, and if ingested can cause nausea, vomiting,and, in extreme cases, toxic shock.
- Cornmeal with poison: Cornmeal doesn’t kill ants directly, but they are attracted to it, so mix it with a slow-acting insecticide. The ants take it back to the nest, where others feed on it and die.
- Epsom salt: Some people will mix epsom salt with water and spray. It is said to dehydrate, thus killing the ants. However, the epsom salt can also damage plants.
- Gels are becoming more common. They can be used on small cracks and crevices used by ants as entry points to get into your house.
- Glass cleaner: Simple to use: Just spray it and it blocks the smell the ants need from an ant trail, or discourages them from crossing it, much like white vinegar
- Liquids, granules, and dusts are the common forms. Granules usually require a watering to be activated, and often need to be worked into the soil where they are deployed. Liquids should be used outdoors only. Dusts are available for use indoors.
- Insecticides are available: Over the counter ones with the pyrethroids cypermethrin, bifenthrin, and lambda-cyhalothrin are the most common. Follow the directions carefully.
- Professionals have access to, and know how to use, more powerful insecticides.
- Don’t spray insecticides: Spraying is not recommended, as it exposes children and others to toxic chemicals. Also, it kills only the ants that are foraging, not the majority that are in the colony.
- Pest control companies typically offer regular programs of placing an insecticide-based barrier to the house. A common schedule is every other month.
Do a Soil Drench
- Do not disturb the mound before or after application.
- Mix your product in a watering can or bucket according to the label’s directions. Apply it in the morning, when ants are closest to the surface.
- Look to use a product with spinosad or permethrin. Spinosad is a natural substance derived from a soil bacterium that is toxic to certain insects. Permethrin is a synthetic chemical that is safe to use around people or the food they eat.
- Go after the queen by applying at least two gallons per application.
- Pour 10 percent of the solution around the perimeter of the mound, about 12 inches away from the mound.
- Pour the rest of the solution directly on the mound.
- Check a few hours later. If it works, it works that quickly.
- Re-apply every 3-4 weeks or as often as directed on the label.
- Baits are a key tool in taking on ants, and perhaps the best way to apply an ant killer. But use ant baits only when ants are known to be present.
- Baits contain insecticides that are mixed with materials that attract worker ants looking for food.
- Workers carry it back to the ant colony, where it spreads all the way to the queen.
- Must be slow-acting so the ants can spread it. Ants might still be around a week after ant bait has been dispersed.
- More effective and safer than sprays available to do-it-yourselfers.
- Use baits indoors only if there are a lot of ants and you can’t find where they are entering the building, or you might just end up attracting ants indoors.
- Place ant bait stations near nests or on ant trails, 10 to 20 feet apart.
- Bait stations are readily available, easy to use, and are quite safe if kept away from children and pets.
- Can dry quickly and might call for regular replacements. Some bait products have liquid in containers that needs to be refilled.
- Bait stations can be permanently installed where ants are a recurring problem and refilled as needed.
Ant Prevention: Don’t Wait For a Problem to Start
Inside: Be Serious About Cleanliness
- Wipe down the places where you prepare food. All the time.
- Keep your floor clean; sweep or vacuum regularly. Clean-up matters.
- Rinse containers the food came in before tossing them, especially soft drink containers.
- Empty your trash (including the recycling) at least daily.
- Replace the liners of your trash cans and garbage cans every time as part of the clean-up process.
- Store food in containers you can seal; plastic wrap and cardboard boxes aren’t enough.
- Store pet food in containers you can seal, too.
- Check the cupboards for spills, and clean them up.
- Fix leaks in the plumbing as soon as you see them …and before the ants do.
Outside: Seal cracks and keep a clear path around the foundation
- Seal cracks or holes at windows, doors and foundations.
- Apply silica aerogel into wall voids before sealing them with caulk. Pest management professionals are known to combine them with pyrethrins.
- Keep plants and trees from touching buildings; ants use them to climb inside.
- Clear debris, including wood, from the foundation of a building.
- Mulch carefully: Keep it inches from the house.
- Repair wood siding. Ants are known to use the damaged parts for nests. Often it can be repaired as a simple DIY project.
- Wood parts of a home should not contact the soil.
- Create a barrier to the house by spraying an insecticide on the ground by the foundation; ants won’t cross it as long as it lasts.
- Sprinkle diatomaceous earth as a DIY project even before you see ant trails.
Background: Ants Are Everywhere
Ants are found everywhere except Antarctica, Greenland, and Iceland, and their most common home is in soil. There are over 12,000 species of ants. The weight of all the ants of the world is the same as that of all the humans.
There are three types of adult ant:
- Workers, which are females and known as soldiers
- Drones, which are males
- Queens, which are females
Ants are important to the ecosystem:
- They are predators of other insects, helping to keep pest populations low.
- Move vast amounts of soil, loosening it and increasing air and water movement into the ground.
- Carry animal remains and plant material back to their ant colony, which fertilizes soil along the way.
- Carry seeds and help plants disperse into new areas.
Some types of ants are especially a problem:
- Carpenter ants
- Crazy ants
- Fire ants
- Pavement ants
- Pharaoh ants
When to Call In Professional Pest Control for Ants
- If the infestation is too much to knock out on your own, call in a professional pest control company.
- If you see carpenter ants
- If you see fire ants
- If you feel the need for a stronger ant killer
For most homes, LawnStarter has found that a professional exterminator can treat ants one time for a cost of between $115 and $350.
- Monthly pest control treatments cost between $40 to $70 per visit.
- Quarterly pest control treatments cost $110 to $250 per visit.
- Annual pest control treatments cost $250 to $475 per visit.
When you see ant mounds or anthills, you should take action so that they don’t develop into massive ant colonies or ant nests. You can pour boiling water into entrance holes, rake them, wash them away with a garden hose, or apply an insecticide.
The University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program has an excellent ant identification key. Just catch one of the offending pests and compare it to the diagrams to find out what you’re dealing with, then follow their tips on how to control that type. Or snap a photo and send it to your local Extension office for identification.
To truly control an ant infestation, you need to locate and destroy the ant colony or ant nest, says the Penn State Extension. Most ant colonies have one queen, who can live for 15 years and produce thousands of young. Take action by using an ant killer; not only does it take out the workers, it also will take out the queen.
Different ants are attracted to different baits. You can spread several bait traps and see which attracts ants, or you can look up your ants and learn which food source they prefer.
Take Action Against Ants
Knocking out one colony or one infestation in your yard isn’t going to keep the next troop of ants from discovering your lawn. You can’t eliminate ants from an outdoor area, nor do you want to. But keep them out of your buildings and off your preferred plants.
If ants have become a nuisance on your property, contact a professional exterminator to identify, treat, and take steps to prevent future problems.
Main Image Credit: Bill Hails / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0