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Ants and other creepy crawlers are a staple of summer, and you'll inevitably see them marching up and down the hot pavement. You might even find one or two in your kitchen this season. But let's be honest: Discovering a colony of ants in your house isn't on your summer wish list (even if it would keep the kids entertained).
If you're eagerly seeking a way to evict these unwelcome guests, let your search stop here.
TODAY Home spoke with the pros to figure out why ants make their way indoors and how to get rid of them for good. We've also found a few DIY ways to banish ants from your house entirely without calling the exterminator.
Why do ants come inside?
Everyone gets the occasional ant in their house — it’s only natural! Insects can sneak in through open doors or windows, so you’re never going to prevent bugs enitrely. A sudden ant invasion, though, doesn’t just happen randomly. Ants are constantly on the hunt for food and water (moisture, in general) for their colonies, so your kitchen and bathroom are the most common spots to find ants.
“Ants have a sweet tooth, just like many of us, which leaves our kitchens particularly vulnerable to an infestation. In addition to the crumbs and spills we leave behind, our sinks provide a water source, which ants need to survive,” said Dr. Michael Bentley, an entomologist and director of training and education for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA).
Luckily, you can take a few simple preventative measures in your house to discourage unwelcome guests like ants.
- Promptly clean up food spills before ants discover them
- Store ripe fruit in the fridge and all other food in airtight containers
- Clean out trash cans (inside and outside)
- Keep pet bowls clean and wipe up any spilled food/water around them
- Inspect indoor potted plants for any insect activity on a frequent basis
But the work doesn’t stop there! A crucial part of the process is making it harder for ants to get inside in the first place.
“Good sanitation reduces ant attraction to your home, but you still may need to exclude them from it. Common exclusion practices include caulking any gaps present in windows, doors or cracks in the building foundation,” said Tim Husen, Orkin entomologist and technical services manager.
Want to guard your fortress from a colony of ants? Try these outdoor preventative measures:
- Use crushed stone or rock around your house rather than mulch or pine straw — ants love to nest under garden bed mulch — and keep a mulch-free zone under the perimeter of the house
- Fix leaking water pipes and maintain proper drainage of water away from your home (clean gutters and landscape drainage systems)
- Seal cracks and crevices around your house with a silicone-based caulk
- Replace weather-stripping and repair loose mortar around basement foundation and windows
- Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed away from the exterior of your house
- Keep firewood stacked at least 20 feet away from the house — ants and other pests love it!
- Routinely check under sinks for areas of moisture and repair any leaky pipes
If you’re too late and ants have already started making themselves comfortable, grab some household cleaner and wash down the surfaces where you’ve seen them crawling.
“This will disrupt the trail pheromone ants use to find resources. This way, if more ants get indoors, they won’t have any strong cues to direct them to food or water. This is often enough to get them out of the house,” said professor and extension urban entomologist Michael E. Merchant, PhD, BCE, part of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Are ants actually dangerous?
Ants are certainly a nuisance, but are they dangerous in any way? For the most part, if you have a few little ants in the house, it’s not really a big deal, but certain types of ants can cause real problems if left untreated.
“Ants can contaminate food with bacteria, damage structures by hollowing out wood for nesting (structural damage is very specific to carpenter ants), and can inflict a painful sting (fire ants),” said Husen.
To help determine if your unwelcome guests are just a nuisance or if they pose a real threat, Merchant recommends checking with your county or regional Extension Service office.
Should you try DIY ant repellant methods?
If you've got kids at home, you probably don't like spraying chemical ant repellent all over your house.
"Conventional ant repellents are generally considered pesticides, and it’s hard for consumers to know whether all ingredients in the products — or even the overall chemical formula — are safe," said Sophia Ruan Gushée, author and nontoxic living expert.
If your ant problem isn’t out of control yet, you can try to solve your ant problem using some DIY methods. For starters, cleaning with vinegar and various essential oils (peppermint, tea tree and lemon) can help repel ants in a more natural way. Sprinkling cayenne pepper around cracks can also discourage ants from entering the house.
Some people also claim to have success using lemon juice, coffee grounds, baby powder or orange peels in the area ants are invading. As with anything, though, results will vary based on the type of ants in your home.
"DIY controls can work sometimes. Liquid ant baits can be quite effective at temporarily reducing foraging ants in the house. Dry baits, Boric acid dust, diatomaceous earth and most volatile plant compounds are generally less effective," said Merchant.
If you’re not seeing results from DIY methods, it's time to call in a professional. "You may see a temporary initial improvement (i.e. a reduction in foraging ants in an area), but DIY solutions often must be reapplied frequently leading to unsightly/smelly and ineffective treatments. These treatments are not eliminating the colony of ants, which are likely to re-invade when conditions are right again," said Husen.
While you're debating whether to go DIY or call in the pros to kill ants for you, keep in mind that some DIY methods can actually make the situation worse. “In some cases, if the wrong treatment method is used for certain ant species, the problem can actually be made worse, causing individual ant colonies to split into multiple colonies spread around the structure,” Bentley said.
And if you’re worried about spraying insecticide in general, remember that it’s mostly safe to spray outside. “Outdoor spraying of the soil and foundation around the perimeter of the house should not hurt many beneficial organisms,” Merchant said.
The bottom line? DIY methods to kill ants do exist but they’re definitely not a be-all, end-all solution.
When should you call a professional?
One or two ants isn’t cause for alarm, but at what point does an ant problem warrant a professional’s help?
“As with other pests, everyone has a different tolerance. For some folks a single ant can be an issue while for others, a few marching across the kitchen are tolerable,” Bentley said. “That being said, if homeowners find a few ants marching across the kitchen counter, there are likely many more hiding out of sight. And, ants can breed very quickly, meaning that a small ant problem can quickly turn into a major infestation if not addressed.”
Out of the more than 700 different species of ants throughout the country, only 25 infest homes, and these types of ants can require different treatments to get rid of them in the home. So more often than not, calling in some backup will make your life a lot easier!
“A licensed pest control professional will be able to properly identify the ant species, which will influence the type of treatment recommended,” Bentley said.
A professional visit will typically look like this:
- Assess the situation
- Inspect the property for ant foraging trails/potential nesting sites
- Identify the infesting ant species
- Design a treatment strategy — could include further sanitation and physical modifications to the structure to limit ant attraction and/or control product application
Results vary (based on the size of the colony and the methods used by a professional) and aren't typically immediate, but you should usually see a noticeable reduction in the number of ants in 7-10 days.
And don’t assume that a house call from the exterminator is always a one-and-done experience. “Ants are one of the most difficult pests to treat. You need to know the species; do a full integrated pest management treatment which includes inspecting and identifying before treating. Sometimes, you may need several treatments to keep the ants under control,” said Bentley.
Different ant species require different treatment methods and they're all attracted by different things — some like it salty, and some like it sweet. A colony of ants can sometimes contain upward of thousands of members, so it’s no wonder that ants are considered one of the most difficult pests to control.
At the end of the day, patience is key, so try not to let a few (or a ton) of ants ruin your summer!