Many people use the term “sugar ants” to describe the tiny ants they find on the kitchen counter. The ants are usually in the sink or clustered around something that was spilled. The homeowners often ask, “Where did these sugar ants come from?”
The term sugar ant collectively refers to a variety of species that live throughout our Mid-Atlantic service area. People frequently refer to the odorous house ant, the pavement ant, and the pharaoh ant as sugar ants because all three species routinely go after sweet foods in addition to those high in greases and fats.
Identifying the ants can help answer the question of where they came from. To most scientists, the name “sugar ants” could really describe any one of several different species of ants. They live in different habitats and they have to be controlled in different ways.
Many homeowners say, “sugar ants” when they see tiny, dark-colored ants in their homes. They are probably the ants that scientists call Monomorium minimum. Because of their color and size, their common name is little black ants. Outdoors colonies nest under landscape timbers and woodpiles. The workers march in line along established trails when they look for food. When they come indoors, they nest behind baseboards and under cabinets. The lines of workers can very often lead to the nest.
Tiny yellowish ants that many people call “sugar ants” are often pharaoh ants. If you look at one of the workers through a magnifying glass, their abdomen is usually darker than the head and mid-section. Pharaoh ants need a lot of moisture, so they often go to kitchens and bathrooms. Outdoors they live under mulch or piles of dead leaves. Inside, pharaoh ants nest in narrow cracks and crevices. They have been found inside electric boxes, curtain rods, and even between folded sheets in a closet.
A colony of pharaoh ants has thousands of ants and many queens. When there is danger, the ants scatter. Queens run in every direction and some workers go with each queen. This process is called budding. The ants do this to start new colonies. They also do it when someone sprays insecticide or uses harsh-smelling cleaning products. After the budding happens, there are many colonies of pharaoh ants instead of just one.
The thief ants are also tiny yellowish ants that many people refer to as “sugar ants”. Outdoors they often live in trees. The workers care for aphids, which produce honeydew. Thief ants often move inside in the heat of summer. They nest behind baseboards or under cabinets. The workers wander about until they find food. They form lines to carry the food back to the nest.
Identifying the ants correctly and locating their nest are keys to getting rid of “sugar ants”. Preventing future problems begins with an outside inspection. Replace missing weather-stripping on exterior doors. Rake mulch away from the foundation. Store firewood on a rack and move it away from the house. Trim tree limbs and shrubs that touch the house.
Pharaoh ants are notorious inhabitants of hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, and can be found in the bathrooms and kitchens of these buildings feeding on a variety of common household items. Most sugar ants in our service area can be found nesting in close proximity to buildings in the soil near the foundation, under concrete pavement and sidewalks, or even in wall voids near dark, moist places in the structure.
What Do They Eat?
As their name suggests, sugar ants feed on foods rich in sugars, starches, and proteins. Sweets including nectar, fruits, and syrups are all potential targets of the insects.
Sugar ants live in various types of nests. For instance, odorous house ants develop large colonies of several thousand workers and multiple queens, but pharaoh ants move between multiple nests of varying sizes. Some may have hundreds of queens and thousands of workers, while others only have a single queen.
In late spring and early summer, sugar ants swarm and mate while in the air. Once mated, the males often die and the females land, discard their wings, and nest in the soil, under pavement, or near manmade structures. The new queens lay eggs and care for the initial generation of offspring, while subsequent broods are looked after by the first generation.
May notice large numbers of flying ants, or alates, swarming during mating season.
Look for piles of excavated dirt or debris discarded from the construction of sugar ant nests.
Watch out for sugar ants moving in a line on chemical trails leading to their food sources.
Problems Caused by Sugar Ants
Pharaoh ants have been known to vector various pathogens dangerous to humans, including salmonella, strep, and the bacteria that causes staph infections. Other types of sugar ants may cause issues depending on their nesting habits. For example, nests built under concrete may make the pavement uneven as the colony grows and expands.
Do Sugar Ants Bite?
Neither pharaoh ants nor odorous house ants are known to bite or sting humans. Pavement ants have stingers, but the mechanism is too weak to puncture human skin. Nevertheless, ants boast strong mandibles and, if disturbed, will bite humans, which can leave visible marks on the skin.
Signs of Infestation
The most common sign of a sugar ant infestation is witnessing the ants as they feed. Dropped or unattended food laden with sugars and syrups will attract the pests. During mating season, the presence of swarming alates may indicate the existence of a nearby colony, as well. As ants build nests, the excavated dirt may also signal a sugar ant presence.
Sugar ants are attracted to a variety of foods, so maintaining the cleanliness of kitchens and food preparation areas is paramount. Clean and disinfect all surfaces, and put away all foods in sealed containers. Ants enter the home through cracks in foundations, gaps in windows and doors, and even through tiny openings around plumbing and electrical fixtures. Sealing these potential entry points should help keep sugar ants out.
Tips for Removal from Home
When ants invade, store-bought baits and traps may help reduce or eliminate entire colonies, as scouts will take the bait back to the nest and spread the chemical deterrents among the other ants. However, they tend to be pretty ineffective. For larger infestations, contacting a trained pest professional can be beneficial, as pest control specialists are skilled in recognizing, eliminating, and preventing ant invasions.