Ants and Disease

Hello, this is a very strange situation but I have a 10 month old baby in my home and I am concerned.

A couple of weeks ago I went in to the backyard and noticed my dog was playing with something unfamiliar. As I walked towards it I realized that it was a bird. This bird must have been there for awhile because it was unable to move, and had defecated so much that ants were (I'm sorry for the graphic details) actually crawling inside of this poor bird and apparently eating the fecal matter. This poor guy was obviously in a significant amount of pain so we had to do something very sad to stop it from suffering any longer.

This just so happened to have occurred next to a wall in our home that is the exterior wall to our dining room where we eat and where my 10 month old's high chair is. Today, I was eating at our table and some of my paper work and pens were sitting on top of it. As I was picking up my plate I noticed the same species of tiny little ants crawling all over the table and my paper work. There was not even any food or anything on the table that could have lured them there. I instantly took my son upstairs, and began disinfecting the table, vacuuming and such.

I do not know anything about ants but my concern is that these ants might be carrying disease from the bird. Can you please tell me if I need to be worried about this? They are the tiniest little transparent orangish colored ants. We live on Oahu, in Hawaii. Thank you very much for your time.


Ok, Alix. I've got good news and bad news.

The bad news: Ants (just like any animal that moves from one place to another) can transmit infectious bacteria, including Salmonella and Staphylococcus. (I'm not trying to throw your dog under the bus by any means, but your dog is definitely more of a vector for bacteria coming in from outside than these ants.) As indicated in a quick literature search (click here ), it's been reported at least as far back as 1914 (Wheeler) that if an ant walks through an area densely populated with infectious bacteria, they track it along in quantities large enough to show up in a petri dish.

The good news: Petri dishes don't have immune systems. The quantities of bacteria ants transport and slough off as they saunter across your counter tops will probably be small compared to the infectious dose for healthy humans. The quantities of bacteria that remain on the ants' feet after taking the thousands of little ant-steps between a source of infection and your table would presumably knock off the vast majority of the bacteria, leaving too few to constitute an infectious dose.

So what I'm trying to say is: thought it is theoretically possible for ants to transmit infectious bacteria to humans, as far as I'm aware (other members of this blog, please speak up if you know better!) there are no records of ants being definitively implicated in someone catching a disease. As best as I can tell, all of the articles that reference ants' potential to be vectors for infectious bacteria are based upon laboratory studies in which nothing besides some agar in a petri dish got sick. Ants, as you know, are quite common, so it seems to me that if they were serious actual (as opposed to potential) disease vectors, we'd have heard about it.

A well-intentioned tangent: This is, of course, neither a child-rearing nor a health advice blog, but I think this recent article on the "Hygiene Hypothesis" makes a good case for not keeping too sterile a house:
Some arguments, both pro- and con- Hygiene Hypothesis haven't been rigorously scientifically tested, so take everything you read with a grain of salt...or a pinch of dirt.

Hope this helps!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

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