Ants and water

Hi AntBlog,

Do ants need water in their nests? And, if so, how do they get it there? I assume individual ants need water - the commonly held belief that ants come in kitchens for water - is that true?


Hi Natasha,

Thanks for contacting us at AntBlog.

As any organisms ants do indeed need water. Their need for water is higher when humidity is low, for example in desert regions or during hot and dry summer months. Individual workers will take up water and then transport it to their nest. Ants have a crop, a so-called "social stomach". They can use this stomach to store food and liquids and then regurgitate it when they need to share it. This is a very common mechanism by which ants feed the brood of the colony. Sometimes food is also shared among workers, different adult members of the colony. This "mouth-to-mouth feeding" is called trophallaxis.

To answer the second part of your question, during very dry weeks ants may indeed come into a kitchen because they are attracted by water. More commonly though ants come into kitchens because food is left out and they are attracted by food. Often, ants are attracted to sweet foods, which are left out. We have a general post on how to get rid of ants in your house here.

I hope this helps,
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

Ants in organic gardening

Dear AntWeb,

I am curious about ants and I'd like to know If they (like Formica rufa) have potential to keep caterpillars or other "pest" away from cultivated vegetables. I guess yes, though there must be some difficulties to move the ant hill from one place to another, it might be restricted by laws or the ants might not like the new place as is. If it is possible to move them, or there is a way to do so, please tell.

Thank you your answer in advance,

Dear Ferenc,

Thanks for contacting us!

Generally, we highly encourage organic gardening and think it's a great idea to pursue your gardening projects without any artificial pesticides. However, I do not suggest moving an ant colony closer to your garden to help them fend off caterpillars. You are absolutely right that ants can provide a defense for plants as they might chase off herbivores either by preying on them or through there mere presence. This may or may not work depending on the ant species you find and how well they are recruited to your plants. The ant colony might also just not make the transfer and you did all the work for nothing. Also, the opposite of a positive effect for your garden might happen. Ants often herd aphids in order to feed on the honeydew that these herbivores secrete. This might then introduce a problem with aphids in your garden. Instead, I would just remove caterpillars manually or improve the quality of your backyard for natural predators such as birds. Setting up some nest boxes might help already! Birds consume high numbers of caterpillars - in particular if they are feeding their offspring. There is also an organic pesticide that you can make yourself. You just place stinging nettles in a big barrel and top it off with water. It takes about a week and you'll have an effective tincture against all sorts of herbivorous insects. You can spray this on your plants and there won't be any negative effects. Beware though as the smell might not be pleasant.

I hope this helps and good luck with your project!
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

I found a few if these insects in my yard the other day. At first I thought they were red ants, but in trying to identify them in line, I am now wondering if they are some sort of wingless wasp ant mimic. I have look long and hard to try to identify the type if insect I'm dealing with here and am coming up without any answers. Can you please help me ID this interesting insect for me? There is a black carpenter ant in a few of the photos just for comparison. Thacker you VERY much for your help!!!



Dear Meredith:

Thanks for sending your pictures of this interesting ant to the Ant Blog. These are recently flown queens of one of the citronella ants, Lasius latipes. Your difficulty in tracking them down stems from the fact that most ant pictures online are of worker ants, which in this case look very different from the queens. The unusual morphology of these insects is related to their mode of colony foundation. Rather than raising her first brood of workers alone, a queen of this species barges into a colony of a host species, another member of the same ant genus called Lasius neoniger, kills the host queen, and if all goes well, becomes accepted by the remaining workers, who help her raise her first brood. For a short while a colony containing workers of both species ensues, but eventually a pure colony of the well-armored queen and her pale orange-yellow workers results.

Parasitism of this sort is relatively common among ants, including several other species in New England, in the genus Lasius, and also in Formica, Myrmica, Tapinoma and Nylanderia. It used to be though quite rare in the Tropics, but recent exploration of the ant faunas of tropical areas are revealing many variation on this theme in those regions as well.

James C. Trager & the Ask Ant Team


I have one to two colonies of small black ants living in the outside bricks and walls of my home. I live on the West Coast of British Columbia in Vancouver and they appear every spring and last all summer. they are very industrious and I hate to disturb them or kill them if they are not causing damage to my home... can you please tell me if I should be concerned? Or should I just let them be? I admire them.

Dear Paula,

Thank you for contacting AntBlog and we are glad to hear that you have been watching and appreciating the ants around your home. Most ants are not problems and are in fact good to have around. From your description it does not sound like you have anything to worry about. Below are two previous posts you may find informative. One about the importance of ants in the environment and one on how to get rid of ants in your home should you decide later that they are becoming pests.

Best regards,
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

I found some ants in my back yard that had some eggs. So I gathered a pile of workers and eggs. I couldn't find a queen though. I've heard that when you catch eggs, and no queen, the workers will raise some of the eggs into queens. I was wondering if that was true, and what do I need to do to ensure a queen is hatched.
Thanks, "CatPlip"

Dear Cat:

A point which needs to be clarified regarding your interesting question is, 'What do you mean by eggs?' To most people, anything pale-colored that the ants carry around when their nest is disturbed is their "eggs". But ants are like butterflies, in that they develop from very tiny, true eggs into legless and helpless but voracious grubs (larvae). The larvae grow to many times the size of the original egg on the protein-rich diet provided to them by the adult ants. When full grown, the larvae cease to feed, and develop into pupae, the equivalent of the butterfly chrysalis. In some ants, the pupae are enclosed in a cocoon, but in most, the pupae are naked, as in this excellent image of ant development from the myrmecos website. Lastly, the pupae develop into adult ants, whether queen, worker, soldier or male.

Now to your question: There is still much we do not know about what determines whether a particular ant egg develops into a queen or worker. It is known that in some species, workers lacking a queen can raise eggs or very small larvae into winged queens. The problem then is that these queens are not mated, so they can only lay unfertilized eggs. There is the further complication that the winged, virgin queens may not even mate, even if males are present, and thus will not lay eggs at all, until they have completed the full cycle of leaving the parent nest for a mating flight, breaking off their wings, and establishing a small nest of their own. So in essence, the answer to your question is that you cannot count on the queenless workers and brood you have collected to raise a new queen. This is why those who keep captive ants prefer to either collect whole colonies with queen or even better, to collect young, newly mated queens that will rear their own first workers in captivity, if properly cared for. These seem to adjust better to captive conditions than do mature colonies

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team

On August 18, 2013 while visiting a naturally restored area of Orland Park, my wife and I witnessed an ant "march" from under the base of a tree, across a parking lot, into another spot, east of the tree, filled with bushes and plants, which is near a pond. We approximated the observable distance at 120 ft. with ants covering an area about 12 inches wide. By counting the ants in the photographs we took, then doing some calculations, we estimated there were about 4,700 ants.
We observed this process for an hour and a half, as they went to wherever their "end place" beyond our field of vision in the underbrush was, to all ants returning to their original hole under the tree. They were not carrying anything visible in either direction, but we did observe them stop periodically to touch antennae. The ants on the "march" were red, with three yellow-gold lines, over a whitish area on their abdomens, and not larger than 1/2 inch. Around the "nest site" were numerous small holes and a couple larger entrances which were guarded by black ants that looked identical in size and also had similar, but less pronounced color on their abdomens. In addition, there were smaller, black, winged ants crawling around the nest perimeter. During the return to the main entry hole, black and red ants periodically touched antennae
This behavior was fascinating to observe, but puzzled us as there did not appear to be a "hostile takeover" by another species and no food was brought back to the nest.
What explanations could be offered for this expenditure of energy?


Dear Anthony:

Thanks for sending the detailed account, and pictures, of your observations of these ants' behavior. You saw an ant species that has long been known as Polyergus breviceps. A little bit of nomenclature housekeeping - It turns out that this name has been applied to several different, closely related species, and the ants you observed used to be, and will soon again be officially know by the name Polyergus mexicanus, a widely distributed western North American species originally named over 100 years ago, on the basis of specimens collected in the mountains of Mexico. This ant is near the northeastern edge of its geographic range in Illinois.
What you have observed is a (failed) brood-robbing raid of these so-called slave-maker ants. Most of the time, when such a large party of Polyergus heads out as you saw, they end up at a nest of the black ant species, Formica subsericea, enter, and steal hundreds of their brood. Each Polyergus worker returns to its own nest with a pupa, or less often, a full-grown larva. Back home, the black ants already there in the nest mound, raise the young, along with the Polyergus brood. Eventually, the stolen brood emerges as adults having no knowledge of their species identity, and thus incorporated seamlessly into the work force of the mixed species colony.
The mixed species nest is that of the Polyergus, i.e., their queen and brood are there, and only workers of the "slave" species live there. Polyergus workers are highly adapted to a parasitic lifestyle, experts in acquiring host species workers, but incapable of other, normal ant behaviors such as feeding themselves, building the nest, or raising their own brood. All of these duties are performed by the Formica workers. When not out raiding with the energy and determination that you observed, the Polyergus workers remain inside or near the entrance of the nest, and in the words of the great American myrmecologist of the early 1900s, William Morton Wheeler, "sit about in stolid idleness ... begging food or ... burnishing their ruddy armor".
The pictures you sent, posted below are the Polyergus workers out on a raid, a Polyergus and Formica worker at the nest entrance, and a bonus picture of the little black, white-winged males of the Polyergus, about to head out on a mating flight in quest of virgin Polyergus queens.




We have red ants in our yard with big barren earth mounds. Do they close them up at night? I didn't see any openings this morning and one lone ant stemmed to be wandering around the was very hot yesterday and cool this morning so I was wondering if they close the openings at night or in extreme weather

We live in Brighton Co., out on the prairie.


Dear Judith:

I'm going to take a guess here and presume you mean (out of the several Brighton Counties in the US) the one in Colorado. The most likely ant from your description and that location is the western harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis. These ants forage in the daytime, and unless it is very warm, retreat into the nest at night. And they do indeed close off nest entrances when it's cool.

In fact, many species of ants close off their nests when conditions are unfavorable, and even more common is for them to seal up holes and reduce the size of the nest entrance to reduce draftiness.

Thanks for contacting Ant Web.

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team

I live on the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in western, central Nevada. We have had an unseasonably hot summer with some heavy occasional thunder storms.
I have always had mounds on my property (2 1/2 acres) with what I have always just called "red" ants. They are mean and do bite. Leaving a very red, painful welt that takes days to heal. My guess from looking at your website is that they might be carpenter ants?? I just know don't go standing near their hill....they don't like it.
All of the "hills" are located out away from the home and yard. Once in a while when they have started a new hole too close to the house and yard I have put Amdro ant bait on the mound.
This year I suddenly have hundreds (maybe thousands) of little holes all over the area. There seems to be only one ant per hole.
I have watched and the ant comes out with a rock/dirt, leaves it outside the hole, goes back in, only to come out with more dirt 30-60 seconds later. Again and again. The holes are very close to each other. 4 to 6 inches apart. Everywhere. One ant each. Some ants are a bit larger than others, but all seem to be ignoring the other ant building his home inches away. The ground is just cleared dirt. Rocky, clay with some DG. Some hay droppings from feeding horses. It's kept weed free and the wind blows most everything else away.
I have never noticed this happening before.
I have always suspected I probably live on top of a huge ant hill. The area is high desert and very rural. Lots of sage brush and undeveloped land.
Can you give me any insight as to what is happening here? What I should do to prevent this invasion?
If they take over at the rate the holes indicate I won't be able to go outside my back door until snow is on the ground.
I lightly sprinkled some Amdro granuals over the ground and around the holes, but for the most part the ants only seem to be interested in digging and not going after the bait.
Thank you,
Coreen - Wellington, NV

Dear Coreen:
Thanks for your interesting observations and question. First, I'm quite sure that what you are describing are not carpenter ants, but rather, harvester ants in the genus Pogonomyrmex, famous for their painful stings. From the description of the situation you ask about, it seems what you are seeing is young queen ants, just settled in from their mating flight and having broken off their wings, attempting to found new colonies. Mating flights of ants often take place after big summer rain events. The mortality of queens during colony foundation is very high, which is why mature ant colonies send out hundreds or thousands of virgin queens in their lifetimes, in the "hope" that at least one of them will be successful in establishing a daughter colony. Most likely only one, or possibly none of these foundling colonies would survive to adulthood (stinging stage, if you will) if left alone, but of course, you'll want to watch for colonies forming by next year if you are sensitive to the stings. Queens generally do not feed outside the nest while raising their first brood, but survive on body fat and proteins stored in their now useless wing muscles, explaining the lack of interest in the toxic bait at this stage. The queens' internal resources also provide the raw materials for the eggs they lay and the glandular secretions that would be used to raised the first few, small workers of the new colony, if they had settled somewhere more remote from your house.
Best regards,
James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team

Stefan wrote on Jul 22 to askantweb
Hi, we have an ant species running around in our flat in Kowloon, Hong Kong, very likely a Pheidole, and I was wondering whether it might be possible to further identify it based on these pictures I made:

I don't know much about ant morphology, so in case I should make a picture of some special anatomical trait, I'd do my best :)

Thank you!

Dear Stefan:

I have taken a look at the pictures you linked. The ant in question is the common tropical house and garden ant Pheidole megacephala, a.k.a. big-headed ant. The large-headed wingless one is a major worker, the smaller one a minor worker, and the winged one on its back is a male.

Thanks for writing the AntBlog!

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team

Good morning,

In a brief Google search I couldn't find any reference to ants using feathers. There's plenty about birds using ants for feather maintenance. Then I found your blog with a very welcome Q&A link. So here goes...

A friend posted on Facebook her observations of the curious actions of a garden ant in her yard. She lives in Santa Fe NM (elev. 7000'). Image and text follows. Could you provide any clues to the behavior demonstrated?

--Is the feather to be used as nest material? Considering the season perhaps that
might be insulation against the coming winter temperatures at that altitude.
--Or is it a structural part of its nest...light weight enough to tote but strong
enough, perhaps with other items to provide some support as needed? If so...clever ant!
--Or do the ants chew feathers and use for some sort of building material? Like wasps?
--Is this widespread (or even known) behavior among this and/or other species of ants?
--Is it driven by elevation and associated climates?
--Or is it simply a decorative item? Is this the Martha Stewart of hippie ants?

Joan (and her friend in Santa Fe, NM)

Dear Joan

That you for writing the Ask Ant Q&A.

There are a few ants known to adorn their nest entrances with small feathers, among other similar sized objects such as pebbles and plant fragments. These would fit your second suggestion of using feathers as a structural part of the nest. The picture at this link provides an excellent example of this:

As for your other hyptheses, I am tickled by the feather as a Martha Stewart-like accoutrement, but I believe in this case that the ant was attracted to the feather by small remains of the bird's tissue or body fluids, and was exerting an extraordinary effort to take home this nutritional treasure to its family.

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant Team


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