July 2013 Archives

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: https://ces.iisc.ernet.in/thresi/photoAlbum/html/antNests.php?pageNum=28

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

I have another question involving ants.

About three years ago, I put a hummingbird feeder outside my office in the home. I fill it with a mixture that is four parts water and one party plain old white sugar.
A few female and male hummingbirds visit every day.

However, black ants would also walk down the pole that the feeder hangs from and actually enter through the holes designed to admit hummingbird beaks and wind up dead in the so-called nectar inside the feeder. I looked for an online solution and found what is called an "ant moat." It's the red cylinder that the feeder is suspended from. It holds water and this prevents ants from crawling down to the feeder.

It works great and I haven't had a single drowned ant in the nectar since I installed the ant moat.

Amazingly, though, over the last two years I've only seen one ant actually walk down the pole, discover the moat, and retreat. *Just one*. Granted I'm not watching every minute, but I'm looking out there enough to be surprised that I've only seen one ant and that was last year when I first installed the moat.

It strikes me that perhaps that original ant left a chemical message for others that communicates that the nectar is inaccessible so don't even try.

What do you think?

Many thanks,


* * *

Dear Ted,

Thanks for all of the details on your ant deterrent, it seems to be quite effective! In fact, there are many potential ways that the colony of ants learned to avoid your trap, likely involving some of the avenues of ant communication discussed in this post. One thing to keep in mind is that collective foraging often works on signals of reinforcement by multiple foragers. Thus, if none of the ants were able to return back to the nest with the nectar, then they would have a hard time "convincing" any other ants to forage in that direction, and there would be little reason to walk towards the moat other than random chance.

Hope this helps!

Max Winston & the AntAsk Team

Dear Ant Experts,

You really can find anything online! I'm so glad I found your website. Please help me as I can't identify these flying ants.

In prior years I've noticed these flying ant like bugs outside my home. A few days ago I noticed two in my kitchen. Then the next morning about a half dozen. Same the next day. This morning there weren't that many.

I've been looking for information to identify them when I found your site. They don't exactly match the pictures of either ants or termites I've seen online. They look more like flying ants but with very small heads. The time of year and other behavior doesn't seem to match up with things I've read online.

They move around clumsily as if they're not used to having wings. I found some dead that appeared to have fallen on their backs and couldn't get up. I am located in the north east NJ.

Please help me figure out what I have, where they might be coming from and what best to do about preventing their entry in my home. Spending hours looking at pictures of bugs online is starting to creep me out :)

I've included some pictures. Wish I could have taken better but hoping that along with the description is enough.

Thank you,

This morning I saw dozens of these flying ants in my kitchen and I desperately need something to do about them. I'm worried I may have to call an exterminator. Two things concern me. 1) I may not have termites and they tell me I do and charge me extra which I can't really afford. 2) I may have termites and I won't treat effectively for them.


Dear Tom,

Thank you for contacting AntBlog!  I am sure you can image that around this time of year we receive many emails regarding ants in peoples homes. 

The ants you found are the common pavement ant, Tetramorium cf. caespitum.  These are the ants you can often see waging battles between the cracks in the sidewalk.  Winged forms you are finding are sexuals (the males and females) that are produced about once a year to found new colonies (you can read more about how to identify the sexual forms here).  The release of these sexuals usually coincides with the first really hard rains of the season or other environmental cues. 

You can read more about pavement ants in these four previous AntBlog posts:

- https://www.antweb.org/antblog/2013/06/territorial-battles.html
- https://www.antweb.org/antblog/2012/06/lots-of-sidewalk-ants-virginia-philadelphia-pennsylvania-usa.html
- https://www.antweb.org/antblog/2012/05/ant-pile-up-val-centennial-co-usa.html
- https://www.antweb.org/antblog/2011/01/where-did-north-america-pavement-ants-genus-tetramorium-come-from.html

If you are not seeing any of the wingless workers (typical ants) walking around your home, you likely just have your house in the way of their flight path.  These ants are not very commonly found in homes and do not cause structural damage like termites or carpenter ants.  But, if you start to see large numbers of the workers in your home to you can try some of the tips on these two posts:

- https://www.antweb.org/antblog/2010/07/help-i-have-ants-in-my-home-and-want-them-out-oscar-oakland-ca-usa.html
- https://www.antweb.org/antblog/2011/06/winged-ants-in-bathroom-please-help-homeowners-with-ant-problem.html

Best regards,
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Hi there--

Today, I've been "googling" red ants because last night in my backyard, I saw hundreds of red ants--not tiny--not the huge ones, marching across my backyard--in a 5" wide line, all carrying eggs. There were HUNDREDS of them--it took about a half an hour. Fortunately, I caught them in time to trace over to the leaders of the pack (not carrying eggs), and watched until the last ones came. They marched across my large backyard from a neighbors house, into the backyard of the neighbor on the other side!

It was fascinating and I'm thankful I saw it. My question is--what kind of ants would they be, and what were they doing? I'm a gardener, and I use no chemicals or pesticides--so I don't want to harm the ants--I am just very curious!

Thanks very much! Love your blog--it is fascinating! Found it by googling my ants!

Centennial, CO

Dear Shelly:

Thanks for your interesting question on ant behavior on a warm Colorado afternoon.

As you no doubt discovered in your search, there are a lot of different kinds of "red ants" in the world, but because of your clear description of the behavior, we can narrow it down considerably from all those hundreds of different sorts of ants that could qualify as red.

There are two most likely players in your area, a Polyergus species, or a member of the Formica sanguinea group of species; both in the broader category of slave-making, or dulotic, ants. These are ants that raid colonies of a related ant species and steal, not the eggs, but the pupae in cocoons (equivalent of a butterfly chrysalis) from the raided ant species. These mature into ants that constitute the primary work force of a mixed species ant nest population. The slave-makers themselves are quite expert at this brood-robbing, but often somewhat to completely (depending on the species) ineffectual at normal ant work, such as nest building, food gathering, and brood care. You might find it interesting, if you see this again, to follow the pupa-carrying ants home and see the amazing mixed species colony that results form this behavior.

This is one of several forms of social parasitism in ants, in which one species is dependent on one or more healthy colonies of a particular host ant species for its survival. Some lovely pictures of parasitic ants may be seen at the photography website of Myrmecologist Alex Wild: