Pavement ants, a common species to invade households in Maine, cluster around a drop of honey. (Courtesy of Griffin Dill, University of Maine Cooperative Extension) Credit: Courtesy of Griffin Dill, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Marching across the floor, up the wall and across the counter, ants search for bits of food.

The stray granules of sugar beside the coffee pot, the potato chip crumbs stuck in the couch, the grease left over in the dog food bowl — you might be surprised what small things attract ants into homes each spring.

It’s a problem many people deal with each year, a nuisance that seems inevitable. But is it really? With a little investigative work, you may be able to get rid of the issue entirely.

“Identification is the way to go first,” said Clay Kirby, insect diagnostician at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Pest Management Office. “With identification we can learn a little bit more about specific biology and how to manage it.”

Ants that infiltrate Maine homes come in all shapes and sizes. There are carpenter ants, pavement ants, odorous house ants, thief ants, acrobat ants and pharaoh ants, just to name a few of the most common. And all of them have different food and habitat preferences. Knowing what species you’re dealing with can help you tackle the problem. To do that, turn to the experts.

Kirby suggests that people collect a few ants in a leak-proof container, such as a pill bottle. Cover the ants in rubbing alcohol to preserve them, then drop them off at your local county UMaine Cooperative Extension office or the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Pest Management Office, which is located at 491 College Ave. You can also mail the specimen to: Pest Management Office, Attn: Clay Kirby, 491 College Ave., Orono, ME 04473-1295.

The service is free, and once you know the species you’re dealing with, you’ll know more about where to look for the ant nest and what might be attracting them.

Regardless of what type of ant you’re dealing with though there are a few measures you can take to reduce the chance of having ants roaming your home.

Since ants are attracted to a variety of food, it’s important to keep your kitchen area clean, dry and free of grease; clean up food and drink spills; rinse recyclable cans and bottles; empty the trash frequently; and clean pet food bowls on a regular basis. Even the grease left over from pet food can attract ants. You may also want to consider transferring some foods — such as potato chips — into tight containers or your refrigerator.

Another method of ant management is discovering where they’re entering the home, whether it’s a crack in the foundation, tear in a window screen or gap in a weathering strip around a door. Sometimes you can trace ant trails to these entry points, which should then be sealed.

Reducing habitat for ants near the house can also prove effective. Clean out gutters; keep trees, shrubs and mulch at least a foot away from the house; and make sure the grass is cut low near the house. If a branch is touching the house, it can act as a natural bridge for carpenter ants, which can destroy wood in your home, Kirby said.

Credit: Courtesy of Griffin Dill, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Other management options include vacuuming up the ants (and emptying the vacuum bag immediately after) and using sticky cardboard traps or glue boards to detect new infestations.

Also, outside your home, you may want to consider destroying ant nests that are near the house or in high traffic areas. To do this, poke hole in the nest while slowly pouring in soapy water, according to the Maine Integrated Pest Management Council.

Another way to destroy the ant colony that’s invading your home is by using bait traps.

“Typically, in a household situation, baits are preferred if the nest is not readily found,” Kirby said. “The theory is that the ants will take the [poisonous] bait back to the nest and feed the immature stages as well as the queen.”

Kirby typically suggests a liquid, borate-based bait, which has a good track record of wiping out ant colonies. It also has low toxicity for mammals. Nevertheless, Kirby suggests keeping it out of reach of children and pets.

“You want to place the bait where you’ve seen the foraging ants,” Kirby said, “Then resist the temptation to smash those ants when they all gather around it. Hold yourself back. Don’t pound those ants. Let them take their bait back to the nests.”

Because this method of management requires the worker ants to carry the bait back to the colony, it typically takes one or two weeks for noticeable results, Kirby said. So be patient.

Spraying pesticides should be used only as a last resort for ant control, according to the Cornell University Insect Diagnostic Laboratory. And if an infestation is so bad that you’re resorting to that option, you may want to hire a pest management professional.

Ants in a home can be destructive at worst and a nuisance at best, but outside, they’re an integral part of the ecosystem, whether breaking down organic matter, dispersing seeds or serving as a meal for other creatures.

“Just like a plant out of place is referred to as a weed, an insect that is out of place is referred to as a pest,” Kirby said.

5 unusual facts about Maine ants

  1. Carpenter ants are Maine’s largest ant, and they come in two varieties; black and red. They can be a major problem for homes, especially old homes, because they build their colonies by carving out moist, decaying wood.
  2. Carpenter ants do not eat wood, they simply chew it up and spit it out so they can create tunnels for their colony. In contrast, the termites actually digest the wood.
  3. People in Maine often mistake winged ants–especially if they are swarming–with winged termites. But due to the state’s long, cold winters, termites are rare.
  4. Both male and female ants can have winged forms at certain times of year, especially in spring, and it’s usually to fly off to make new colonies.
  5. The tiny pharaoh ant, while not as common as other house-invading ants in Maine, can be a major problem because it has the ability to survive most conventional household pest control treatments.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...