What Types of Ants Are There and Where Do They Live?
October 14th 2019, by Dan Crosfield
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An ant is an ant, right? Wrong. When you’re talking about one of the most widespread and diverse animal species on the planet, details matter. There are over 12,000 kinds of ant known to science, with more being discovered regularly. The United States alone has more than 700 different types of ants. And each type has different behaviors and habitats.
Most ant species like the house ant, pavement ant, pharaoh ant, and the carpenter ant belong to the group of sugar feeding ants. Other species like the thief ant, prefer to eat greasy food and belong to the group of protein feeding ants. Fortunately, there are plenty of ants that you are unlikely to ever come into contact with. These noble creatures keep mostly to themselves, performing their role in the ecosystem out in the wilderness where humans rarely go.
Ant species like fire ants can sting painfully when they feel threatened
But then there are those other kinds of ants. The kind that are more familiar to humans in the USA because we come across them more often. The kind that are quite happy to mingle among us, to eat what we eat and live where we live. These are the types of creature that are most likely to become a problem in your home:
Unlike some other insects that are common in the USA, ants don’t typically spread disease. However, that doesn’t mean that they are harmless. Some species, such as the fire ant, can deliver a painful sting when they feel threatened. Others, such as Carpenter ants, can cause structural damage to your property. So these creatures are not to be taken lightly. In fact, they are often regarded as the number one pest in the US.
Carpenter ants can cause structural damage to your property
Let’s take an in-depth look at the most common ant species in our country and where they are most likely to be found. The more you know about these astonishingly successful insects, the higher the chances that you’ll be able to keep unwanted ants out of your home and garden.
These big black beasts are the largest species found in the United States. Adults can be up to half an inch in length, and the queen ant is closer to a full inch. Seeing a battalion of these monsters marching toward your home is enough to frighten anyone. Especially because these guys aren’t just big; they are also capable of causing damage to your home.
Carpenters get their name from the habit of nesting in wood. Their powerful jaws are capable of carving tunnels, known as galleries, through even sound, undamaged wooden beams. They do this to establish an ant colony and raise their young.
It’s this habit that often brings carpenters into conflict with humans. These carpenters work fast and can cause significant damage to the wooden structures of buildings if left unchecked. The National Pest Management Association estimates these creatures are responsible for $5 billion worth of damage each year in the US alone. Unlike termites, carpenters don’t actually eat the wood. Instead, they carve it out to make space for themselves. Often, the first sign that you have an active population is the piles of sawdust that they eject from the colony. But the damage they cause can go on for years before being detected. And because their nests can be tricky to find, they are also one of the most challenging ant breeds to get rid of.
Where Do They Live?
Carpenter ants live throughout the USA. Indoors as well as outdoors. As the name suggests, carpenters like to build their colonies in wood. Any wood will do, since their jaws are powerful enough to excavate galleries even in solid wooden beams.
One unusual fact about this species is that although they have only a single queen, they usually have multiple nests. As the only reproductive member of the colony, the queen has no role in life beyond continually laying eggs. To do this, she needs an area with high relative humidity to make sure the eggs don’t dry out. In the wild, rotten tree stumps are perfect for this purpose, and so the Carpenter’s primary nest is often found outdoors. However, that’s not always true. Water damaged wood inside a building will suit them just as well.
The secondary or satellite nest doesn’t require such high humidity, and it’s most often these satellite nests that are found inside human dwellings. So while carpenters evolved to live in forest environments, they are equally at home in human houses and yards.
This exotic insect is absolutely tiny, with adults measuring around 0.07 inches in length. They are so small, in fact, that many people don’t even realize that they are ants at first.
Pharaohs are believed to originate in the hot climate of Africa, but by hitching a ride with humans, they have managed to thrive in every corner of the world.
Unlike other kinds, Pharaoh ants have multiple reproductive queens in a single nest. While other ants start new colonies via a process called swarming, where winged adults take to the air and seek out new territory, Pharaohs spread via a process called budding. Budding happens when the multiple queens in a Pharaoh colony split up, taking some workers with them, to found a new colony elsewhere.
This is important because Pharaoh colonies sometimes bud in response to stress. Among other things, Pharaohs can become stressed by the application of pesticides designed to control them. In short, spraying this species actually makes the problem worse. If you have a problem with these tiny Pharaohs the only way to effectively get rid of them is by using bait. We tested several commercial Pharaoh ant bait products with (very) good results. When dealing with Pharaoh ants remember never to spray them with anything, infact Even household cleaners can cause a budding reaction. The only way to deal with these pests is via a bait or insect growth regulator.
Where Do They Live?
Due to their small size and preference for high temperatures, Pharaohs rarely survive well outdoors. Only in hot climates such as Florida are they able to live outside. As a result, these critters are primarily found indoors, protected from the weather by the buildings they colonize.
Spraying pesticides on Pharaoh ants will make the problem worse
Pharaohs can build nests almost anywhere. Any wall void can provide them with a home since they build settlements from their own bodily secretions. This makes a Pharaoh nest extremely difficult to track down since it could be almost anywhere. Also, the tiny size of these animals makes it very easy for them to slip in and out of cracks and crevices.
Wall voids around water and heat pipes are especially attractive to this critter. Thanks to their adaptability, unpredictable foraging behavior, multiple queens, and propensity for boating, pharaohs may be the most difficult ant types to control indoors.
You’ve probably seen pavement ants before without even knowing it. These extremely common pests usually live outdoors, and are most active in the summer, with the colonies going dormant in the winter.
At 0.15 inches in length, these ants aren’t capable of hurting humans. However, they will defend their home and aggressively invade the territory of others of their species, which can result in spectacular battles between two colonies on the sidewalks of summer.
This is also one of the types that creates new colonies by swarming. On hot calm days in summer, winged reproductives emerge from the colony and take to the air in a nuptial flight.
Pavement ants are often also called sugar ants due to their preference for feeding on foods high in sugar. In their natural habitat, this causes them to feed on fruit, honey, and honeydew, the sugary secretion made by aphids. But this sweet tooth often brings them into conflict with humans, as these tiny invaders go in search of our ice cream and soda.
Pavement ants will feed on almost anything, including meat, bread, nuts, and cheese
Where Do They Live?
The clue is in the name. Pavement ants like to nest in relatively dry, sandy soil, and so they often excavate colonies underneath paving slabs and concrete driveways. These colonies can usually be identified by the small sandy mounds that these critters build at the entrances to the tunnels. Sometimes, this species can undermine paving slabs to the point that they sink and crack.
Typically, this type of ant lives outside. However, foraging workers will often come into human homes in search of food. Although they prefer sugary substances, these foragers will feed on almost anything, including meat, bread, nuts, and cheese. They can also become a nuisance when they dig under the foundations of buildings. Often, the first clue a homeowner gets that these creatures are around is when the winged reproductives of a nuptial flight emerge inside the building. Cracked concrete foundations are a common way for this species to get inside.
The Odorous House Ant (OHA) is a small black species measuring up to 1/8 of an inch in length. They get their unusual name from the smell they produce when crushed, which is similar to the odor of rotten coconut. Native to North America, these ants are extremely common and are most active in summer when they can be seen foraging for sweet food, proteins, and carbohydrates.
This type will have both multiple queens and multiple nest sites. Highly mobile, they will often move their nest to be closer to a productive foraging area. They are also extremely resilient, with queens able to survive without food or water for as long as two months when necessary.
Where Do They Live?
OHAs tend to create colonies under rocks and in exposed soil. However, this type of ant doesn’t display a strong preference toward any particular nesting site. Their adaptability and mobility means that they can settle in a wide variety of different environments. Unfortunately for us, that includes indoors.
In human homes, OHAs have been found in a variety of different areas. Due to a preference for high temperatures, they often nest close to heat pipes or furnaces. Sometimes, they will carve out a colony inside foam insulation, which is soft enough for them to excavate with their jaws. They are not typically hard to control, so long as the colony is discovered quickly. If a colony is allowed to grow and expand, the sheer number of OHAs living in it can mean that efforts to control them may require multiple attempts.
The moisture ant is not a specific species, but rather a group of animals that fall under the genus Lasius. Since there are multiple species in this genus, these creatures can vary widely in terms of their appearance. Generally black, this type can also be brown, yellow, or even red, so color is not an adequate way to identify them.
Many Lasius species resemble Carpenters, though they are usually much smaller at 0.1 inches in length. These creatures are active both night and day, foraging aggressively for honeydew and other sweet substances, but also sometimes feeding on other insects. Some species are extremely common, with Lasius niger sometimes being referred to as the garden ant since it is so often found in gardens.
Where Do They Live?
These ants take their name from their preference for areas of high humidity. Their high water requirements cause them to be attracted to moisture, and this often brings them into human homes, especially during periods of drought. Their preferred habitat is moist soil, especially soil in contact with wood. They are also capable of building colonies in damp and rotten wood, which can also lead to them being confused with Carpenter ants. However, Lasius species can only chew through wood that already has significant water damage.
These critters are often found outside near leaking hoses, dripping faucets, and rain barrels. Indoors, they are regularly discovered near water pipes, where they will drink the condensation that forms on the metal. They will also be attracted to water-filled dishes in the sink and even damp washcloths.
Lasius workers will often enter a building in search of food and water. But consistent sightings of large numbers of this bug indicates the presence of water-damaged wood nearby.
Sometimes called red ants, fire ants take their name from their red color and the burning sting they are capable of injecting when they feel threatened. Fire ants are quite capable of hurting people, especially since they aggressively defend their nests against anything they think is an enemy. These critters have a dedicated venomous stinger in their abdomen, much like wasps, to which all ants are closely related.
Many types of fire ant exist throughout the world, but one of the most notorious is the red imported fire ant or RIFA. This invasive creature is believed to have entered the US via shipping crates from tropical climates back in the 1930s. They are now found across the Southern states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Where Do They Live?
Fire ants are known for raising large mounds of soil over their colonies. This habit makes their nests relatively easy to identify since the hills can be more than 2 feet in diameter and over a foot in height. Fire ants build these mounds in sunny areas to get the heat that they need as a tropical species. These mounds can be home to as many as half a million workers. If they feel threatened, these workers will attack anything nearby, so that when people are stung by fire ants, they usually receive multiple stings at a time.
Fire ants prefer to nest in soil, and so they are most commonly found outdoors. However, foraging workers will make their way inside homes if there is food or moisture to attract them. Also, while they prefer to nest in soil, it isn’t strictly necessary. Sometimes, these creatures are found nesting inside wall voids, where they can become a major problem. Also, they are sometimes found nesting in houseplants brought in from outside. If you want to learn more about the complicated fire ant life stages (from egg to queen), read our post “a fire ants lifecycle“.
This species is believed to have originated in South America, hence its name. However, it is invasive and has now spread throughout the world. In fact, these South American critters have been astonishingly successful at colonizing foreign countries.
Unlike most other bugs of their kind, the Argentine species doesn’t fight among itself. Individuals from one colony can walk into another and be accepted just as if they were at home. As a result, this species has the largest colonies of any ant. For example, a colony in California is 560 miles in length. Furthermore, research indicates that this gigantic colony is linked to an even larger one in Mediterranean Europe, and another in Japan. Essentially, every member of the species adds up to one massive global supercolony.
Where Do They Live?
These creatures like to set up homes in void spaces, such as cracks in concrete or underneath logs and leaf litter. However, they are just as happy living inside human dwellings, where the warmth and a ready supply of food and water allow them to thrive. This species is a significant invader of human homes, much like the Pharaoh variety. They also have multiple queens, and the application of pesticides can cause the queens to increase egg production to make up for lost workers. For this reason, slow-acting bait is the best way to deal with these pests.
If you need more info on other ant species (and how to get rid of them) you may want to check these:
- Leafcutter Ants
- Harvester Ants
- Moisture Ants
- Acrobat Ants
- Little Black Ants
- Ghost Ants
- Crazy Ants
- Pavement Ants