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Carpenter Ant Biology


Carpenter ant carrying insecticide bait.Carpenter ants comprise several species of ants who excavate galleries in wood in which to lay eggs and raise their young. Depending on the specie, carpenter ants range in size from about 3/8 of an inch to slightly more than an inch in length.

Most carpenter ant species are predominantly black in color. The ant in the picture on the right is a Pennsylvania Carpenter Ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) carrying a piece of insecticidal bait back to her colony. These carpenter ants are common in the Northeast and Midwestern states. Other species, such as the Florida Carpenter ant, are more common elsewhere.

In nature, carpenter ants nest outside in galleries excavated in large pieces of wood such as trees and hollow logs. They prefer wood that is somewhat water damaged and with a relatively high moisture level, though not rotten or soaking wet wood. They can also nest in wooden fence posts, firewood, utility poles, PVC pipes, and other man-made hollow objects.

In buildings, carpenter ants tend to prefer void areas with a rather high humidity level, such as soffits, wall voids (especially in kitchens and bathrooms), sill plates in basements or crawl spaces, and the spaces around window and door frames. Less often, they may also be found in cinder blocks, tubular curtain rods, electronic equipment, electrical conduit, and rolled-up carpeting.

Carpenter ants prefer infesting wood that has already been moisture damaged, but is not soaking wet. But they will infest wood that is periodically soaked and dries to a damp state in between soakings. It is unusual (but not unheard of) for carpenter ants to infest dry, intact wood.

Carpenter ants will eat almost anything, but their natural diet consists primarily of dead insects, as well as a sugary liquid called honeydew that is secreted by aphids. (In fact, carpenter ants often tend and protect aphids for the purpose of harvesting their honeydew, which is an interesting example of a non-human animal tending another animal for agricultural purposes.) Because of their omniverous habits, it's sometimes difficult to bait for carpenter ants; but baits based on sugar water, honey, or fish by-products are often successful.

Carpenter Ant Society

Like ants in general, carpenter ants are social insects with a well-defined caste system:

"Mound Ants"

There are several species of ants that look almost indistinguishable from carpenter ants, but which live in the soil and don't attack wooden structures.

Variously called "mound ants," "formican ants," "black dirt ants," and many other local names, these ants usually require only a sprinkling of bait for effective control. In fact, if they're located in an out-of-the-way place and don't particularly bother you, there's no reason to kill mound ants at all. They are harmless and they do have their part in the natural ecosystem. (Just make sure you don't mistake them for fire ants, which are far from harmless.)

Once in a while, however, carpenter ants living in a hollow tree stump will burrow through the roots and emerge from the ground, several feet or more from the tree trunk; so it's best not to assume that what look like "mound ants" aren't really carpenter ants, especially if you've also been seeing them in your home.

Next: Identifying Carpenter Ant Damage