Most households will face a scenario like this from time to time: You wake up one morning and find that your elegant kitchen is suddenly crawling with hundreds of little black ants. Or big black ants. Or little red ants. Or bigger red ants. Not the thing you want to see before you enjoy your first cup of coffee. But before you run away to rent a hotel room where you call the exterminator, you should know that there are simple, effective ways to solve your indoor ant problem.
Along with preventive measures such as eliminating food sources, there are two principal ways that an ant infestation can be handled: spraying or baiting.
Spraying is a matter of going to war immediately by spraying ants with toxic chemicals that kill them more or less instantly. For homeowners using commercial spray pesticides, this means spotting the ants and dousing them with a spray that may also coat countertops, floors, and other surfaces of your home. The drawbacks are obvious—you are spraying poisons of one type or another around your home, where pets and people might come into contact with them. When commercial pest companies employ sprays, it may be even more aggressive—clearing out the house entirely to fumigate with pesticidal fogs.
The other strategy, which is actually preferred even by commercial pest-control contractors, is to bait the ants.
How Baiting Works
Baiting ants offers an entirely different form of control. Rather than attempting to spray the ants directly with a killing chemical, ant baits use safer materials, usually boric acid, a naturally occurring substance that is also found in cleaning boosters (Borax) and contact lens solution. The boric acid is generally mixed with a sweet liquid that attracts ants. As they consume the sweet treat, they carry boric acid back to the nest, where it is shared with the colony. Boric acid interferes with the digestive systems of ants, and in short order, an entire colony can be exterminated.
What Is Boric Acid?
Boric acid is a occurring compound commonly found in fruits, volcanic settings, and some minerals. It's typically used in antiseptic solutions, flame retardants, and antiviral and antifungal medications because of its ability to prevent or stop some types of infection.
Most liquid ant baits, including all those offered by Terro, use boric acid as the active agent.
Forms of Ant Bait
The best-selling brand of liquid ant bait is Terro, but you can pick up any brand, as long as it is a liquid form. However, Terro has such a dominant market share that the brand has become synonymous with the product, much like Band-Aid or Kleenex.
Terro comes in two forms and application is easy:
- A small bottle of liquid contained in a perforated box. You tear the box into squares and place a few drops of the liquid on those squares to make a homemade "bait station." Place two or three of these stations around your kitchen, or wherever you see ants. As with all pesticides, read the entire instructions on the box, including the safety information, and keep placements and products out of reach of children and pets.
- A box of clear plastic, pre-filled bait stations. With these, you never handle the bait directly. Just snip the end of the bait station with scissors and place two or three on a level surface in the area of ant activity. Using bait stations helps to keep the liquid from drying out and provides some protection against contact by children and pets. However, as with the liquid bottle and any pesticides, read the entire instructions on the box, including the safety information, and keep placements and product out of reach of children and pets
There are also ant baits that use chemicals other than boric acid, sometimes formulated in granular or dust forms. These are more toxic than boric acid, so read label directions carefully.
There are several advantages to using liquid ant bait vs. ant sprays:
- With bait, the ant voluntarily eats the toxin, so less toxic material is needed than when using a spray. And boric acid is not strongly toxic, making this one of the safer pesticides you can use.
- The product isn't airborne, so you or your family, pets, or plants won't be exposed to it through accidental drift.
- If the liquid is spilled, you can easily clean the surface with liquid detergent/dish soap.
- The ants come to you, instead of you trying to get it to them.
- It's a mobile insecticide. Ants take the bait back to the nest, a hidden colony that you can't reach.
- Ant bait is extremely attractive to ants and is easily eaten and digested. This is a pesticide they seek out, rather than flee from.
- Ant baits address the true problem (the ant nest), not just the symptom (the ants you can see).
There are only a few true disadvantages to ant baiting when compared to spraying:
- Since the bait is so attractive to the ants, the activity may get worse in the short term as hidden ants are drawn to it. It's not uncommon for customers to call a pest control professional the day of treatment, complaining that there are hundreds of more ants than before. You simply have to be patient; this swell of activity subsides within a few days.
- It may take longer to stop the ants. Again, patience is the key. The only time baiting fails is when a homeowner gives up too soon. When solving an ant problem, there are four generations of ants to kill—the adults, the pupae (in a cocoon stage), the larvae, and the eggs. You have to have the bait available until all four life cycle stages in the ant colony are eliminated. This can take a few days to eight weeks (the worst-case scenario). Though each life cycle can take around two weeks to complete, the eggs and larvae often perish on their own once the adults are eliminated.
A Final Note
When using a liquid ant bait such as Terro to solve your ant problem, make sure you reduce all other food sources, so that the bait is the only food available to the ants. This includes pet food, hard candy on the coffee table, dirty dishes, and crumbs on the floor and counters. If the ants have other sources of food, it will take longer to kill the ant population using bait.
"Tips for Effective Ant Baiting." NC State Extension Publications.