Ghost ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum) are tiny, highly mobile, warmth-seeking insects that do not pose any structural or health risks, but can be incredibly difficult to eradicate, especially when over-the-counter sprays have been used to try and control them.
While ghost ants may not bite or cause damage to the home, finding these little buggers in your kitchen, bathroom or living spaces is frustrating, especially when they just won't go away. How do you identify and get rid of a persistent ghost ant issue?
What Do Ghost Ants Look Like?
Ghost ants are super small and multi-colored. You would think distinct, two-toned coloring would make ghost ants easier to identify, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Due to their small size and light coloring, ghost ants can actually be very difficult to spot and are easily confused with other ant pests, including sugar ants and pharaoh ants.
In the U.S., ghost ants are found primarily in Florida and are most common in the warmest, most southern areas of the state. They are also found in other areas, especially in greenhouses where more "tropical" (warm, moist) conditions are found.
Ghost ants have the following characteristics:
- 1.3-1.5 mm in length
- Dark brown head and thorax
- No spines or hairs on thorax
- Light abdomen and legs ranging from yellow-tan to cream
- 12 antennae segments that gradually thicken toward the tip
What Is a Thorax?
Generally speaking, insects have three primary body segments: the head, thorax, and abdomen. The head is easy to find and has antennae, eyes, and jaws (mandibles). The thorax refers to the middle segment of an insect's body, and the abdomen is the rear end.
7 Ways to Get Rid of Ghost Ants
Ghost ants are a 'budding ant', which occurs when one or more reproductive females, accompanied by many workers and young, leave the old nest in search of a new one. Ant control products available to homeowners for over-the-counter purchase are repellent products, which are agitating to ant colonies.
When budding ants detect changes in their environment, (including repellent products) this can cause the colony to fracture. The activity may die down briefly, but is likely to come back worse as new colonies bud and become established elsewhere. This will make the issue bigger and more widespread over time. Hold off on chemical applications and use a number of other control methods available to keep ghost ants outside where they belong.
As pesky as a recurring ghost ant issue is, there are a few very easy and (mostly) natural ways to get rid of them and keep them outside where they should be.
Trim Back Vegetation
Ghost ants are very deliberate and persistent trailers. They will trail up gutters or along foundations in search of food and sometimes this search will lead ghost ants inside.
To avoid giving ghost ants easy access to your home, keep the plants and vegetation around your home trimmed back. Ghost ants love to consume honeydew, a sweet, sticky substance made by a number of pests, including aphids. Honeydew is found in trees and on plants, and if these plants are touching your house, the ghost ant's hunt for food could lead them right to you.
Seek to keep a plant-free border around the foundation. This border should be anywhere from 18"-24" wide and don't forget to trim tree branches, ivy, and other plants back from the siding and roof-line as well.
Don't Bring Them In
Be careful bringing potted plants inside the home. Ghost ants have been known to nest in the soil beneath potted plants. It is easy to bring them inside by mistake without noticing.
Try to avoid bringing potted plants inside whenever possible. If it's unavoidable, make sure to inspect it thoroughly and keep an eye on things once the plant has been moved in. If you're spotting ant activity and your potted plant is the source, move the plant back outside where the ants won't become an interior bother.
Reduce Food Sources
Many species of ants, including ghost ants, love sweets. There are plenty of sweet food sources available outside, but oftentimes, ants cannot resist the sweets humans keep around.
Meticulous cleanliness is one of the most important steps in interior ant control. Sticky spills, sweet crumbs, and bits of sweets are attractants to ghost ants, so make sure these messes are cleaned up quickly.
Address Moisture Issues
Water is life, and ghost ants need water just the same as we do. Moisture issues present a number of issues when it comes to controlling ants. Not only do leaks and condensation provide ants with water, but moisture-damaged wood can be an attractant for certain ant species—wet wood can provide a food source as well as attractive nesting conditions.
Make sure pipes are not leaking, seek to reduce condensation, and address leaky hoses to avoid causing damage and attracting ants and other pests to your home.
Seal Them Out
Whether you're dealing with ghost ants or not, this step is especially important if your home has a history of recurring interior ant issues.
'Sealing up' looks different depending on your home and the activity you're noticing, but can involve:
- Making sure gaps or cracks around windowsills are sealed
- Using caulking to seal holes or cracks in bathroom tiles
- Ensuring that all window screens and door sweeps are undamaged and properly installed
- Sealing cracks along baseboards where ants are entering
Ghost ants (and other ant species) are important to a balanced ecosystem. Sealing ants out is a great, chemical-free way to keep ants out of your home while
Use Baits, and Don't Spray
When ants start popping up inside, it's tempting to want to do something fast, but spraying is not the solution you're looking for. In fact, spraying is likely make the problem much worse if you're dealing with a budding ant like ghost ants, sugar ants, or pharaoh ants.
If you're wanting to attempt a DIY treatment, use a gel bait rather than a chemical spray. With baits, the risks are lower, and these products will not cause budding ant colonies to fracture and get bigger. If you have placed bait but ants are not feeding on it, move it to another area. Don't be afraid to experiment a little. Just make sure your experiments don't involve spraying anything.
Call a Professional
If you believe chemical treatment may be needed to get a handle on a persistent or out-of-control ghost ant issue, it's time to call the pros. When looking for a pest control company, look for a local business that specializes in Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM is a multi-step approach to pest control that involves proper identification of the pest and consideration of a variety of environmental factors when formulating a plan. In IPM, control measures are tailored around the specific circumstances present at each home.
Signs of Ghost Ants
Ghost ants have earned their name because their size and color make them very difficult to spot. Their trails are slow and deliberate unless they are disturbed. Trailing workers have been known to move rapidly and erratically in response to disturbances in their activity.
Ghost ants may pop up inside, but they are primarily an outdoor ant, preferring to nest in the soil in protected places around the home and yard, like:
- Under stones
- Beneath loose tree bark
- Under logs
- Near or below protected debris
Inside, trailing ghost ants can be spotted especially in kitchens in bathrooms, around the sinks, counters and floors.
Though they prefer being outdoors, ghost ants are highly mobile and are opportunistic in their nesting habits. Finding ants inside doesn't always indicate an active nest, but if ghost ants find a protected cavity inside, they'll happily occupy it. Most commonly, this activity occurs in wall voids.
Keep an eye on the vegetation around your property. Make sure ghost ants aren't using it as a bridge (or highway) to access your house. Ghost ants are also difficult to see, so consider using a high-powered flashlight to illuminate the areas you're inspecting. Don't look too closely for active trails, but instead, just look for movement. Even in daylight, some extra light can really help ant activity stand out.
What Causes Ghost Ants?
Ghost ants are a tropical ant thought to be Oriental or African in origin. Their spread can be credited to global shipping and commerce, and by 1995, they were named a major pest in the state of Florida.
Now considered one of the most important household pests in Florida, ghost ants have been found in other more temperate climates as well, but only in greenhouses where they can find the specific conditions they need for survival.
If ghost ants are popping up inside, this could be blamed on a number of things:
- Exterior vegetation provides them access to the home
- Access to food and water inside
- A nearby (or interior) nest
- Nesting inside potted plants that are brought inside
How to Prevent Ghost Ants
Ghost ants are persistent, highly mobile, and opportunistic when it comes to nesting. If they find a favorable spot, they'll move in quickly.
If you want to keep ghost ants away, stay away from ant sprays, as these will make your problem worse. Start by keeping the plants, trees, and other vegetation trimmed back from your home. Ghost ants prefer to be outside, but will happily trail along plants until they end up on (or in) your house.
Once vegetation is trimmed back, make sure there aren't food and water sources available for ghost ants. They especially like sweets, so sticky spills and sweet crumbs need to be thoroughly cleaned up to avoid feeding ants. If you've cleaned up but the ants are still around, place a sweet ant bait in one or more hidden areas where ants are trailing.
Ghost Ants vs. Other Budding Ants
It is very easy to misidentify ants. While ghost ants have unique coloring that sets them apart from other species of budding ants, they are also incredibly small and light, which makes them difficult to see.
- Pharaoh ant colonies are budding ants that live in large colonies that include many smaller nests. These colonies grow to be much bigger than ghost ant nests. Pharaoh ants and ghost ants share many similarities, including coloring and nesting behaviors which can make identification challenging. On the thorax (mid-section) of ants there are small, visible lumps called nodes. You may need a magnifying glass for an up-close look, but pharaoh ants have two nodes where ghost ants only have one.
- Sugar ants (also called odorous house ants) are also confused for ghost ants. Both emit a distinct 'rotten coconut' odor when crushed. https://extensionentomology.tamu.edu/insects/ghost-ant/Sugar ants, however, are entirely dark brown to black in color. Ghost ants are bi-colored and much smaller than sugar ants.
Ghost Ant, University of Florida
- A Guide to House-Invading Ants and Their Control, NC State
Pharaoh Ant, University of Florida