Fruit flies, houseflies, and—heaven forbid—wasps are bad enough when they invade your house. Now, though, you have to contend with flying ants. It might sound like a total nightmare, particularly when they swarm while mating, but luckily, these winged creatures aren't dangerous. Controlling the population, while frustrating, isn't as hard as it seems.
Identifying Flying Ants
Flying ants aren't a unique species, but rather they are individuals that are known as the "reproductives" of an ant colony. Most species of ants have these flying reproductives, which include both male and female individuals. They take flight to mate, gathering in massive clusters, then return to an existing nest or seek out a new one. Flying ants do not bite, and they pose no danger to humans. However, winged ants are often mistaken for termites—a pest that can be a significant problem if you don't treat them properly and allow termite damage to occur. Identify the right insect by looking for key features:
- Termites: The wings are an equal length, the antennae are straight, as is the abdomen.
- Flying ants: The wings are unequal in length, the antennae are bent, and the abdomen is thin.
Controlling Flying Ants
Just because you find a few flying ants in your home, it doesn't mean that you're about to experience an ant invasion. Male flying ants die immediately after mating, and not all queen ants can start a new colony.
If you see a swarm of winged ants—especially if you spot them during the winter months when they are most likely breeding—there is a strong likelihood that there is a carpenter ant nest within the structure. That can be quite a serious problem, as carpenter ants are second only to termites in their ability to do structural damage. Here's what to do:
- Handle the immediate problem: You can get rid of obvious swarms with a vacuum, whether a handheld or full-sized vacuum with a hose attachment. Immediately remove the vacuum bag and get it out of the house so the ants can't find their way back inside.
- Fix or replace damaged wood: Carpenter ants are more likely to nest in rotting, wet, or otherwise damaged wood. Search carefully for the hiding spot, and when you find it, remove the debris and replace or fix the wood in which they're nesting.
- Apply pest treatment: Choose between insecticidal dust, baits, and insecticide sprays to eliminate the ants. Insecticidal dust can be injected into the area where the ants are living, while baits are a passive though slower option. The ants pick up the bait and take it back to the nest, where it kills the entire colony. Make sure that the bait you have purchased is specifically for carpenter ants. Insecticide spray is a good option for just a few flying ants, as it won't have a big impact on the colony as a whole.
- Note: If you feel strongly about the safety of commercial pest treatment, try a natural version by mixing dish soap and peppermint oil. Fill a spray bottle with one part liquid soap, two parts water, and a few drops of oil, and then spray the ants and the surrounding area. The soap dehydrates the insect, while the peppermint oil suffocates them.
- Seal the cracks in the house: Even if you think the ant problem has been treated, there's always the potential for another swarm in the future. Seal any cracks around the windows and baseboards or in the walls to stop a possible second invasion.
- Call a professional: When all else fails, call a professional. Pest treatment companies can take further measures to eliminate flying ants and the colony they came from.
Chemicals in Pesticides
Pesticides marketed to kill ants may contain many different chemicals, some relatively safe and others with notable hazards. It is a good idea to carefully study product labels to determine what chemicals are contained. Some pesticides include a combination of chemicals to broaden their usefulness.
Boric acid or other borates are usually mixed with sugar or syrup to make them attractive to ants. These baits lure forager ants that bring the bait back to the colony, where it kills all ants, including the flyers. Boric acid is fairly low in toxicity to people and animals, but it is toxic to plants. This is one of the safer choices you can make for a commercial ant bait.
(S)-Indoxacarb baits are used for fire ant control and are packaged as granular formulations. Indoxacarb has fairly low toxicity.
Methoprene and pyriproxyfen are insect growth regulators that inhibit the development of insects from one stage to the next. They are used primarily for control of fire ants. Growth regulators are not very toxic to humans, but they are to aquatic life. Make sure to dispose of baits in a manner that prevents them from reaching water supplies.
Hydramethylnon is found in many baits packaged as gels, liquids, and granules, and are used for Argentine ants, carpenter ants and fire ants, and others. It has low toxicity to humans, but there is concern about possible effects on pregnant women and their developing fetuses.
Imidacloprid, clothianidin, acetamiprid and thiamethoxam are neonicotinoid pesticides, used mostly to control indoor ants as a gel or liquid formulas. Neonicotinoids are somewhat toxic to humans and can be absorbed through the skin. They are toxic to the nervous system and have been implicated in the world-wide phenomena of honey-bee colony collapse.
Avermectin baits are used to treat fire ants, Argentine ants, and carpenter ants, and are usually packaged in granular form. Pure avermectin is highly poisonous, but the forms used in ant baits are of a very low concentration (less than 0.01 percent). Avermectin is toxic to the nervous system and to developing fetuses even at very low doses, but it is not absorbed through the skin.
Fipronil is used for control of fire ants, Argentine ants, and carpenter ants, among others. Products are formulated as gels, granular, liquids, and impregnated materials. Fipronil is moderately toxic if ingested, but it is not readily absorbed through the skin. Toxic to the nervous system, it has been classified as a possible carcinogen by U.S EPA.
Metaflumizone baits are used for fire ant control in granular and pelleted products. Although not highly toxic, there is some concern about its effects on reproduction and fetus development at moderate to high doses.
Fenoxycarb is used in some products targeting fire ants, packaged as granular formulations. It has low toxicity and is not well absorbed through the skin. However, long-term exposure, this chemical is toxic to the liver, and it is rated as a probable carcinogen.