Published on 03/28/01

Knowing a Little Biology Helps Fight Ants

When you make your spring chore list, don't forget to "feed" the ants. To fight ants properly, experts say you have to know a little ant biology.

"To get rid of ants, you first have to know their diet and their habitat," said Dan Suiter, an Extension Service entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"You've also got to kill the queen," Suiter said. "Everything an ant colony does revolves around the life of the queen."

Spring is New Colony Time

Spring is when new ant colonies form. "The reproductive ants fly into the air, mate and drop to the ground," Suiter said. "Male ants then die. The queen's wings fall off, and she goes off to nest and make a new colony."

Knowing the ants' diet is important when selecting a bait-based pesticide product.

"Ants feed on sugar from plant honeydew and on protein from dead insects," he said. "In the spring, they mostly eat proteins. In the fall, they eat sugars."

Treatments with the wrong food base don't work.

"If the bait contains a food the ants aren't eating," Suiter said, "you've wasted your time and money."

One product covers both diet bases.

"Raid produces a double control product that includes both the protein and sugar diet," he said. "It's child-resistant and comes in see-through packages so you can easily tell when to replace the product."

Suiter found Combat ant baits effective, too. Both brands are widely marketed through grocery stores.

"They're the only commercial products that use an insect protein base," Suiter said. "And there's obviously something to that."

Baits and Granulars Work Best

Ant control products come in many forms, but baits are among Suiter's favorites.

"Baits are so effective because ants share food," he said. "They take it back to the colony and share it with other ants, including the queen."

In his lab at the Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin, Ga., Suiter tested baits to find the most effective formulas.

"Select a bait," he said, "that includes any of these active ingredients: sulfuramid, hydramethylon or fipronil. Avoid buying anything with propoxur as an ingredient. This just repels ants. It doesn't kill them."

Suiter ranks granular products high, too.

"Granulars get down into the thatch and mulch where the ants live," he said. "The only problem is they have to be watered in, and with the current drought, come June and July you may be facing an outdoor water ban."

Dusts Work Well, But Less is Best

Pesticide dusts are effective if applied correctly.

"Homeowners tend to think that if a little bit is good, a lot must be better," Suiter said. "They apply too much. Dust is effective forever, but there's a knack to applying it. Less is best."

Liquid sprays are effective. "If you buy a liquid that contains pyrethroids," Suiter said, "you're probably spraying close to the same product a pest control company would apply. You may have to invest in a sprayer though."

Aerosols are Suiter's least favorite ant control. "They're the most widely sold type of ant and home pest control products, but I have no use for them," he said. "They kill only the ants you see, and they leave oily residues on your counter tops."

But people like the instant gratification they provide.

"You push a nozzle and you've got dead ants," he said. "And now they come in colorful cans and pleasant scents. The only time I would ever use them is if I had a party in 10 minutes and needed the ants dead quickly."

Whichever product you choose, use it outside.

"That's where the ants live," Suiter said. "You may see them inside, but they're only coming in for resources like water."

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.