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Defend your house against ants—with science

No thanks, ants. No thants.

ants

Not all ants are pests—but when they move into your home, they can be a real headache.

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We’re finally starting to move away from that awful transition period when the weather can’t quite decide if it’s winter or spring. Now that warmer days have arrived, we can look forward to budding flowers...and an onslaught of ants.

These little crawlers are lying in wait to snap up your crumbs and move into any spare space in your building. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to prevent them from taking over your home.

How bad will ants be this year?

That depends on where you live.

“It’s going to be a very ant-and-buggy year for most of the country,” says Michael Bentley, an entomologist and the director of training and education for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA).

The NPMA, a trade association for the pest-management industry, puts out a bug barometer every year, forecasting the predicted pest activity of different regions. This year, the northwest, southwest, north central, and midwest states all have a really good chance of seeing “high ant pressures,” in Bentley’s words.

These predictions are based on forecasts for temperature and moisture. “Most insects don’t like really dry conditions,” says Bentley. They prefer warmer weather, and for the most part they can survive the winter without any issues. So if you’re getting plenty of spring rains, and it’s starting to warm up outside, nature might be setting the stage for everything to come up ant-like in your area.

Which ants are pests?

Scientists have identified thousands of known ant species around the world—and only a few of them bug humans. Most live in the woods or out in nature, where their tunnels and eating habits add nutrients to the soil. There, they keep other creatures like termites in check, distribute seeds, and clean dead and decaying detritus from the ground.

“A very small percentage of ants are considered pests. But those are incredibly challenging to control,” Bentley says. “They are consistently ranked, year over year, as the number one pest—and for good reason.”

What makes ants such good invaders? They’re small enough to easily slip inside your house, live in colonies that number in the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands, and reproduce quickly. That makes them good at getting in, and hard to kick out.

Once they settle in, these insects start affecting your home. In addition to biting ants—which are annoying for obvious and very painful reasons—other species can cause different kinds of damage. Some, like carpenter ants, can undermine a home’s structure, while others swarm around and interfere with electrical units.

How can I keep ants out?

So you would prefer, overall, if the ants kindly stayed away. What can you do about it?

“Unfortunately, our homes are very attractive to ants,” says Bentley. “They provide everything the colony needs to survive.” Your home is a great source of food, water, and shelter. To keep out ants, you need to cut them off from these creature comforts at every turn.

First up, food. “Ants in particular have a sweet tooth,” says Bentley. Avoid giving them access to food, particularly sugary ones, which they love. Bentley recommends cleaning up spills as soon as they occur, not letting leftovers sit out overnight, and storing food in sealable, airtight containers. Even your discards can attract bugs, so empty your trash as often as possible, and store your outside garbage in a lidded can, well away from doors and windows.

Next up, you need to get rid of water sources that ants rely on. That means fixing leaky pipes as they happen, cleaning up any standing water around the house, and making sure that your irrigation system doesn’t go into overdrive.

Finally, make sure the ants have no potential shelter. Cavities in cupboards and spaces in walls give them lovely homes. So take a careful look around your home to identify and seal up any cracks before they become an open invitation for the ants next door to move in. Speaking of invitations, Bentley recommends cutting back tree limbs and overgrowth from your yard, preventing it from touching your house. A stray branch brushing your windowsill might look lovely, but it could also serve as a bridge for ants and other pests to enter your home.

But I already have ants! How do I get rid of them?

At this point, Bentley—who works for an organization representing the pest management industry—encourages people with ant problems to turn to a professional. Different species may require different treatments, and he says an expert is more likely to be able to identify the species—and the correct way to remove it—without guesswork.

If you prefer a more hands-on approach, you can try to identify "your" ants online. The National Pesticide Information Center, a project of the EPA and Oregon State University, has collected information about different types of ant species, and it has cooperative extensions at land-grant universities across the country that can help you pinpoint the pest.

Those resources will also help you figure out the best way to get that species out of your home. If you do opt for DIY pest-control, be safe and follow the NPIC's pesticide advice. Their website notes, “If you decide to use pesticides, try a lower toxicity product first. Always read and follow all label instructions carefully.”

That said, getting rid of ants can be really difficult. Like Bentley, the NPIC encourages you to take the preventative measures we discussed earlier. This should keep the bugs from taking over in the first place.

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