Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ant Candy

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where this "Bubble" appeared in October of 2014, but I was rewriting it from a draft written in March 2014. Topic credit: Laylalair posted . Image credit: carpenter ant "soldier" by Rollingroscoe at Morguefile,

Carpenter ants, Camponotus pennsylvanicus and other species, are large black ants that nest in damp wood. The best way to control them is, of course, to keep the wood in your home and outbuildings dry. If you live in a forest-intensive part of eastern North America, this is not possible, so you may need to do other things about carpenter ants.

According to various educational web sites I checked in order to discuss carpenter ants with you, technically these pests don't even eat your trees, buildings, furniture, books, and papers. They don't digest wood and paper. They just chew it up and exude acid onto it to convert it into a useless pulpy mess. They particularly love maple and fruit trees, but they're not picky--they'll destroy just about anything.

In some ways carpenter ants seem more like termites than like ants, though the body shapes of ants and termites are very different. (Here's a drawing that highlights the differences: . Here are some photos: .)

Carpenter ants have four gender roles, like termites, rather than three, like normal ground-nesting ants. Males are small and have wings. Breeding females ("queens") are large and have wings. Wingless sterile female "workers" are almost twice as big as their fathers, but hardly half as big as wingless sterile female "soldiers," The "workers" and "soldiers" look like two different species, but on close observation they live in the same nests. Males and "queens" also live in these nests, and a colony may have several "queens." 

All carpenter ants act as if they thought they could bite and sting. No carpenter ant can do more than nip human skin, but queens and soldiers are big enough to nip fairly hard.

Carpenter ants are omnivorous; they like both grease and sugar, and will also eat other human food if it's available. Though unable to puncture skin, they like fresh meat; I've seen them attack wounded mammals, and I've often seen them dragging moths and other large insects to their nests as food.
The fact that they eat other things than wood makes carpenter ants much easier to kill than termites. You can spray borax or diatomaceous earth into the nest, or, if you can't find the nest, you can get the ants to carry the poison in for you, by offering them a feast of Ant Candy.

Ant Candy is most visibly effective in spring, but can be made with any particularly nasty inedible candy received for Halloween, Christmas, or Valentine's Day. (Carpenter ants hibernate through the cold part of winter but may be observed foraging as late as Halloween in the South.)

Some things I think of as Ant Candy material include honey (sickeningly sweet), imitation maple syrup (I have successfully used store-brand "pancake syrup" to glue metal parts together; it held for twenty years), bigger-than-bite-size caramel candies that are impossible to bite neatly, any candy that seems hard or stale, and any candy that's not long as it's made with sugar and/or honey and/or corn syrup. Carpenter ants don't like saccharin or aspartame. They like Twizzlers, and cheap fruit-flavored candies that all taste like "fruit punch," and odd bits of saltwater taffy left over from three summers ago...

An empty tin can is a good container in which to mix and store ant candy. Half-fill the tin with nasty sweets. Melt them down on low heat if they are solid. Stir in borax crystals to make a stiff paste. Set the can in a place where you've observed ant activity. Protect it from the weather and from birds and pets by setting a larger can on top of worries, the ants can get under the larger can. Small flat cans, like cat food or tuna cans, are easiest to handle.

You should notice a decline in the local ant populations within a week, and if there are local populations of nuisance roaches (as distinct from Pennsylvania Wood Roaches), those should start to decline too. Unfortunately Ant Candy does not tempt termites. Nor does it usually tempt Wood Roaches. Palmetto Roaches, or "Florida wood roaches," will eat it; in the South, or during the warm season when they spread into the middle States, you may need to stir up several tuna cans full to make sure they leave enough for the ants.