The secret life of ants

With a queen and thousands of workers, ant colonies are often seen as a metaphor for human societies. Scientists have been studying their social behavior ever since 1882. Now, a recent study from Switzerland’s University of Lausanne gives groundbreaking insight into how these wee workers are able to organize.

“This work is beginning to reveal this whole sort of hidden network of communication,” said Iain Couzin, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. “We can really look at how [these] organisms come together and how they communicate to create this higher level society — a so-called superorganism.”

At issue is a process called trophallaxis, which is when ants exchange a social fluid (basically spit) containing nutrients and other substances. Scientists collected the spit, ran it through a mass spectrometer, and found a juvenile hormone never before seen outside of the ant’s bloodstream. They think it’s a signal that tells larvae to grow up, and that ants are using it to give their two cents on population control.

“Humans do [this] with voting and democracy. But here, we have each ant essentially deciding when they’re exchanging fluid,” said Adria LeBoeuf, an evolutionary biologist and part of the study. “Say I’m super opinionated and I think we need to make a ton more adults in this colony. I can put a ton of juvenile hormone like that in my fluid, but if I’m the only one who thinks like that, it gets defused.”


Resolving a Carpenter Ant Infestation

Carpenter ants may be one of the most valuable insects we have on earth. They chew up tons of wood and turn it into fine sawdust that rots, providing compost for new environmental growth. However, when they enter man-made structures they are considered a highly destructive yet common pest.

As is the case with termites, carpenter ant infestations often go unnoticed until it is a costly situation to correct. The damage caused by carpenter ants is distinct although it is often confused with termite damage. While termites feed on the cellulose found in the wood, carpenter ants excavate galleries or tunnels in decaying wood. Contrary to popular belief, carpenter ants do not actually eat the wood. Rather, they hollow it out in order to nest inside, which may result in structural damage. Also unlike termites, carpenter ants generally take years to cause significant damage.

A carpenter ant infestation within a building usually means that there is a moisture problem. For instance, these critters are often found around dishwashers, sinks, laundry areas, and bathrooms – especially where plumbing leaks. Taking care of the source of that moisture makes the structure less attractive to the ants. Carpenter ants can infest building materials such as wood or foam insulation and can occupy cavities like those found in hollow doors or window frames. It’s important to note that since they usually feed on dead foliage and other insects, the ants may be living outside yet foraging indoors for food scraps or moisture.


Identifying Carpenter Ants

Carpenter ants are exceptionally large ants with a dull back color. The worker ants can range in size up to a half-inch. Like all insects, carpenter ants have six legs and three body segments: a head, trunk (thorax), and abdomen. All six legs are connected to the trunk, which is hunchback-shaped.

Its body is covered with a tough, shell-like exoskeleton. Their elbowed antennae are used for communication, smell, touch, and taste. Carpenter ants have strong jaws with pinchers, which enable them to chew on wood. The larger workers can deliver a painful bite, but they don’t carry a poison sack or stinger.

Because of their size, people who don’t know pests well may get carpenter ants and termites confused. There are 3 ways to spot a difference between a winged carpenter ant and a winged termite:

Waist – A carpenter ant has a thin, narrow waist. A termite has a broad waist.

Antennae – As with all ant species, winged carpenter ants have jointed, elbowed antennae. Winged termites have straight antennae.

Wings – Carpenter ants have two pairs of membranous wings with the front ones being larger than the hind ones. So, a winged ant will have front and hind wings of different lengths. In contrast, termites have front and hind wings of equal length.



Think you have an ant infestation problem in Boston Area? If you are seeing ants where you don’t want them, then you do have an ant infestation problem. Ants live in colonies and rarely travel alone, so where there are a few, there are likely more nearby. There are several kinds of ants common in Boston Area, from Pavement and Sugar Ants to Pharaoh and Fire Ants. All ants share the same basic body structure as pictured to the left. Ants will enter your home looking for food, and they can be quite a nuisance. Some species are able to cause or intensify structure damage rapidly.


Steps for dealing with carpenter ants

Each ant species has unique characteristics that may affect how you approach this, but there are some very common methods you can deploy on your own. When dealing with ants, it’s best to take a moment to understand what they are and what they’re up to before trying to control or eradicate them.

Because of the sawdust, let’s assume that you have carpenter ants. “Carpenter ants are usually seen in homes in the spring. If you see carpenter ants indoors during winter, that means there is a nest inside your home,’’ according to a report by the University of Minnesota Extension and University of Wisconsin. Carpenter ants live in colonies, which can range in size from hundreds to millions depending on the species. Carpenter ants — which eat meat, sweets, and dead insects — establish their colonies in galleries excavated from damp or damaged wood. Carpenter ants do not eat wood as termites do, but instead remove it and deposit the debris outside of their nests in small piles.

Carpenter ants are black or red and black and range from 3/16 to ½ inch in length, according to the report. Another indication of carpenter ant infestation will be the debris they produce from tunneling in the wood. Rough wood shavings mixed with parts of dead ants from the colony indicate carpenter ant-nesting activity.

I’ve seen nests in difficult-to-access spaces behind walls, cabinets, and appliances; behind window and door frames; and beneath floors and concrete slabs. That said, when dealing with an ant nest that is unknown or inaccessible, it’s best to hire a professional.