Look: tiny, unwelcome house guests feasting in your pantry. Here’s how pest control experts find ant entry points, use bait and barriers, and kill the colony.
Ants are looking for wet, sugary things. If they think they can find food in your house, they’ll find a gap in your wall or baseboard or windowsills, send a few scouts, and leave scent trails marking your house as a food spot. But don’t get rid of the scouts. They can help you figure out how the ants are getting in (so you can keep them out and get rid of the problem for good).
“Exclusion is the best, safest way to do everything ethically and easily,” says Mark Winter, a pest control pro in Cincinnati, Ohio (and a Top Pro on Thumbtack). “You can find the entry point for ants by taking a dollop of grape jelly and setting it out on the counter. When you come out the next morning, you’ll find a trail of ants. Follow the ant trails. You’ll see where they’re coming in, and then you can seal that with silicone.”
Ants will come back because they live in your yard and you have food in your house. So if you really don’t want to wake up to swarming tiny black things in that box of Lucky Charms, you need to get rid of them all.
If you tried the jelly trick, you know that liquid sugar is great ant bait. That’s why so many ant traps are basically sugar water and boric acid (an ingredient found in a lot of household products that in small doses does nothing to you, but is fatal to insects). When you set out a bait station, ants will pass on the word that there’s a food source, and you’ll see ants swarm fast.
Next, worker ants eat the bait, go back to the ant nest and regurgitate for other ants to eat (like baby birds, but the insect version). Boric acid is fatal to insects, so eventually, the whole colony will collapse. It’s like slowly, passively poisoning ants where they live. Yeah, it’s a little dark. Ant baiting can take a few days to a few weeks, so you have to make sure you keep your house clean —otherwise, they’ll ignore the bait and eat those PB&J crusts you left on the counter instead.
If you want to avoid boric acid, try a homemade mix of equal parts baking soda and powdered sugar instead. Baking soda fatally alters the pH of ants when eaten, but is safe for humans (see: any baked good).
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Experts say exclusion — securing your food, sealing up your house, and setting an outdoor barrier — is the best way to repel ants for good. Ask a pest control professional for a barrier treatment.
“An in-soil treatment is literally a chemical barrier all the way around the house,” says Mark. “It stays active for years, killing anything that would cross that barrier.”
Keep in mind that different ant species need different chemicals — you wouldn’t use the same barrier for pharaoh ants as you would for carpenter ants (which eat through wood, just like termites). So make sure you get the right kind. And don’t use a treatment when it’s raining, or it won’t work as well.
As long as the ant colony is out there, worker ants will look for a way into your house (and your pantry). You’re not going to outsmart them forever with essential oils, cayenne pepper and baby powder.
It’s true that some ants really dislike strong smells and certain powders (because it messes with their sense of direction). But the important thing to remember is that if you repel ants one way, they’ll find another way in. And while you play mad scientist preparing dish soap spray bottles and covering every baseboard and windowsill in your house with cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil and dried-up lemon wedges and whatever else you read about to get rid of ants, the ants will keep coming. Because there are literally hundreds of thousands of them in the colony who think your house is the grocery store.
“An ant treatment is usually less than $200,” says Mark. “It’s not that huge. Just get one and get on with your life."
Look, we’re not judging you. But you have to stop leaving dishes in your sink and forgetting to close the cereal box and ignoring the honey you dripped on the counter.
Lucky for you, cleaning doesn’t just hide food sources, it can also disorient ants. Supplies like lemon juice and white vinegar — popular in natural tricks to throw an ant off the pheromone trail — double as great environmentally-friendly spray bottle cleaners.
Make sure that you’re taking care to regularly wipe down kitchen countertops. Never leave dishes out. Sweep your kitchen floor (especially those hard-to-see areas under cabinets). Clean grease and crumbs out of your stove regularly. Take the trash out regularly and keep your trash cans tightly closed.
If you skip ant exclusion and go straight for the bait traps, take another look around your house. Make sure you seal up typical entry points, like windowsills and door frames. A handyman can help you with a silicone or caulk sealant. Additionally, make sure you address any plumbing problems.
“If you’ve got a leaky drain, you need to get that taken care of,” says Mark. “You’ll always have an ant problem as long as that’s going on.”
Disorganized cabinets are pretty much ant bait. Now’s the time to finally put together that fancy food organizing system you’ve been drooling over on Pinterest. You might even discover that your pantry is overdue for a cleanout. Get rid of improperly sealed food, expired food, and anything else that may be attracting ants to your home.
The cost to hire an ant exterminator will vary depending on the severity of your ant infestation and other factors. But, in general, ant removal services shouldn't cost more than several hundred dollars or so.
For more on costs, see "How much does an ant exterminator cost?"
Common household ant species include carpenter ants, fire ants, crazy ants, rover ants, and odorous house ants; their populations vary by geographic location. Different types of ants respond to different treatments, so it’s important to hire an ant exterminator who knows their stuff.
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