Home & Garden

The secret to getting rid of ants in your home—for good

Ants are better outside than in.

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As far as forces of nature go, ants rank amongst the highest. Even our language around the little buggers makes them sound relentless: They march one by one to form a colony for their insect empire and queen. So how do you stop an army of ants from getting into your home? Well, first, as Chinese general Sun Tzu would say, “Know your enemy and know yourself.”

How do ants find food?

Ants follow each other's scent trails.

Ants use chemosensing, a highly advanced sense of smell food, to find food. In fact, ants are slaves to smell. They will react defensively if they smell ants from another colony, tend to the young when they smell they are near, and move toward aromas of food sources. When an ant leaves the colony, she (99% of the ants you see are female) will leave a scent trail. When food is found, the ant turns around and walks home, doubling down on the scent. The doubling of the scent causes nearby ants to do the same, thus creating an ever more powerful scent trail. Pretty soon, hundreds, if not thousands, of ants follow suit, creating a chain.

What attracts ants?

Most species of ants are attracted to sugar and protein.

Nutrients, moisture, and a better climate are all invitations. Concentrations of protein, fats, and carbohydrates attract ants, which basically means all foods. Fun fact: Since artificial sweeteners do not contain any calories, ants don’t bother with it. However, the idea of using aspartame as a pest-control agent is an urban myth, according to research done at the University of Finland.

While ants get most of their water from the food they eat, they will seek water if they live in a dry climate. Also, experiments have shown that ants that live more than 60 miles from the ocean will seek salt.

Finally, since ants are cold-blooded, they will seek warmth in the winter. Ants may enter a home that doesn’t have a single crumb on the floor. This is especially true of Argentine ants, which invade homes in winter and summer.

What you should do

Keeping sugar and other foods stored in airtight containers will help thwart ants.

This is where knowing yourself and your home come into play. You should sweep up any area where you consume food regularly. Even if you don’t see any particulates, bits of sugar and salt can attract ants.

Store meat and ripe fruits in airtight containers. Again, this is about keeping ants from sniffing out any grub. Keep in mind that many types of fruits will become rotten faster so buy fresh and consume soon.

Aside from the food you consume, you should keep an eye on other sources of nutrients. Pet bowls should be kept devoid of food and water as much as possible. You should also periodically check your house plants. The moisture in the soil makes for an inviting place for ants to nest.

Finally, you need to rinse out your garbage cans every once in a while and check them for cracks and holes. Ants move from one source of food to the next, and the nearest goldmine of food next to your trash is your home.

What repels ants?

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that cinnamon kills and stops ants.

Cinnamon essential oil: This oil has been shown to work in both killing and repelling ants. A 2014 study showed that ants can’t handle the cinnamon challenge. However, the concentration needs to be quite high for it to work—high enough to make your own nose wrinkle.

Mild acids: Lemon juice and vinegar will not kill ants. However, both these acidic substances will degrade scent trails, stemming the tide of ants. This is only a temporary solution since both these substances evaporate quickly.

How effective are chemical pesticides?

There are two major categories of chemical solutions: bait traps and barriers.

Bait traps contain sugar coated in poison, such as borax. Ants bring the bait back to their queen, who upon death, spells the end of the colony. These types of traps are effective against most species of ants, save for Argentine ants, which have multiple queens and can often outbreed a bait trap.

Diatomaceous earth is razor sharp on a microscopic level, like barbed wire for ants.

Barriers, like diatomaceous earth, are your next option. When placed around the perimeter of your home, ants will die as they attempt to cross the barrier, killing the scent trail for others to follow. The downside of applying a chemical barrier is finding where to do so. If you miss a crack in the wall or leave a window open, ants may pour into your home. Chemical barriers are good for when you know where ants are coming in, otherwise, you may need to call in a professional to figure out the source of the invasion.

There are also aerosols and sprays that kill ants they come in contact with. We think this is a poor method since you’re not getting at the source. They’re fine if you find a mess of ants in your kitchen, but not good for a long-term plan.

The bottom line

Sealing up cracks helps prevent ants from even gaining entry into your home.

The best way to get rid of ants is to prevent them from entering your home in the first place. This is where knowing your home is important. You should seal up holes and cracks in your home, anywhere ants may enter. We suggest you use caulk on any obvious holes and cracks. Around your home, avoid placing mulch and firewood. Instead, place firewood at least 20 ft. away from your home and use crushed stones in place of mulch.

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