Carpenter Ants

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carpenter ant outside a home in Leesburg VA

 

Carpenter Ants

The black carpenter ant is the most common carpenter ant pest in the Mid-Atlantic region, of which DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia are a part. It nests in wood and is an important structural pest. It is dull black with pale yellow or light pubescence (hairs), with the gaster's pubescence coarse, dense, and as long as erect hairs. Carpenter ant workers are large, between 6 and 13 mm long.

Carpenter ants enter buildings to nest or forage. They are called "carpenters" because they excavate their nests in wood, creating smooth tunnels and galleries. They generally initiate their primary colonies by excavating wood that is decayed or damaged by other insects, but will often construct satellite colonies in wood that is structurally sound. These satellite colonies are found more often than their primary colonies.

Carpenter ant colonies are established after the mating flights of winged male and female reproductives (swarmers). The nuptial flights usually begin during the first warm days of spring. After mating, the male ants die. Most carpenter ant colonies are monogyne, beginning from a single queen. She often starts the nest in a small cavity in a dead or live tree, where she lays her first eggs. In two to three weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae that are fed by the queen. At the end of larval development, they pupate and later emerge as minor workers (minors), numbering 10 to 25 individuals. The minors begin foraging, excavating, and brood rearing for the colony.

In two years, a population of workers ranging in size from small minors to large majors will be present. In three to five years, colonies of black carpenter ants start producing alates (swarmers). Populations of carpenter ant colonies can reach tremendous numbers.  Mature colonies consist of a parent nest and often satellite nests are established nearby whenever a need arises for more territory, more resources, or a drier, warmer nesting site for development of their larvae and pupae. The queen, workers, and small larvae are always present in the parent nest, whereas the satellite colonies contain workers, larger larvae, and pupae. Except during the winter diapause, workers travel between the various satellites of a colony on well-defined trails. The distance between parent and satellite nests varies, but has been measured as far as 750 feet.

Parent nests containing the queen, workers, winged reproductives, and larvae overwinter in a metabolic stated called diapause. In DC, MD & VA, diapause is a period of dormancy during which the ants are in a state of suspended animation. The encasing wood of the colony's residence provides them with insulation from the cold temperatures of winter. In addition to that, larvae, workers, and reproductives have glycerol, a compound that acts as antifreeze.

In Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC, colonies of carpenter ants typically break diapause in March, and the queen begins her first egg-laying of the season, lasting for 7 to 10 days. The voracious appetites of the developing larvae trigger increased foraging activity. The most intense foraging of the season is due to the increasing food requirements of the rapidly developing larvae.

A second peak of activity occurs in June when the queen again lays eggs for another 7 to 10 day period. The foraging activity during this second peak is typically shorter and less intense. The colony will enter diapause in September or October, along with the late summer brood, which overwinters as larvae and complete development in February. Colonies are perennial, and can exist for more than 20 years.

Since carpenter ants are primarily nocturnal, they rely heavily on physical cues and pheromone trails for orientation to and from the nest. They also use airborne odors to locate food. Well-maintained physical trails and trunk lines of carpenter ants serve as roadways through vegetation and debris. The distance traveled to obtain food varies.

A colony of black carpenter ants has a distinct cycle of protein consumption, which coincides with their brood production in the summer and fall. The quantity and quality of nitrogen in the protein and amino acids ingested are the key factors for growth and development. Their consumption of carbohydrates, on the other hand, is relatively constant and more than twice as high as protein. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source of adult carpenter ants.

It has been observed that black carpenter ants will travel greater distances to forage upon higher concentrations of sugar solution, but foraged intensively on protein solution regardless of distance and concentration. Honeydew, juices from over ripe fruit, and dead or live insects are natural sources of carbohydrates and proteins for carpenter ants. In addition, many household foods containing sugars, such as jams, syrups, and cakes are foraged upon, as well as meat and cooked eggs.

In structural infestations of carpenter ants, the parent nest is generally located outside in a tree, stump, stack of firewood, or landscape timbers. In a tree, nests are frequently located in hollows or dead limbs. Nesting sites of black carpenter ants in standing trees are most often associated with larger mature trees with tree holes or branch crotches. These features were indicative of tree damage and moisture accumulation, which is favorable for wood decay.

Satellite nests may be found in similar sites in one or more neighboring trees and in adjacent structures. Such colonies may be found in a variety of places, including attic rafters, roof overhangs, bay windows, fascia boards, floor joists, box headers, wall voids, hollow curtain and shower rods, hollow doors or columns, behind dishwashers, under or behind insulation in attics and crawlspaces, bath traps, under cabinets, and in ceiling voids next to skylights and chimneys. A parent nest found inside is typically associated with a water leak or other constant source of moisture.

A house built in a woodland habitat is a prime candidate for carpenter ant infestation. The numerous trees, landscape timbers, wooden porches and fences, and bay or box windows are all potential hot spots. Leaky pipes or roofs, clogged gutters, and chimneys with improperly fitted flashing can create moisture problems which attract carpenter ants.

Homes with flat roofs, dormers, or hollow porch columns are potential sites for infestation. Often, moisture damage, especially in a void space, is an open invitation for a carpenter ant infestation. Multiple roof lines, if not sealed properly and adequately ventilated, often lead to moisture damage in the attic. Other conditions conducive to infestation include holes and cracks where utility lines enter the house, earth-to-wood contacts, tree branches in contact with the building, and inadequate ventilation.

Carpenter ants have a one-segmented pedicel in the form of a vertical scale, and a terminal acidopore with a circular orifice fringed with hairs. The workers are polymorphic and characterized by their evenly convex thoracic dorsum.

 

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