Carpenter Ants: Everything You Should Know About Them

Carpenter ants are one of the insect pests that can cause a significant amount of damage to your home. They aren’t a health hazard like other insect pests and they are unlikely to cause as much damage as a termite infestation, but they present a major structural risk nonetheless.

How do you know if you have carpenter ants, however? Are the ants crawling on the outside of your window or on the kitchen floor carpenter ants? Let’s explore them in a bit more detail to find out.

What are carpenter ants?

Carpenter ants are among the larger ant species on the planet. They get their name because of their habit of nesting inside old and dried up trees and wooden structures. Carpenter ants do this thanks to being very adept at chewing and digging through soft and dry wood, intricate tunnel systems and nests. A carpenter ant nest can vary greatly in size but if a carpenter ant infestation in your home is left to spread unchecked it can eventually cover a large portion of your floor and walls. This is pretty much why finding carpenter ants in the house or other buildings should be treated very seriously – carpenter ants won’t damage the building’s foundations and structural integrity as quickly as termites would, but they will still do a lot of harm.

What do carpenter ants look like?

Carpenter ants identification is a key problem as you should be able to distinguish between a carpenter ant and a regular garden ant that’s just wondered in your home.

Carpenter ants are usually between 1/4 and 5/8 of an inch. They can be either fully black or red/brown in color. They have the typical 3 ant body segments. The Entomology department at the University of Kentucky offers an apt description of carpenter ants and how they are distinguishable from termites.

Carpenter ant

Cristina Romero Palma/

At first and even second glance carpenter ants can look like regular black garden ants. The way to more easily find out of you have a problem with carpenter ants is to look for their signs and symptoms:

  • If you have carpenter ants chewing through your floors you should not only see small holes inside the wooden parts of your home but also small piles of dust next to them. Unlike termites who consume the wood, carpenter ants have to toss it aside.
  • Every spring a colony of carpenter ants will send out its winged males and females to look for a new colony as any other type of ants does. However, if the carpenter ants are nesting inside your home this means that during springtime you should notice a large number of carpenter ants with wings literally flying out of your floor and walls.
  • If you do an extensive cleaning of your home and examine the spaces behind wardrobes, kitchen cabinets, etc., you might notice large quantities of ants, as well as the openings of their tunnels inside your home’s foundation.

Black carpenter ant vs Red carpenter ant

Black carpenter ants and red carpenter ants are the two most popular sub-types of carpenter ants. The difference between them seems to be mostly in the color as the former are almost fully black while the latter has a brown/red coloring. Aside from that, both types exhibit mostly the same characteristics.

Carpenter ant hierarchy explained

Carpenter ants are typically a single-queen species like most other ants. There are some types of ants (Linepithema, Myrmica, Messor, Formica, Pheidole, Solenopsis, Serviformica, and a few others) that accept Polygyny, which is single colonies with several queens. Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) are among the most famous examples of this.

Alternatively, Oligyny is also known to occur in some ant species – this is what happens when two ant colonies share the same physical space or nest without fighting. Even then, however, the carpenter ant queens themselves will usually engage in a fight if they themselves meet up.

Carpenter ants very rarely display any of these two hierarchy types although there are some known cases where they have happened. A much more frequent and likely scenario is for two carpenter ant colonies to simply invade the same home and create their colonies next to each other. From our point of view, this situation can look like a dual colony but it will usually be just two colonies invading the same house.

Where do carpenter ants live?

Carpenter ants are not a strictly indoor species. They can easily nest outdoors as well which is when you’ll see carpenter ants in tree trunks. After all, that’s where they’ve lived for millions of years before we started building our own homes. In fact, for carpenter ants it’s relatively common to set up “satellite colonies” – these are colonies that don’t contain queens, eggs or larvae but are just a housing unit for the worker ants of the “parent colony”.

What do carpenter ants eat?

As we mentioned above, carpenter ants don’t really consume wood as termites do. Instead, carpenter ants will feed on other insects – dead or alive – as well as other high-protein foods. They are also known to feed off the sweet body fluids off aphids like other garden ant species. In fact, carpenter ants are a natural predator of termites (who, themselves, are a member of the cockroach family).

Carpenter ant damage

Carpenter ants may not be as damaging to your home as termites but they will still do plenty of structural damage if left unchecked for long enough. Especially if they are allows to nest in your home’s foundations it’s not unlikely for a carpenter ant colony to eventually deal an irreversible and potentially dangerous for the other inhabitants of the building damage.

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