November 28, 2013 in Washington Voices

Gardening: Ants serve good purposes, but not inside

Pat Munts
 

Our daughter and son-in-law recently purchased their first home in Round Rock, Texas.

A 3-year-old, two-story with a nice big yard with sort of a lawn, one tree and a few scraggly plants. Oh yes, and fire ants.

The house had been empty for a year or so before they bought it and probably hadn’t had much maintenance in that time. Consequently, the ants moved into the yard and the house. As the kids began working in the yard and cleaning up the house they quickly discovered that fire ants can bite and it hurts.

Unfortunately Mom, the garden guru, has never dealt with fire ants so I didn’t have a clue what to tell her about getting rid of them except just what I tell all of you: Contact your local Master Gardener office. But it did get me thinking about ants here in the Inland Northwest.

There are at least 12 species of ants common to the Northwest. Some are native while others hitchhiked their way here from other places. All are social insects that build nests of a few hundred to a few thousand workers, males and a queen. Some colonies may have several queens. The sole purpose of the males is to mate with a queen during the queen’s nuptial flight. Some queens can live upward of five years.

While ants do have their beneficial attributes, they are considered a nuisance pest in and around homes and gardens.

On the beneficial side they eat a wide variety of seeds, dead and live insects and other arthropods in and around the garden. They get into the most trouble when they find their way into our houses and begin to snack on food in our kitchens. While ants are omnivores, some prefer sweet stuff like sugar, syrup, honey and anything that contains them, while others go after protein sources like meat, peanut butter, dairy products and dead insects.

The best way to control ants is not to let them get into the house in the first place. Seal and caulk cracks in foundations, siding, door and window frames and entry points for wires and pipes. Ants often build nests in wall spaces or in the ground near foundations and then go in search of food. Clear mulch away from foundations to remove nesting spots and trim back shrubs from exterior walls so they can’t climb onto the house. If you have a big problem it may be necessary to call in a structural pest professional to look for colonies that have set up shop in decaying wood.

Ant baits containing boric acid are the most effective way to control ants over the long term in the house. The ants pick up the bait and transport it back to the nest which kills the rest of the colony over several weeks. There are also a number of ant control sprays available to the homeowner. Follow the label directions. Serious problems call for bringing in the professional pest control specialists.

Pat Munts has gardened in Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnw gardening.com.

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