Q:What is the best way to deal with ants? -- Jim Goldsmith, San Luis Obispo
A:The lowly ant, seemingly insignificant, can put fear into even the most stoic of hearts. It may start as one erratic loner or a shock of military-style lines moving across walls, floors or garden beds. Small, but capable of moving at an astounding clip, ants mean business when it comes to feeding the colony and proliferating the species. Humble as it may be, the ant should be taken seriously as one of the most common pests. There are about 200 species that reside in California, but only a handful are considered problematic.
Ants are equally annoying whether in the garden or indoors. But no matter where they are congregating, one thing is true: they are looking for food or water. Additionally, ants may move indoors in search of warmth or protection from the elements. In the garden, ants can have a devastating effect on plants. Generally they invade plants that have already been taken over by honeydew-producing insects such as aphids, soft scales, whiteflies and mealybugs. Ants and honeydew-producing insects have a symbiotic relationship. Ants are attracted by the honeydew excrement provided by these bugs and ants, in turn, protect them from predation by other insects.
There are many methods for extinguishing ants, but bait stations or ant stakes are the overall best solution. Not only are they easy to use, but they are the safest selection for the environment. Using ant sprays only serves to kill visible ants, which may only make up 1 percent of the colony. The type of bait to use depends on the ant. Some ants prefer sweet baits, while other ant populations are attracted to protein baits. Protein baits are generally only effective in the spring. The most common ant, the Argentine ant, prefers sweet bait throughout the year and protein bait during the spring when colonies produce offspring. Determine their preference by offering a small portion of both. The goal of the bait is to attract the ant, not kill it on contact. The ants will take the bait, along with the insecticide, back to the colony, and over the next several weeks there should be a significant reduction in the ant population.
Place bait traps near distinct trails. Avoid placing indoors or near areas where you do not want to attract ants. Remember, the bait station does initially attract the ant. Place bait traps out of the reach of children and pets. Monitor traps and replace as necessary.
Avoid products packaged as granules that contain the active ingredients cyfluthrin or permethrin. Although these products may be mistaken for baits, they actually contact insecticides that rapidly kill foragers and do not control the colony.
Most importantly, keep moisture down and sweet treats away from the most industrious of insects. Clean cupboards and try to keep garden plants free of honeydew- producing pests, such as aphids and scale. To prevent inundation, caulk buildings and tiny entrance ways. Petroleum jelly works in a pinch, but there are also baits that come in a gel form. Watch for yearly cycles and plan ahead before populations get out of control.