By Dr. Mercola
The tiny ant is a unique marvel of nature. However, after invading your home, you may not find ants so fascinating. It has become convenient to run to the local hardware store for bug killer to rid your home of the pests, but you may be swapping one problem for another, more toxic, one.
Your next option may be to reach for the nontoxic, green product advertised as safe for home and family. Unfortunately, finding a safer option may not be as straightforward as it seems since you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some of these “green” options may not be as harmless as advertised.
Thankfully, there are truly safe options to rid your home of these insects and most of the necessary items can be found at your local grocery or health food store. In order to understand how the products should work, it helps to understand how the ant functions.
The Mighty Ant
In the short video above, you’ll discover five interesting facts about ants that may help you understand how to keep them out of your home and how to stop them from returning. Ants are social insects, living in large groups. They communicate with each other through pheromones. When one ant from a colony finds a food source, it lays out a pheromone trail that other ants from the colony can follow. This is why if one ant from the colony found a way inside your home, others will follow.1
Ants play a vital role in the ecosystem as both engineers and predators.2 They have a positive influence on the density and diversity of other species in their environment, including those further up the food chain. Although frustrating when they’ve accessed your home, these small creatures are actually one of the strongest creatures in relationship to their size.3 They can lift 50 times their own body weight.4 To put this in perspective, if a second-grader were as strong as an ant, she would be able to lift a car!
There are over 12,000 different species of ants living all over the world, except in Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland and parts of Polynesia.5 By sheer number they make up 15 percent of terrestrial animal biomass. Ants are also some of the longest living insects, with the queen of one species living up to 30 years.6
The queen ant is an essential part of the colony. Her responsibility is to mate and lay eggs, sometimes several millions before she dies.7 However, once dead, the remainder of the colony often survives for only another couple of months. The queen of a colony is rarely replaced and worker ants cannot reproduce.
Many ants don’t bite humans but two species are famous for the pain of their sting and the medical costs they incur. The Bullet ant, from the jungles of the Amazon, has a bite that has been compared to being hit by a bullet. While not as painful, the zing of the sting of a fire ant may still send you to the doctor.8
Ants Are as Varied as the Environments Where They’re Found
Red imported fire ants of North America cause a burning sensation; hence, their name. These ants cost Americans millions in doctor and veterinary bills each year, and have been known to damage farmers’ crops. They are known for their distinctive red color and large mounds of dirt that mark their nests. They usually enter homes through cracks and holes.9
Unlike other ants, fire ants are able to adapt to the weather and the environment. The presence of water in their surroundings does not necessarily kill these ants, as they can form rafts with their bodies in order to float.
Fire ants are just one of the common species you may find in North America. Some entomologists believe the sheer number of species could mean there are others that have not yet been identified. However, the four most common in North America include the fire ant, odorous house ant, pavement ants and carpenter ants.
• Odorous house ants
The types of ants typically found in a home are odorous house ants. They emit a rotten coconut smell when crushed, and they nest in houses and emerge through cracks or holes in the walls. They eat dead insects and sweets, and especially enjoy melon.10
• Pavement ants
Pavement ants usually live and breed under pavement and inside cracks, tending to eat just about anything. Their diet consists of insects, grease, seeds, meat, bread, nuts and other food items. Usually, they don’t pose a health threat, but may contaminate food with the waste they leave behind. They are typically found in the eastern half of the U.S.
• Carpenter ants
Carpenter ants get their name as they typically build their homes in wood, and may cause significant damage to your home. There are many different types of carpenter ants. Most colonies are built around one queen, who nests in the wood where she raises her workers. They don’t eat the wood from the nest. Instead their diet consists of other insects, meat, fat and sugary foods.11
Unwanted Indoor Migrations
Ants may take up residence in your home or apartment, but more often they come in to forage and then take food back to the nest.12 Ants may choose to stay in your home for a while if the weather outside becomes inhospitable, such as during a drought, hot weather or during seasons where there are more than normal amounts of water in the ground.
Once ants have discovered a food supply, they leave a trail of pheromones for others in the nest to follow. The kitchen is a favorite place as they may find crumbs of food and a water source.13 Bathrooms are also another place ants may find a water source. Ants may find hiding places inside your walls, bedrooms, basement and air conditioning and heating units.
They also get inside manufacturing plants, so chances are you may be unintentionally eating insects in some of your packaged foods. Parts of the ant may also end up on leaves of lettuce or inside your broccoli. This may happen in the field before the crop is picked, during storage or during processing. For this reason the U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes allowances for a specific amount of bug or bug parts you may find in your food. For instance:14,15
- Ground cinnamon can contain up to 400 insect fragments per 50 grams
- Ground marjoram can contain up to 1,175 insect fragments per 10 grams
- Crushed oregano can contain up to 300 insect fragments per 10 grams
- Canned tomato juice can contain two whole maggots and not more than 15 fruit flyeggs per 100 grams
It’s certainly unsavory to think about insect parts in your food, but the truth is it probably isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, depending on the species, it may actually add some nutrition. Eating insects is common in many parts of the world, as they offer a unique and sustainable source of protein and calories. Many insects are a good source of fiber, omega-3 fats and nutrients such as zinc, selenium, iron and calcium.
Commercial Ant Bait Is Dangerous to You and Your Pets
Before you run screaming to the hardware store for ant bait after finding a few of these tiny insects crawling on your floors, consider the toxins you may be bringing into your home and exposing to your children and pets. To date, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not mandate the disclosure of inert ingredients in pesticides, which make up nearly 99 percent of the ingredients found in any given pesticide, even though many are known to be toxic.16
Some states would like these ingredients to be disclosed to protect the health of their residents, while manufacturers would like these ingredients to remain hidden to protect their proprietary formulas and increase the distance between their products and any links to significant health conditions. At one time, the EPA considered mandating the release of this information, but as late as 2016 they defended the right of manufacturers to maintain secrecy.17
The EPA defended the decision to keep these inert ingredients secret, stating they didn’t have the time or resources to develop rules and that public comments made in response to the proposal were not sufficient to support proceeding.18 Household products that are classified as pesticides and fall under this rule include insect repellants, flea and tick collars and sprays for your pets.19
Pesticides are linked to a number of health conditions. Some pesticides are linked with cancer, birth defects and nervous system problems, while others are endocrine disruptors. The amount you are exposed to may be as important as the specific toxin itself, as low-level exposure to a highly-toxic chemical may pose the same danger as a high-level exposure to a low-level toxin.20
Infants, children and pets may be especially sensitive as they may absorb more toxins while traveling along the floor, and may be exposed to higher amounts of toxins relative to their body weight.
You may find helpful information on the safety data sheets (SDS), documents providing employees with health and safety information about products and chemicals and mandated by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).21 For instance, information about Combat MAX ant killing bait classifies the product as hazardous and damaging to fertility and unborn children, and comes with warnings that it should be used only with personal protective equipment.22
Defend Your Castle Against Tiny Invaders
Ants make their way into your home through small cracks and crevices in the foundation of your house, around windows or doorframes. Look for where the ants are coming and going. For instance, if you see ants coming in and out of doors and windows, it’s likely the ants are living outside and coming in to forage for food.23
On the other hand, if the ants are moving in and out of cabinets, electrical outlets or the floor, they may have taken up residence inside your home. Here are several strategies to reduce the number of ants that find your home and decide to stay:
• Keep it clean
Keep your kitchen and food preparation areas clean. Once ants find a food source, they tell all their friends, who come to feast on your leftovers. Cover any sweets, cakes or cookies in airtight containers or store them in the refrigerator. Take out the garbage frequently, wipe up food spills and get rid of dirty dish rags. While your home may look clean, if the ants smell the food they will come and keep on coming.
• Cover the holes
Find and seal the entry points the ants are using to access your home. Caulk around windows and doorframes. Pipes, faucets, flooring cracks and sinks give ants access to your home. You may need to have your foundation inspected and holes sealed.
• Landscape changes
Keep tree limbs pruned away from your home and roof as this gives ants easy access to the building. It’s best to keep timbers and mulch at least 1 foot from your foundation and thin your ground cover plants near your foundation.24
• Remove debris and don’t store it near your home
Move debris far from your home, patio or deck.25 Rock piles or boards help retain moisture and draw ants to your home. Inspect under the splash blocks around your foundation, remove any tree stumps and fallen logs or limbs. Do not store firewood close to the house.
When They Get Past Your Defense, Go On the Offense
If these measures don’t stop an invasion of tiny ants into your home, you may have to go on the offensive. These are natural and nontoxic means that will address the issue without creating a human health problem.
• Scent them out
The common ant may be attracted to certain scents, like sweets, but they are repelled by others. Peppermint and mint essential oils top the list of scents they dislike, but that are likely not offensive to you. Try planting mint plants (in pots as they spread rapidly) around the outside of your home. Use mint oil to wipe down the areas where you see the ants trailing around your home. This will stop them from using this trail.
Cayenne pepper, lemon water and cinnamon will not only stop them from entering but will disrupt their sense of smell so they don’t follow the pheromone trail of the ants that came before them.26,27 Coffee grounds is another scent they don’t like. Placing the grounds in areas around your home where they are entering will help to keep them at bay.28 Bay leaves, apple cider vinegar and whole cloves are still more scents that ants won’t cross.29
• Diatomaceous Earth
This functional and effective garden supply is made of ground, fossilized sea phytoplankton. It is both a weapon and a deterrent against a number of pests in your garden and home. Since you’ll likely be adding this to the interior of your home, I recommend you get food grade diatomaceous earth as your children and pets will also have access.
There are both wet and dry applications of the product. It is important you don’t inhale the powder, so take care to wear a mask as you apply. Determine where the ants are coming into your home and sprinkle a thin layer where you’ve seen ants.30 Watch carefully for other areas the ants may use to enter your home and treat those as well. After a month, wipe up the product with a wet cloth.
Four to 6 tablespoons can be added to an 8-ounce spray bottle, fill with water and shake. Gently spray the product one time in the area you’ve identified and wipe away after a month.31
• Borax ant trap
Borax is a versatile cleaning supply made from a naturally occurring mineral that is nontoxic to humans.32 The directions for this homemade ant trap are courtesy of The Healthy Home Economist:33
- Sugar or aspartame
- Paper towel or cotton balls
- Warm 1 cup of water slightly in a saucepan; mix in one-half cup of sugar and 3 tablespoons of borax.
- Soak the mixture into the cotton balls or paper towels.
- Place these in shallow dishes near where you’ve seen the ants.
- Do NOT kill the ants you do see. The objective is for the ants to eat from the cotton ball or paper towel and carry the product back to the nest where the borax will disrupt the entire colony.
While the original recipe calls for sugar, it is important to note that the addition of aspartame may also help rid you home of an ant problem. Asparctic acid contained in this toxic product is a well-documented excitotoxin that causes specific brain cells to become excessively excited to the point they quickly die.