They may seem harmless, but the critters can affect the structural integrity of your house and contaminate your food supply.
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common ant on the kitchen table
Credit: RHJ / Getty Images

From leaving crumbs of food around the kitchen to not cleaning up after a backyard barbecue, there are plenty of seemingly innocent behaviors that are actually luring ants into your home. If you spot a trail of ants marching through your yard or coming out of a crack in your wall, it's important to take quick action so that the pest problem doesn't linger—although they're small, an ant infestation can be disastrous when not tended to properly. "Ants can quickly become a source of frustration and concern for homeowners," says Dr. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist and vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the National Pest Management Association. "Unfortunately, most people don't realize that these tiny pests can also pose health and property risks, including food contamination and costly property damage."

While leaving food out and not cleaning regularly can attract the insects, infestations most commonly arise when there's excess moisture in the wooden structures of your home. To understand just how much havoc ants can wreak on your property, and for advice on how to prevent and deal with an infestation, we tapped two experts. Here's what they had to share.

Types of Ants That Cause Damage 

While there are more than 10,000 species of ants, Timothy Wong, technical director of M&M Environmental, says carpenter ants cause the most physical damage to your home. "Carpenter ants can chew through wood," he explains. "They can burrow into door frames, window frames, and into any type of wood beams you have inside." Wong says that the damage this species causes is very similar to that of termites. The only difference? Termites eat the cellulose in the wood, while carpenter ants will excavate the material and form tunnels, burrowing inside for protection. "It causes a problem because when they're in there, they'll hollow out some of the foundation that you have—the windows, the doors, and the beams you have supporting your floors," Wong says. Although carpenter ants are the most prolific, Fredericks notes that there are other species, like fire ants, acrobat ants, and crazy ants, that will take up residence in electrical housing boxes outdoors.

Why Ants Come Into Your Home 

There are a variety of reasons why ants may enter your home. Wong says not cleaning the perimeter of your yard often is one reason you could be attracting the insects. "It's important to remove excess leaves, garbage, debris, and anything else that can provide a shaded area for the ants to nest in," he says. Additionally, any landscaping that is touching your home may provide a direct conduit for ants. The pests can travel from the soil, onto a bush, and inside through an open window or crack in the foundation. While these are all logical explanations for why you may have an infestation, the number-one reason ants march on in is because they prefer living in cool, moist areas, like your bathroom, kitchen, porch, and basement. "They prefer to attack wood softened by fungus and are often associated with moisture problems, so homeowners should keep an eye out for excess moisture and hollowed out wood," explains Fredericks. This is especially a concern during spring, when there's the highest amount of rain and the warmer temperatures draw ants out into the open. Leaving the lid off your garbage can, keeping your garbage too close to your home, and not cleaning up food and dirty utensils after a backyard cookout are all additional reasons you may spot a trail of ants near or in your house, Wong explains. 

How Ants Inflict Their Damage

Once you have an infestation, the pests begin their work; they chew through and hollow out the wooden areas of your home, which eventually disrupt its structural integrity. "When left untreated, that damage can be severe because their colonies can grow to over 10,000 workers," Fredericks says. Beyond structural concerns, these pests also create fire risks. "If you have beams that have collapsed onto electrical wires, they can cause fires," Wong explains.  

Contamination of Food Sources 

Since ants are mainly attracted to food and moisture, the kitchen is an ideal gathering spot. While they're not disease-bearing insects like mosquitoes, ants are able to carry bacteria and fungal organisms that can be transferred to your food and contaminate it. According to Wong, it is possible to get sick from something that's come into contact with ants. One of the most common ways this can happen is by leaving cutlery or plates in the yard during the summertime. "Always keep utensils and food in sealed containers whether it's inside or outside the home," he says. Similarly to human food, pet food can also be contaminated by ants. For that reason, Wong says to discard anything that's been left uneaten, and to always store it in a plastic sealed bag or container. 

Take Preventative Measures 

To prevent ants from invading your home, Fredericks says the first step is to eliminate moisture by repairing leaky pipes, roofs, and clogged gutters. Additionally, homeowners should seal any openings found around the bottom of windows and doors with a silicone-based caulk. Then it's time to assess your yard—if there are any tree branches that are close to your house you need to trim them back as carpenter ants can often nest in old trees. The best way to keep these pests at bay, however, is to make sure your home and yard are unwelcoming to them to begin with. "Remove decaying tree stumps and dying trees, repair gutters and be sure your firewood is stored away from your house,'' Fredericks explains. "Eliminate sources of moisture and leaks around your home, and consider having crawl spaces, basements, and attics inspected by a pro." 

How to Handle an Infestation 

The first step to handling an infestation is to be diligent about spotting one to begin with. Carpenter ants are difficult to detect and sometimes these critters can live in your home for months at a time before you even know you have an infestation. Look out for trails of ants and sawdust-like shaving left below small cracks and holes. If you believe you have an ant problem, Fredericks says to start by identifying the type of species to determine the proper course of treatment. "However, this can be a challenge for someone without proper training," he notes. "That's why it's important to contact a licensed pest control professional to assist with the pest problem." According to Wong, it's possible to treat a light infestation with over the counter pesticides, but if the problems persists for more than three days, you should call in a professional, as they'll "have tools and an arsenal of eco-friendly pesticides that you simply won't have," he says.

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