Until recently, I'd had good luck with ants in the kitchen. (Or rather, without ants in the kitchen!) I'd see maybe a few here or there, but we never had an ant problem. Then, literally the day after interviewing our experts for this story, I walked into my kitchen to discover a horde of them marching across my countertop. Ahhh!
Fortunately, I'm not alone. "Ants are the most commonly reported pest in the country," says Dr. Michael Bentley, staff entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. If you encounter one (or many!), here's what you should know.
1. Ant incidents spike in the spring and summer.
"When temperatures warm up, insects in general spike," says Bentley. They're especially going to be more active this year because we had an unseasonably warm and mild winter followed by a warm and mild spring. So while you can be diligent about your housekeeping, know that it's just about inevitable you'll see a few this season. And the ants you see on your countertop are only 1 to 5 percent of the ant population back in the nest. So, get pumped about that.
2. Ants are smarter than you.
Ants are social animals — they touch each other, share food with each other, and communicate with each other — which means a lot of the home remedies people whip up aren't going to do much for them. If you put something in front of them, like a chalk line or lemon peel, they'll probably go around it. If you spritz them with a repellent, like lemon spray or ammonia, it'll kill a few and repel the rest, which can just cause them to scatter. If you see more than just a few ants, look to a professional to use food-safe, non-repellant products that the ants will actually bring back to the nest.
Read more: Can Lemon Peels Really Keep Ants Away?
3. You might want to start an ant collection.
There are many kinds of ants and they're each attracted to different kinds of foods, colonize their populations differently, and breed differently. For example, while many ants are attracted to sugary foods, some prefer grease.
If you have a recurring ant problem, identifying the species is key to eliminating them — so your pest control person would actually prefer that you don't kill them right away. "If you kill them all, they're hard to identify, so either leave them [alone] or try to collect some samples," says Scot Svenheim, an associate certified entomologist in the training and e-learning department of Truly Nolen, a pest-control company. Svenheim suggests picking a few ants up with a piece of tape and sealing them into a zip-top bag.
4. There's always a source.
Unless you see just a handful of ants foraging for food — randomly milling around your countertops — they're generally going somewhere, and coming from somewhere. Instead of swiping them up, take your time to follow the train in both directions. Most likely, you'll be able to find their food source — whether it's a juice spill or a dirty spoon in the dishwasher — and where they're getting in, too. Typically if you clean up the spill, the ants will go away on their own (until next time). And while you can try to seal up their entry points, it's sort of a losing battle: "Ants can get in just about any crack or crevice — we're talking about pinholes here — so they'll be coming through holes in your screens, or cracks along the baseboard," says Bentley.
5. Most ants are just a nuisance.
A few ants, a couple times a year, aren't a big deal, Bentley reassures. Staying diligent about cleaning up spills and sealing up your food is usually enough to manage them. But if you're seeing hordes of them, and frequently, call a pro instead of killing them yourself so they can properly exterminate them.
"We had an apartment complex that had an ant problem that started with one unit in one building and turned in an ant problem in 20 entire buildings because it wasn't addressed early enough," says Svenheim.
In some pockets of Florida and Texas, there's an ant called the tawny crazy ant (really) that breeds by the millions (!!!) and can take over the ecosystem. "When they're exterminated, you can get 10-inch piles of dead ants next to the wall," says Bentley. Oh, and there are some in Arizona that actually fly in swarms to find their next breeding ground! So next time you see a couple on your countertop, be grateful that that's all you've got!