Carpenter ants showing up in greater, peskier numbers

Posted: Sunday, July 09, 2000

Officials knew they had a problem late last month when carpenter ants turned up in the Soldotna Sports Center.

"There were out and about -- nice big fat ones," said Paul Beebe, building supervisor. "We found them in the center of the rink. We noticed them out front. Then we found one spot where it seemed like a mess, where they were all going in and out."

When city officials hired an exterminator to spray, ants, eggs and larvae tumbled out of the wall. Spraying seems to have killed the nest, Beebe said. Left unchecked, though, carpenter ants can be expensive.

"Given time, they can make your house fall down around your ears," said Everett Walton of American Pest Control in Anchorage. "We have a home here in Anchorage that has about $35,000 in carpenter ant damage."

Given what spruce bark beetles are doing to local forests, some observers expect an increase in carpenter ants.

"There will be a lot more," said Boyd Shaffer, a professor of biology and art at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna. "They go into dead wood not to eat it but to make channels for brooding chambers. The beetle kill has made so many dead trees for them."

Ken Perry, administrative manager for Paratex Pied Piper Pest Control, agreed.

"I think we're going to see more activity due to the tremendous numbers of trees being cut down because of the beetles," he said. "So many people cut the tree and leave the stump in the ground. That stump is prime habitat for carpenter ants."

Corlene Rose, integrated pest management specialist for the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska in Anchorage, said she often takes calls from people who have felled beetle-killed trees previously infested by ants.

"The ants may migrate or try to forage indoors," she said.

Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the Extension Service in Soldotna, said she has been getting six or 10 calls about carpenter ants each day. Those come mainly from Homer, Kenai and Soldotna rather than from Seward and Hope, she said.

Shaffer said carpenter ants are among the biggest in North America. Workers may reach three-quarters of an inch in length. Queens may be an inch long.

"I know of no other ant in Alaska that looks anything like the carpenter ant," he said. "There's nothing that big."

A carpenter ant also is distinguished from other species by the smooth curve to the top of its thorax and by the single petiole -- like a tiny bead when seen from above -- connecting its thorax to its abdomen. Other species have two petioles or have a lumpy curve to the top of the thorax.

Carpenter ants normally excavate nests in damp, rotting wood, such as stumps and fallen logs. However, they also nest in live trees or house timbers, particularly those that are damp and contact the soil.

The also will dig nests in foam insulation, behind bathroom tiles, around tubs, sinks and dishwashers, under roofing, in attic beams, under floors and in doors or walls. Carpenter ants may forage up to 300 yards for insects, sweets and other foods.

Just finding them indoors does not mean they are nesting in the house. However, piles of sawdust and clicking noises from the walls are ominous signs.

Rose said carpenter ant complaints begin in April, when warm weather stirs dormant nests in people's walls.

"When the sun hits, they forage for food. That's when people start finding them in their houses," she said.

Later in spring, winged queens and drones take flight to mate. Then, the fertilized queens found new colonies. Large numbers of winged ants indoors are a sure sign of an indoor nest, according to information from the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

"In midsummer, when populations have gotten quite large, people see more, because the colonies have multiplied and branch to form satellite colonies," Rose said.

Whether carpenter ants are increasing locally is a matter of debate.

"There are definitely a whole lot more carpenter ants around than normal," said Steve Bonebrake, public works director for the city of Soldotna.

Bonebrake said he has seen more ants around city buildings and more during walks in the woods. Chumley said she has received many more ant calls this year than last.

However, Neither Walton nor Perry have noticed any increase in the number of ant-extermination requests.

"I'm also talking about my experience in Anchorage, not the Kenai Peninsula," Walton said. "Just a few degrees or miles can change everything."

Shaffer said he has taken just 15 ant calls this year, as opposed to more than 30 last year. This year is not so bad compared with an ant explosion 35 or 40 years ago, he said.

"I never saw anything like that," he said. "They (flying ants) clogged radiators. They'd be on trees, even live trees. You could smash hundreds with your hand."

Rose said recent warm weather may have made carpenter ants more active and, therefore, more noticeable.

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