Wood-Eating Ants: Do They Exist And What Damage Do They Do?

by | Ants, Insects

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Some people wonder if ants will destroy their wooden deck or outdoor furniture, or even come into their home to eat the wood there. Well, it turns out that:

Ants don’t eat wood, but some ants destroy wood when they build their nests in it. Carpenter ants use their strong jaws and teeth to chew tunnels into wood, especially wood that is softer and rotting from water damage or mold. They live inside these tunnels, where they eat insects and nectar.

If you see what looks like ants eating the wood in your yard or home, you probably don’t have ants, you have termites. Knowing what signs to look for will help you determine if there are carpenter ants on your property, so you can take the right steps to control these pests before they do too much damage to your wood.

How carpenter ants nest in wood

Close up photo of a black carpenter ant scoping out a piece of wood

Carpenter ants are very common in the Americas, Europe, and many places across the world.

Carpenter ants live with other carpenter ants in a colony. Each ant in the colony has a job to do: The queen lays eggs and the females do all the work, such as going out looking for food, taking care of young ants, and building nests for the colony.

One carpenter ant colony can have many nests. There is usually a parent nest where the queen lives. As the colony gets bigger and matures, the workers build smaller nests n wood close to the parent nest. These smaller nests are called satellite nests.

Once a year, in spring, winged male and female carpenter ants called swarmers leave the satellite nests and fly off to look for wood to start new nests. These ant swarmers are often mistaken for termite swarmers because they look so much alike.

But they are not termites, they are ants. If you see ant swarmers, you know that you have a mature ant colony in your area. Termites expand their nesting areas in a very similar way to the ants. Click here to find out if termites will move into your house if your neighbor has them.

Do ants eat wood like termites?

Worker ants in a mature colony leave the nest to look for places to build satellite nests. When these scouts find a good piece of wood, especially damp, decayed, moldy, or damaged wood in your yard or house, they call other worker ants to come and help them build a nest.

Workers have strong mouthparts called mandibles, with between five and eight teeth on them. The workers use their mandibles and teeth to bite holes into the wood. They keep on biting off pieces of wood in the same area to make tunnels.

Closeup photo mandibles and teeth on carpenter ant's mouth

As they tunnel along, they kick the chewed pieces of wood out of the tunnel, along with ants that died in the tunnel, leftover pieces of insects they’ve eaten, and any other trash. This kicked-out trash is called frass.

People often see wood tunnels, frass, and ants, and think they have a termite infestation. Carpenter ants do a lot of damage to wood but they are not a sign that you have wood-eating termites (click here to find out if ants eat termites and kill them for you).

Worker termites live in these satellite nests, often carrying pupae (young ants that look like eggs) from the parent nest to the satellite nest.

The ants never actually eat the wood – they eat sweet foods, flower nectar, and insects. They also keep their own aphid farms to have sweet honeydew on tap as a food source.

Signs of carpenter ants in your house

Closeup photo showing the tunnels and galleries that carpenter ants chewed into a piece of wood

Below are some of the signs to look for if you want to know if you have a carpenter ant infestation in your yard or home:

  • You see small holes drilled into wood or long shallow tunnels carved out of wood, especially in wood that got wet, is cracked, or is rotten and decayed. This includes any type of wood anywhere on your property, such as firewood, tree stumps, door frames, window sills, wooden beams, and wooden joists.
  • There is frass below the damaged wood. Remember that frass is what termites kick out of their tunnel as they build it, and it may contain chewed-up pieces of wood, dead ants, insects pieces from their meals, and other trash. If you want to be sure you have carpenter ants, use a magnifying glass to clearly see what’s in the frass below the tunnels.
  • You see carpenter ants on your property or you know you have a parent or satellite nests nearby. Workers travel up to 300 feet from their nest to look for food and nesting sites, which are two of the four main reasons why ants come into your house.
  • You see many active carpenter ants at night, between sunset and sunrise, when the workers are most active. The ants move quickly, only stopping to share liquid with one another from one mouth to the other because adult ants don’t eat solid foods – click here to find out what different ants eat. A lone ant or two is not a sign of an infestation, but rather of scouts looking for food and shelter.
  • There is a water source nearby, such as a tap, water feature, or standing water. Carpenter ants need water to survive, so they build their nests close to a water source.
  • You see winged swarmer carpenter ants flying near lights or around your home in spring. You will know that the swarmers are ants because they have narrow waists, antennae that are bent at a 90-degree angle, and a front pair of wings that are longer than the back wings. On the other hand, termite swarmers have straight, beaded antennae, a more rectangular body shape, and two pairs of wings that are about the same length.
  • You hear rustling or tapping sounds coming from wall voids or from inside hollow wood when you scratch the wood and disturb the ants inside.

How to get rid of ants eating wood

Carpenter ants are not the only wood-destroying insects you might find on your property.

If you are trying to get rid of carpenter ants permanently, it’s important to eliminate the parent nest and queen, along with with any satellite nests that you can find.

Here are some DIY methods and effective products on Amazon that you can use to get rid of these wood-destroying ants:

  • If possible, remove any water sources close to the nest.
  • Mix one part boric acid with two parts sugar as bait, or buy this proven carpenter ant bait on Amazon. Place the bait in shallow bowls near to where you see carpenter ants walking around, but make sure that the bait traps are out of reach of children and pets. The ants will carry the sweet poison back to the nest and feed it to their queen and her young, who will all die from it.
  • Use the fine nozzle on this carpenter ant killer to kill ants in crevices and hard-to-reach places for up to one month.
  • Spray this EPA-registered spray wherever you see carpenter ant activity, in your house or outdoors, to kill the ants for up to one month.
  • Kill ants on contact and keep them off your property for two months by shaking these Amdro granules in your yard or around the perimeter.
  • Spray or paint your deck, wooden furniture, fence, barn, or any other outdoor wood you want to protect with this professional insecticide and fungicide spray. Carpenter ants die when they bite into the wood and take in the insecticide.
  • If you see carpenter ants walking in a line, they are following a pheromone ant trail. Watch the ant trail to see where they are going, and you should find at least one of their nests. Once you know where the nest is, clean the ant trails with vinegar and water to remove the pheromones, so the ants can no longer follow them.

If all else fails and the carpenter ant infestation is too large for a DIY attack, it might be time to call in a professional pest controller.

I'm Monique. I love gardening and spending time in my backyard growing things. Here's where I share what I know about backyard pests and what to do about them, so you can enjoy your yard too.

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Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.


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