Mistaken Identity

Annual Ant Control Issue - Annual Ant Control Issue

A best guess isn’t good enough when it comes to identifying ant species in the field. PMPs share how to improve your ID odds so you can achieve better control.

July 3, 2019

©fergregory | AdobeStock

Everyone knows that proper identification is the foundation of ant control. Yet in the real world it’s easy to make assumptions when time is tight and a long list of customers are waiting for service.

Sometimes a “best guess” at identification, however, can make the problem worse. In fact, ant control has one of the highest callback rates of pest control services – 6.5 percent on average, according to the 2019 PCT State of the Ant Control Market survey, sponsored by Syngenta and conducted for PCT by Readex, an independent market research firm.

“If you don’t know what species you’re dealing with it’s hard to come up with a control strategy,” said Ed Schwartz, owner of Paladin Pest Control, Colorado Springs, Colo.

He recalled a time early in his career when he was applying repellent liquid insecticide in a home and came upon ants that turned out to be Pharaoh ants. That was the wrong control strategy for this ant and it caused the colony to splinter into numerous satellite colonies. “It ended up costing my client a lot more because we had to come back a lot more often,” said Schwartz of what it took to resolve the problem.

Proper identification also determines which bait will work best. “Pavement ants love proteins,” said Chris Christensen, entomologist and owner of the Truly Nolen franchise in Lexington, Ky. Odorous house ants, however, prefer sugar-based baits.

“If you’ve missed the identification, the rest of your steps are now going to be flawed,” said Billy Olesen, operations manager, Chuck Sullivan Exterminators, Olympia, Wash. “We need to be making sure our treatment program is based on sound science and the only way we do that is with proper identification to start with,” he added.

According to PMPs who participated in the PCT survey, the ants causing the most problems in their market areas were carpenter ants (82 percent), pavement ants (63 percent), odorous house ants (59 percent) and little black ants (53 percent). PMPs suggested the following steps to improve the identification of these and other ant species:

START BY ASKING QUESTIONS... What did the ants look like? Exactly where were they seen? Were they attracted to a specific food? Habitat? To a source of heat, cooling or moisture? Were they moving in a trail? To or from where?

Inquire about ant behavior as well. Not long ago velvety tree ants in the Pacific Northwest were assumed to be odorous house ants; customers would tell Olesen that the ants were biting them. “Odorous house ants really don’t bite; the velvety tree ant, however, does,” he said of that “one little piece of the puzzle not fitting together that now makes sense.”

Children also can be a good source of information. “A lot of times they’ll know things that their parents don’t know and they’re just not communicating it,” Schwartz said.

©David Cappaert, Bugwood.org


…TO FOCUS YOUR INSPECTION. Usually a customer can provide a rudimentary description of the ant. If she says it’s a little black ant, “knowing the region that we live in we can pretty much narrow it down to acrobat ants or the little black ant. Then we can narrow our inspection scope to where we’re going to see these ants,” said Schwartz.

Depending on the suspected ant, that inspection should include the yard. “When we fail to look at the whole property we’re really not taking care of the problem,” said Schwartz. If you suspect carpenter ants, for instance, look for wood timbers or dead stumps on the property and inspect in the evening in summer between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the ants are actively foraging in cooler temperatures.

KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. Christensen trains his employees to recognize the major pest ants in his region. “These guys need to know what they’re looking at and probably more importantly what they don’t know,” he said.

Not 100 percent sure about an ant? Use a hand lens to get a better look, advised Olesen, who said it’s nearly impossible to see the identifying grooves on the head of a pavement ant without using one. Still not sure? Collect specimens to evaluate under the office microscope; take photos and get them to an expert who can help.

ID IS INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT. In the past, pest control was more broad spectrum and the attitude was “I don’t know what it is but I sure as hell can kill it,” recalled Christensen. He said that 45 years ago in Kentucky “everything but carpenter ants were called piss ants because nobody knew the difference.”

That has changed dramatically. And proper ant identification is becoming even more critical as the industry moves closer to developing more precise and even species-specific control solutions.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine.