top of page

Carpenter Ant

Genus: Camponotus

Introduction

Spring is a lovely season…it brings back to life a world that has been dormant over the dull winter months. The rhodos bloom, the green leaves unfurl and everything is a delight ….except perhaps for when we first notice that a trail of winged ants are following each other along our deck railing, heading for our house.

Around Hotel Lake, a woodshed has collapsed because of carpenter ants and many of us have sought solutions for the sugar ants invading our kitchens. But, although ants may not be our favourite visitors, ants are so important to our ecosystem that their loss would be catastrophic.

“Ants outnumber humans by 1.5 million to one, and the biomass of all the ants on Earth is roughly equal to the biomass of all the people on the planet.” (Debbie Hadley - thoughtco.com).

The following general information about ants is quoted from an article by Staffan Lindgren, University of Northern British Columbia, www.efauna.bc.ca

 

“The ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) are perhaps the most successful of all extant (presently existing) insects. There are approximately 8,800 described species of ants (Hölldobler and Wilson 1990), of which approximately 580 species are found in North America (Smith 1979).  In most areas of the world, ants are among the most dominant of biota. But it is not in terms of diversity that they dominate, but rather in abundance, and in many areas they make up a significant portion of total biomass. The key to the success of ants is without doubt their social structure. Each ant colony effectively functions as a super-organism, with all individuals working for the common good of the colony. “

 

This web page focuses on the species Camponotus, the Carpenter Ants. It aims to increase our understanding of how they operate in our environment and also to increase our admiration for these innovative, smart creatures that work so well in teams and as a colony. 

Range

There are many species of Carpenter Ants and they are found almost everywhere on the planet. The exceptions are Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, and some island nations. For a look at the world population of Carpenter Ants, google antmaps.org and choose Camponotus under the heading ‘Genus’.

 

According to this map, BC has 8 native species of Camponotus. The most common Carpenter Ant in southern and coastal BC is the all black Camponotus Modoc,  the Western Black Carpenter Ant

Characteristics - Anatomy

Carpenter Ants have a hard exoskeleton, six legs and a single narrow segment that connects a bulbous abdomen and a rounded thorax. Carpenter Ants, like all ants, do not have lungs. Air enters and leaves through tiny holes all over their bodies.

 

Ants also don't have ears. Instead, organs on an ant's legs, antennae, thorax, and head respond to sound vibrations moving through the ground. And, while ants do have eyes, they see only what's near them as they are very near-sighted.

 

Critical to the ant’s sense of its environment is its antennae: the bent extensions that notice scents in the air, touch other ants, tap the ground, and check out pieces of food.

 

The Camponotus Modoc colony, like all monogynous (having only one queen) ant colonies, is composed of 3 castes: a queen, sterile female workers and, seasonally, winged sexual males and females.

 

The queen is easy to identify as she is often double the length (close to 1 inch) and many times heavier than the workers.This size difference highlights her crucial role as the reproductive powerhouse of the colony. A close look at her reveals a very large thorax that is pitted, uneven and scarred from where her wings detached. When her abdomen is swollen with eggs, white patches appear between sections of her black exoskeleton.

 

The males are larger than workers but smaller than queens and have wings. The sterile female workers vary from 1/4 to 1/2 inch long and are divided into major and minor workers: major workers act as soldiers to guard the nest, and minor workers forage for food and take care of the young and the queen.

Life Cycle

This cycle begins in late spring with the reproductive flight of winged sexual females and males. After mating, the males die and the newly mated females shed their wings.

Each mated wingless female now begins her role as a new queen. She will do all the work necessary to establish a new colony; find a nesting place, lay eggs and successfully hatch an initial batch of workers. During this time, she uses her stored fat reserves and wing muscles for nourishment.

 The eggs hatch into larvae. The queen provides food by means of her salivary glands and the larvae eat and molt  until each larva is large enough to form a cocoon and become a pupa. The adult will emerge from the cocoon; egg to adult is estimated to take 6 to 12 weeks.

The queen mates once and controls the male sperm stored in her body. This means that the queen will always control the gender and function of her offspring. Her fertilized eggs will become either wingless female workers or reproductively capable new queens. Unfertilized eggs will develop into winged males who do no work other than to fertilize a reproductive female. This first batch and all the eggs that hatch in the first few years will be sterile female workers that take over the work of the colony and allow the queen to be solely occupied by egg laying.

After two or more years, when the colony is well established, the queen will lay the first reproductive males and females. In spring, these winged ants will leave the nest in a “nuptial swarm” to mate nearby. Beginning the cycle again, the fertile males will die soon after and the mated females will drop their wings, become new queens and disperse to start their own new colonies.

Typically the vast majority of ants in a colony are occupied inside the nest and only 10 to 15 percent of the workers leave the nest. From the numbers we see outside the nest, it may be difficult to imagine that a full-sized colony that is 3 to 6 years old will contain around 3,000 Carpenter Ants.  Very successful colonies that have a parent colony that includes the resident queen plus a satellite colony with more workers may hold as many as 50,000 insects.

 

The life expectancy of a worker Carpenter Ant is estimated to be 6 to 12 weeks although cold weather can extend this time. Queen Carpenter Ants have an amazing life span and are estimated to live as long as 25 years. Imagine what that means in terms of how many eggs they lay.

 

When the queen dies, the colony dies.

Habitat - Nest

Carpenter Ants live in forested areas where they prefer damp, decaying wood for their nest sites. The colony is often  located in dead trunks of standing trees, stumps, fallen logs or wood piles. However, any damp or rotten wood will attract them so this  means they can also be found in moisture weakened wood around porches, steps, window sills, sheds, and attics.

If you could look into the nest of a colony of Carpenter Ants, you would be amazed by the well designed web of tunnels and chambers. Different sized tunnels are excavated parallel to the grain of the wood with smooth, almost sandpapered-looking sides apparently to allow for the heavy traffic. Chambers are developed for different purposes. Some are brood chambers and some are food storage “pantries”.

As the construction proceeds ants can be seen at small exit holes or slits depositing what they have excavated. This results in a tell-tale pile of “sawdust” (called frass) at the base of the nest site. 

Foraging and Diet

Termites actually consume cellulose; they eat wood as food.  Carpenter Ants, on the other hand, chew through wood  creating tunnels and galleries and little piles of sawdust. Their diet, however,  consists mainly of the protein found in living and dead insects and the sugar found in aphid secretions. 

The relationship between aphids and Carpenter Ants seems to be a version of  “farming”  that is mutually advantageous to both parties.

 

Aphids feed exclusively on plant sap, and produce a sticky, sugary secretion known as honeydew. Carpenter Ants are attracted to the high sugar content of this honeydew, and have figured out how to secure a supply of this substance for their colonies.

 

It works like this…the ants protect the aphids from predators, such as ladybugs, move them to new plants to ensure that they have a continuous supply of sap, cull their sick, and even carry them into their nests at night or for the winter. In return, the aphids allow worker ants to “milk” them: the ant strokes the aphid with its antenna which encourages the aphid to secrete honeydew.

 

Workers have specific jobs and among these jobs is shepherding and caring for aphids.There is even evidence to suggest that when the colony establishes a new location, these workers will carry aphid eggs to this new location in order to establish a new “herd” and maintain this food source. 

Special Capabilities

Carpenter Ants are strong. According to various studies, they can use their mandibles to lift up to fifty times their own weight.

 

Carpenter Ants are very tidy. Carpenter Ants can be seen busily removing the wood debris from their nests and tunnels, and fastidiously removing old food, dead ant bodies, small bits of debris etc.  Additionally, they collect coniferous tree resin and use it as a disinfectant to protect the nest against fungal and bacterial pathogens.

Carpenter Ants are great communicators. Carpenter Ants have adopted the Hansel-Gretel-breadcrumb strategy. They produce an odorous substance in their gut called pheromones which they release from the tip of their abdomen. Through the production and release of pheromones and their keen ability to smell with their antennae, Carpenter Ants are able to locate suitable mates, find food, return to their nest, assemble individuals to fight off nest predators, and identify and communicate with others from their colony. The use of pheromones as chemical signals is more developed in ants than in many other insect groups. 

Ants are great survivors. Humans are thought to have evolved 2 million years ago whereas ants emerged 130 million years ago. (terro.com)  Ants survived the mass extinction event of 65 million years ago that wiped out many dinosaurs and other prehistoric animal species. 

Activities or Behaviour that Might Cause Harm to Humans

Carpenter Ants typically seek wood that has been softened by moisture, decay or other insects. Unfortunately, if this describes wooden structures on our property, they will be susceptible to Carpenter Ant infestations. 

The following is quoted from a BC government website and provides a list of places in a home to check for possible intrusions and a list of suggestions for preventing infestations.  https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/pesticides-pest-management/managing-pests/insects/carpenter-ants

Possible entryways into a home include

  • Fence joined to house

  • Plumbing outlets

  • Lower edges of siding

  • Edges of fireplace brick

  • Crawl space vents

  • Gutters

  • Window casings

  • Door frame

  • Vegetation touching house

  • Overhead wires

 

Prevention

The best protection is to maintain dry conditions with proper construction and maintenance:

  • Remove and repair wood damaged by moisture, ventilate damp areas and clean gutters to avoid clogging

  • Store firewood on raised platforms away from the house

  • Prune trees and shrubs so branches don't touch the house

  • Remove all rotted stumps, logs or wood used for landscaping

  • Ensure that wood siding or structures aren't in contact with soil near foundations

The Place of Carpenter Ants in the Ecological System

Despite their reputation for being destructive, Carpenter Ants play an important part in contributing to the balance of ecosystems.

 

In their natural habitats, such as forests and woodlands, Carpenter Ants accelerate the decomposition of dead wood which results in enriching the nearby soil. Besides nutrient recycling , they also play an important role in soil aeration and seed dispersal.

 

Carpenter Ants also contribute to the ecosystem by preying on other insects, including termites, wood-boring beetles, and caterpillars. By regulating populations of these pests, Carpenter Ants indirectly protect trees, plants, and agricultural crops.

Carpenter Ants also play an important part iin many food chains. They are a vital food source for various animals, including other insects, birds and small mammals. It is not uncommon to see a bear tearing at a tree stump to obtain a meal of ant larvae and pupae.

 

The presence of Carpenter Ants in nature and their interactions with the environment are essential to the well-being of the habitats in which they live.

 

Here is an interesting website if you have children that would like to learn about ants:

https://www.pestworldforkids.org/pest-guide/ants/

And here is a video that might surprise you; most people in the world are looking for ways to kill carpneter ants but "ant keepers" find them to be amazing pets! This video is a tutorial on how to care for carpenter (Camponotus) ants as pets.

bottom of page