Spring is on our doorstep, and so are the ants. Seeking the open
sugar bowl or the drops of maple syrup left on the kitchen counter,
they're a sure sign that winter has finally drifted away.
Myrmecologists, scientists that study ants, know these small
kitchen ants as Tapinoma sessile, but to most of us they're odorous
house ants, or sugar ants. Whatever you call them, these little
ants are likely to be visiting your nest soon.
Named for the faint smell (described as over-ripe bananas) that
they emit when squeezed, the odorous house ants in your kitchen are
workers. They may have traveled as far as 50 feet, following scent
trails left by other workers from the nest to the bounty. Each ant
species has a specific chemical it uses to mark trails.
Nicholas Gotelli, a professor of biology at the University of
Vermont and coauthor of A Field Guide to the Ants of New England,
equates workers to the leaves of a tree. Each worker is just a
small part of the colony, which together with other workers and a
queen, forms a sort of super-organism. The workers are sterile
females dedicated to providing for the queen and the rest of the
closely related ants in the colony. The worker's life is a
dangerous one. They live for just a few days to perhaps a few
weeks, while queens can live for years to even decades in some
Ant colonies overwinter underground or within rotten wood,
waiting for spring. Because they are so tiny they are very
sensitive to temperature. Most species become active in late March
or April in our region.
The pace of work rises with the temperature. With many species,
young workers attend to the queen and care for eggs and pupae,
while older sisters feed and care for the larvae. The oldest
workers are tasked with foraging outside of the nest, maintaining
the nest, and defending it from predators and other ants. With a
few species, such as carpenter ants, eggs develop into specialized
groups of workers. Small workers tend the nest and find food, while
large workers defend the nest and food stores. Without a queen
ruling the colony, the entire system falls into chaos and the
When the colony has grown to a robust size, the queen will
produce winged queens and males. When they mature, they leave the
nest en masse on what is called a nuptial flight. The males die
after mating and each new queen forms a new colony. Some of these
flights can be massive and spectacular. The long-term population
changes in some birds, such as common nighthawks, may even be tied
to these nuptial flights as important food sources.
Grzesiek Buczkowski, a biologist at Purdue University, found
that the odorous house ant has adapted to urban life. "If you go
into the forest, the colonies are very small - one queen, maybe 100
ants," said Buczkowski in a recent news release. "But in urban
situations, lots and lots of nests are connected by trails, with
thousands of queens in just one colony, probably millions of
workers. These ants have become more like a non-native, invasive
species and have changed the social makeup between colonies to
Ants are not just pests, though. They're garbage collectors,
farmers, and ranchers. They even create fertile soil. "Here in New
England, ants are the prime movers and creators of soil - not
earthworms," said Gotelli, in a recent University of Vermont news
release. Despite their diminutive size, they can create about an
inch of topsoil in just a few hundred years. That topsoil is
perfect for seeds to take root.
The common forest ant, Aphaenogaster rudis, collects seeds from
spring wildflowers such as trillium, bloodroot, and violets. The
seeds have a special coating, rich in fat and proteins called the
elaiosome. The ants feed on this outer shell, leaving the seed
within intact. In this mutualistic relationship, the ants get a
great food source and the plant seeds are dispersed and sown in
good soils. Seed dispersal would fall by as much as 70 percent if
these ants were removed from the forest.
There's far more to the ant world than those you spot on the
counter. There are 130 species of ants known in New England and
scientists think there may be another 20 more species or so just
waiting for us to discover them.
How do you rid your kitchen of ants? It's really quite simple.
Keep it spotless. Without our sticky, spilled-on countertops,
odorous house ants collect sugary honeydew from aphids and other
insects on plants. If you remove the food on the counter, the ants
will soon be off foraging for their colony elsewhere.
Kent McFarland is a biologist with the
Vermont Center for Ecostudies. The Outside Story is assigned and
edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn
Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: