Carpenter ants are important in the balance of nature because they burrow and nest in dead trees and enhance decay of the wood. They achieve pest status when a colony invades and damages the integrity of the wood within a house.
The black carpenter ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus, is the most common carpenter ant species. Foraging workers are black and quite large--1/4-5/8 inches.
There is at least one other carpenter ant species. This carpenter ant is unofficially refer to it as the “red” carpenter ant because it has a reddish-orange head and thorax and a black abdomen. It is smaller than the black carpenter ant.
Carpenter ant workers are polymorphic - which means workers are different sizes. Larger carpenter ant workers are often referred to as "major" workers and the smaller workers as "minor" workers. The minor workers are not "baby" ants - they just have different tasks in the colony. Each colony has at least one queen, the egg-laying colony member. There may be more than one queen in a colony.
When a colony gets very large (6-10 years old and has more than 2,000 workers), it may produce winged reproductive ants, called swarmers. Swarming usually occurs during warmer months. Black carpenter ant swarms are more commonly observed from March-June. The males are much smaller than the females and often emerge a few days earlier.
After mating, a single queen seeks out a suitable nesting site and lays only a few eggs which hatch into maggot-like larvae. The queen cares for the larvae which become the colony's first workers. These workers forage for food and take care of the colony while the queen continues laying eggs.
The diet of carpenter ants is quite varied and includes living and dead insects, honeydew from aphids, sweets, meat and fats. They do not eat wood. Workers leave the colony in late afternoon or early evening, forage during the night and return to the colony in the early morning hours. Carpenter ants carry food back to the nest intact and later feed it to non-foraging members in the nest. These ants may forage several hundred feet from the nest to search for food.
Homeowners may be concerned if they see carpenter ants inside. But, seeing carpenter ants inside the home does not necessarily mean the house is actually infested. It could mean the house is simply within foraging distance of a colony.
In the construction of their nest, carpenter ants hollow out dead tree limbs, logs, posts, landscaping timbers and wood used in homes and other structures. They can also live in creosote-treated railroad ties because they don't actually eat the wood, but only chisel it with their mouthparts.
Carpenter ant galleries are smooth and very different from termite feeding, which has mud packed into the hollowed out area. Certain parts of a house, around and under windows, roof eaves, decks and porches are more likely to be infested by carpenter ants. Carpenter ants prefer to nest in moist wood, but wood saturated previously may be soft enough for carpenter ants to hollow it out. Carpenter ants can be a serious problem in poorly maintained log houses.
Carpenter ants don't always need a moist area to nest. They may use an old abandoned nest or wood "hollowed out" by termites. Nests also may be located in hollow doors, small void areas produced during construction or even in foam insulation.
Carpenter ants keep occupied galleries clean. They remove wood in the form of a coarse sawdust-like material, which they push from the nest. This often results in a cone-shaped pile accumulating just below the nest entrance hole. This pile may include, in addition to the wood fragments, other debris from the nest, including bits of soil, dead ants, parts of insects and remnants of other food they ate.
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