When you think of “ant season” you probably think of the summer: ant hills in the backyard, ants crawling aboard a juicy watermelon, or ants creeping around your floors and kitchen. You may be wondering, “where do ant’s go in the winter?” Ants are cold-blooded creatures, so when winter comes, they hide themselves away, either in the ground or inside your home, and enter a period of dormancy. While it may seem like they’ve disappeared for good in the winter, they might be closer to home than ever. Below, we’ve summarized all the basic facts you need to know about ants in the winter.
What do ants eat?
Ants are omnivorous – which means they eat everything! In their natural habitats, they like to feed on aphid milk, small insects, and small invertebrates, whether living or dead. They also drink the sap of plants, fruits, and eat insect eggs. However, when they come into human homes or join human picnics, their dietary repertoires expand greatly. They will eat just about any human food, including fruits, sweets, pet food, meat, and fats.
Interestingly, when a queen ant forms a new colony, she eats the first batch of larvae any of her extra eggs, which are rich in nutrients. In fact, the queen may make the choice to eat her own eggs to survive while she waits for the first worker ant to become an adult, and if times get particularly tough, she may eat members of her colony in order to survive.
Preparing to hunker down
As the weather begins to get colder, ants begin to eat more and more. In the late summer, they begin to eat carbohydrates, which they then store to convert to energy that will help them last the winter months. They work to put on the weight in anticipation of coming food scarcity, and begin to look for the right place to do so.
Of course, the best place to hunker down is a warm home. Homes have heating, safe spots to hide, and a plentiful and constant stream of food. However, not every ant will find an indoor home to take refuge in during the winter. Instead, they will have to face the odds and go outside and bunker down in the ground. They will look for a place to hide several feet dep in the soil, where they might be able to find temperatures that remain relatively stable and where the elements, like wind or rain or freezing ice and snow, are not able to reach them.
The Dormant Period
Usually, ants enter a dormancy period as winter begins. This means that while they are still living, their bodies begin to move at a much slower metabolic rate, and they slow down and rest while they conserve energy. They may appear to move sluggishly or to be completely immobile during this time. During this time of dormancy, ants have few responsibilities. They do not need to eat, drink, lay eggs, or care for their young.
Certain ant species are able to convert body fluids into glycerol, a natural alcohol. Glycerol is effectively the same substance as antifreeze! This allows them to regulate their body temperature in very cold climates, and prevents the ice crystals from forming in their bodies or damaging their tissues when the temperature drops low.
A Spring Reemergence
As the temperature begins to climb in the spring, ants emerge both from their dormant state and their hiding places. They must once again work to find new food sources in order to sustain themselves and their young. Ants are social creatures, and depend greatly on one another. They mark their trails with chemicals called pheromones, are able to remember landmarks on their way to good feeding sources, and will recruit friends to join them in their journey. This will allow them to more efficiently move towards food sources or your home.
Dangers of Ants
There are many types of ants in North America–over 1,000 known species–and they all impact humans in different ways. Some of them are invasive to structures, and others impact human health, causing bites, allergic reactions, or disease. Even though we don’t generally think of ants as causing serious health problems, they can have serious effects on humans. Ants can spread E. coli and salmonella in kitchens or healthcare environments. This can be very dangerous, as it can cause foodborne illness outbreaks. Some ant species can bite or sting humans, and can even cause anaphylaxis, which is at times life-threatening. And of course, ant bites hurt!
How to Proactively Eradicate Ants
If you do see ants in your home, in summer or winter, it’s important to act quickly to prevent ants from further infesting your home or yard. Because ants are able to communicate with one another, they can very quickly enter your home en masse.
It is important to note that over-the-counter, hardware supply store ant repellants may cause your ant problem to blossom, rather than eradicate it. These sprays can cause ant colonies to split in two directions, in a process called “budding.” This can double the number of colonies present in your living environment rather than abating it. Similarly, DIY baiting can often target only a part of the infestation, rather than the whole one.
There are many easy steps you can take to slow ants’ progress into your home down. Simple things like closing bags of food, taking out the trash or preventing ants from becoming fond of your pet’s food are important steps to take to slow the march of ants into your home. However, it’s important to remember that ants are smart, and simply closing your bags won’t entirely solve the problem, though it may slow ants down. It’s also important to seal openings and gaps that lead into the structure.
Look for ant nests around your property. Ants like to make their home near mulch, loose leaves, window and door frames, firewood, and hot water pipes. This will help you make a more comprehensive plan to eradicate them.
Remember—even if it is cold and ants remain dormant, they are still present in your home, and it’s important to act before it’s too late. When ants reemerge in the spring, their survival instincts will be in full-gear, and it will be more difficult to stop them once they’ve had a chance to spread out.
Now that you understand ant’s winter behavior, you’re more than prepared to tackle the issue head-on. Good luck!