I live in Southern California, and around this time of year we always have at least one ant invasion. I suspect it has something to do with the season and the weather and the ants’ little biological rhythms, because it seems like every ant colony in the county is relocating.
Before our daughter was born, when the ants showed up we just called the landlord, and they sent out a pest control guy who sprayed stuff around, and that solved the problem, at least for a couple weeks. Now that we have a toddler, I am attempting to control the problem without resorting to poisons. Needless to say, if any ant problem becomes extreme, calling in professionals is always recommended, especially now that some services specialize in eco-friendly pest control. But for now, I’m trying to discourage them myself.
The number one rule for ant control is removing their motivation to come into your house. Ants are primarily interested in food, especially sweet, sticky stuff like honey, soda, and candy. They will get into other dry goods, but sugar is their favorite. So your first step is to enclose all open food items: put open cracker packages into zip baggies, tightly tie bread bags closed, and consider transferring items like instant rice from the loose cardboard boxes they come in to air-tight containers (I use Libbey Vibe Storage Jars). Wipe off things like honey jars and syrup bottles, and if they’re still sticky, put them into air-tight baggies. Make sure all crumbs and spills from food preparation are thoroughly wiped up, and sweep the floor religiously, especially if you have small children. Speaking of small children, this is the time to teach them not to carry snacks through the house (guilty). Be sure to throw away empty drink cans and bottles; don’t let them sit throughout the house – ants can find them in less time than you can imagine.
If you don’t wash dishes after every meal, scrape plates into the trash or disposal and give them a quick rinse before setting them in the sink; ants don’t like water very much and will usually avoid stuff that has been given even a cursory wash.
You may have to take the trash out more often if the ants seem bound and determined to get into it. I hate wasting trash bags, but it’s only for a few weeks a year, and it prevents a worse problem later.
Ants have a standard procedure: send scouts out to find food, and when they find something, they form a trail to transport it back to the nest. If you only see a few ants here and there, so far they are just looking for food. I usually just squash them with a tissue, then wipe whatever surface they were on with a bleach wipe, which disrupts the chemical trail they leave behind, so their compatriots won’t follow them later. I then triple check that there isn’t any food anywhere near that surface.
If you discover a trail in progress, your first priority is to remove the food source. Throw away the bottles, food packages, sticky glasses, or whatever they’re feeding off of. Before you destroy all the ants, it’s good to follow the trail and see where they’re coming from, so if you have to call the exterminator, you can tell him where to concentrate the treatment. For big trails, the easiest way to get rid of the ants is the hose attachment on your vacuum; just suck them up all the way along. They will keep coming from the source hole, so it’s best to start at the food end and work backwards. If you can, plug the hole with something; in the past we have resorted to putting sculpting epoxy on small holes in the wall just to slow them down.
Once the actual ants are gone, use disinfectant wipes to clear away their chemical trails. If you don’t, you might as well have left the ants, because new ones can come along and just follow the same trail. Thoroughly wipe the surface the food was on, all around the source hole, and all along the trail pathway. Plus, it’ll make you feel cleaner using all that disinfectant. During ant season, I wipe down my kitchen surfaces several times a day just to be sure, especially the outside of the trash can and places where I’ve seen ants before.
Ant season is icky, but can be controlled through extreme cleanliness and vigilance in squashing, wiping, and taking out the trash.
A note on natural methods: I have not tried most of the ‘natural’ ant retardants, so I can’t really say whether they work or not. I can tell you that ants are repelled by cinnamon, but only has long as the oil is still active. If you sprinkle cinnamon in the middle of a trail, none of the ants will go near it. But after several hours the cinnamon dries out and it stops working. Plus, cinnamon is expensive given how much you would have to use. Try whatever method sounds good to you, and if you have any more tips, let me know!