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Ask the Times: Ants!


Q: My house, even my roof, is crawling in ants, and our exterminator has not been able to control them. He says they are odorous house ants, but I call them obnoxious. Has there been a jump in ant populations this year? I'm not the only one having this trouble.

A: Dr. John Hopkins is an associate professor at the University of Arkansas and an Extension Entomologist for urban pests. He says, no, there are no more ants this year than any year. Ant populations remain pretty stable. Your problem, he says, is you are "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

And no, you are not living atop a giant ant colony like the one in Japan inhabited by 306 million worker ants and a million queen ants, though it may seem like it. Probably your problem is honeydew — which is the sugary substance that insects with piercing mouth parts like aphids and white flies excrete after they suck the juices from your flowers, plants and trees. So if you live in a yard with flowers, plants and trees, and they are close to your house, you are feeding your ants. Hopkins is optimistic your pest person will get the odorous ants under control eventually.

They are called odorous ants (Tapinoma sessile), by the way, because of the way they smell when you crush them. Some describe the smell as like rotting coconut or a blue cheese. The ants are also called "stink ants" and "coconut ants."

Just be glad you don't live along the Texas gulf coast and have crazy ants, an invasive ant that will cover you up if you stand still in your yard in, say, Galveston. Crazy ants don't like our climate, Hopkins says, so while these ants may be driving you crazy, they are not crazy ants. Crazy ants, armed with the ability to spray formic acid on their enemies, including fire ants, are bad news for animals, like birds, who rely on the insects they kill for food.

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