How to Get Rid of Ants in Your House and Yard

Updated: Jul. 08, 2024

Ants are everywhere. Can you do anything about it? Our experts are here to help.

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Want to hear something scary? Ants outnumber humans 2.5 million to one. And that’s probably an undercount! I think of that statistic every time I see the trail of ants in my kitchen, headed for my cat’s food. Or that time last summer when I stepped on a fire ant hill. I like bugs, and I avoid killing these ubiquitous, single-minded, occasionally stinging friends, but with those kinds of numbers, ants seem poised to take over. Can you get rid of ants? I decided to ask some entomologists.

Spoiler alert: You can’t completely get rid of ants. But “there are several things the homeowner can do to reduce ant populations invading their homes,” says David Price, associate certified entomologist and director of technical services at Mosquito Joe. As with much in life, prevention is the best defense. Wildly spraying pesticides all over your lawn might feel good, but it’s unlikely to succeed. Ahead, Price and two other experienced entomologists explain what you should do instead.

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Dozens Of Ants Were Climbing Up The White Wall
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Ant Identification

The first step to getting rid of ants is to identify the type of ant you’re up against. “Different ant species are pests for different reasons, and control can vary by species, so correctly identifying what species you’re dealing with is important,” says Michael J. Skvarla, Ph.D., head of the Insect Identification Laboratory at Penn State University. “Since there are only a handful of species that are regular pests indoors, it’s often easy to identify which species you’re dealing with.” Here’s what to do:

Snap a picture

Ants are always on the move, so they’re unlikely to sit still while you count the number of nodes on their petiole (that’s the stalk that connects their thorax, aka chest, to their abdomen). To you and me, ants look pretty similar, but to entomologists, these things matter. A high-quality picture will help you in your quest.

Note where you see them

If you see ants in your kitchen, they probably live nearby, often around your foundation or inside your home. “Commonly referred to as sugar ants, these ants can be several types of small ants,” including odorous house ants, pharaoh ants, Argentine ants and ghost ants, says Shannon Harlow-Ellis, associate certified entomologist and technical services manager at Mosquito Joe.

Ants inside will likely be following a line of other ants, so trace the trail back. Pay attention to where they go if you can find it. (You might have to play detective.) All of this info will help you get rid of ants.

Check with your university or county extension service

Extensions offer localized educational resources, and they’re great for identifying bugs. Find them on the web, where they’re likely to have free ant info at the click of a mouse. For example: “This pictorial key to the 21 most common pest species should work for most people most of the time,” Skvarla says. If you prefer one-on-one service, see if they have a hotline, email or walk-in availability, too.

Take action

For some species, you need to work fast. If the ants you follow are disappearing behind a rotted windowsill, for example, you might have carpenter ants. Carpenter ants build their nests in water-damaged wood. “In nature, this helps break down fallen trees and recycle their nutrients back into the soil,” Skvarla says. “In homes and other buildings, this can weaken structural timbers and, if enough damage is done, cause substantial damage to the building.”

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Woman Spraying Insecticide With Sprayer At Home
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Ant Removal

Now that you know what type of ant you have and where they live, it’s time to eliminate the ants. The experts suggest starting with simple solutions and working your way up from there.

Place bait stations

Prepackaged bait stations are the easiest place to start your attempts to eliminate ants. Ant colonies send out scouts to find and bring back food to the nest, and you can use this against them. “Ants are attracted to sweets mostly in the spring, when they need energy to start working,” Harlow-Ellis says. “Towards the summer and into fall, most species’ diets will change, needing proteins for reproduction.”

If you’re unsure what the ants are going for, test them with peanut butter, honey and fried foods. Then, look on the back of bait station packages for a note that says (for example) “kills common sweet-eating ants.”

Try DIY remedies

Harlow-Ellis says making your own bait can work, too. “The most common DIY ant treatments involve a boric acid or “borax” based ant bait.” If you know what food the ants like, try mixing the borax with the tasty bait. Or, sprinkle diatomaceous earth around your home’s entry points. Diatomaceous earth won’t harm people or pets, but it causes insects to desiccate, aka dry out.

Spray the foundation

Some ants may resist the effect of bait stations, due to the sheer size of their colony. Odorous house ants are one example. “They can have multiple queens per colony, so are often extremely difficult to control,” Skvarla says. “Bait stations are a good first start, but if those don’t work then a foundation spray of insecticides may be necessary,” Skvarla says.

Read the foundation spray’s instructions carefully, and apply as directed.

Eliminate the nest

If you know there’s a nest inside your walls, you can inject an insecticide powder or aerosol into wall voids, but you might want to call a pro. Serious infestations of carpenter ants and other hard-to-manage pests are nothing to mess around with.

For ants in the yard, unless they’re dangerous or destructive, the experts advise leaving them be. “Carpenter ants can infest below ground in weaken[ed] root systems,” Price says, which can cause trees to fall. “Fire ants in the yard will sting, and are aggressive if the mound is disturbed. Other ant species in the yard pose no harm and can be left alone,” Price adds.

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Ant Prevention

Ants are industrious and numerous, so even if you get rid of ants in your home, they’ll probably come back if they can find a way in. The key to keeping ants out of your house is to block entry points and make the outside of your house less hospitable. Here are some key goals:

Seal gaps and cracks

“Ants are looking for food and shelter when they come indoors,” Skvarla says, and because they’re so tiny, they can usually find a way. Seal cracks in and around windows, doors, pipes, brickwork, siding and your foundation.

Reduce moisture

Ants need water, just like the rest of us. “Direct moisture away from the foundation,” Price says, and fix leaky gutters, pipes and hose bibbs that drip water inside and outside your home.

Clean up leaf litter

Piles of wet leaves and mulch near your house are a great place for ants to set up shop. Depending on the species, they could use it for cover, for foraging or to build a new nest. “Keep mulch, leaf litter and vegetation at least 10 to 12 inches away from the foundation,” Price says.

Keep trees trimmed

Tree limbs that rest on your home’s exterior walls have the same effect as a welcome mat. Did you spray an insecticide along the foundation? No problem! They’ll just climb over on the branch. For small carpenter ants, “trimming back or removing trees and bushes that touch the house is often enough to eliminate ants in the house,” Skvarla says.

Store and dispose of food properly

  • Keep food tightly covered.
  • Clean up food spills and crumbs immediately.
  • Rinse food and drink containers before throwing them in the garbage or recycling bins.
  • Clean your sink daily, including the strainer where food particles can catch.
  • Don’t leave pet food out all the time. (For my cat who likes to graze, I put the dish in a “moat” of water.)
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Ants Are Eating Bread
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FAQs

What do ants eat?

It depends on the species. Many ants feed on “honeydew,” which is a secretion they get from aphids. Yard ants “have more of a protein diet,” Price says. “They have larger mandibles to collect small insects and body parts of dead insects.”

What smells do ants hate?

“There are essential oil blends that are effective at repelling ants,” Price says. Look for peppermint and other strong-smelling oils.

What household products kill ants?

Harlow-Ellis suggests Borax, but avoid other harsh household cleaners like bleach. These products would theoretically kill a couple of ants wandering around your home, but they are not effective for ant control since they have no effect on the colony. Plus, they’re harmful to kids and pets if left on surfaces.

What household products don’t kill ants?

Price says the internet is filled with myths that do nothing to stop ants. One is cinnamon: “They don’t like it but doesn’t repel or stop them.” The other is vinegar, which is one of the most common suggestions to get rid of ants. “It can temporarily disrupt the trailing pheromones, but they will reappear within a couple of hours,” Price says.

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About the Experts

  • Michael Skvarla, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor of arthropod identification in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University. Skvarla runs the Insect Identification Laboratory at Penn State, where he identifies insects and other arthropods submitted by the public.
  • David Price, ACE, is the director of technical services at Mosquito Joe, a Neighborly company. Price is an associate-certified entomologist and a previous vice president of the Central Virginia Pest Management Association.
  • Shannon Harlow-Ellis is an associate-certified entomologist and technical services manager at Mosquito Joe. A longtime bug enthusiast, Harlow-Ellis serves on numerous boards and was a recipient of a 2023 Impact Award for Women in Pest Management by the National Pest Management Association.

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