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What are Ghost Ants?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Ghost ants are tropical ants found widely distributed throughout the world in warm climates and greenhouses. Especially in tropical and subtropical regions, ghost ants are regarded as a major household pest, since they can spoil food and generally make a nuisance of themselves. As with other ants, a number of techniques can be used to discourage and control ghost ants, but these techniques are only effective when combined with diligence and determination.

This ant, formally known as Tapinoma melanocephalum, has very distinctive coloration which makes it readily recognizable. The front of the body is dark brown, while the back of the body is translucent to white. This unusual coloration is undoubtedly responsible for the common name, although people also say that ghost ants are a lot like ghosts, flitting quickly in and out of homes. Ghost ants are also extremely small, and they appear smaller, thanks to their coloration, as people may only be able to see the front of the body from a distance. When crushed, the ants emit a distinctive pungent odor which some people liken to rotten tropical fruit.

These ants are very adaptable nesters, being capable of nesting in a wide variety of habitats. They prefer moist environments, so they may come indoors during dry weather, or select a humid greenhouse for nesting. While ghost ants can eat many different foods, including other ants, they appear to have a preference for sweets, going after sugar, cakes, cookies, candies, and so forth.

Keeping a house as clean as possible can be one way to deter ghost ants. Closing sweets up in airtight containers is also a good idea, as it denies the ants a regular source of food. Counters and stoves should be wiped down regularly, and dishes should be done quickly so that they do not draw ants. Some people also have success in deterring ants by laying down lines of cinnamon, which appear to disrupt the chemical signals the ants use to communicate.

The best ant bait for ghost ants is a boric acid-based bait. Many hardware stores sell boric acid solutions for pest control, sometimes in ready-to-use containers. Boric acid baits will need to be diluted to ensure that the worker ants bring the bait all the way back to the nest. If you can find the nest, you can also place bait around the nest, ensuring that the ants get a concentrated hit of the bait. Make sure to place bait in areas out of the reach of children and pets.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon945105 — On Apr 10, 2014

I do pest control in Southwest FL. For indoors, sweet ant bait is the "preferred method". Talstar for outdoor use (not granules, the white serum pre-mixed solution or in powder form). With a gallon sprayer you then use the the solution. Two ounces per gal is what I use, (three for flea jobs coupled with a birth control chemical). I often spray the baseboard inside as well. You'll often read that spraying indoors will only make the problem worse. This "can" be true but there are a lot of x-factors.

If I go to a house and can actually find an ant (like going to the doctor, the pain stops when you're there, ironically), I squeeze out some bait in front of their path. They will call their friends, very fast by releasing their "come and get it" pheromone. I'll let that sit 5 to 10 minutes. Several things are then judgment calls and differ from person to person. If I get a good showing (for a house, a couple hundred or more), I only bait. After the ants leave the bait, they will head back to the colony, most of the time. Track them. If they stop or start going in circles, blow on them to motivate them. You'll see them butt heads with ants along the way (giving them a taste). You will rarely track them back to their nest since it's most likely in the walls. You will see them typically head up behind the microwave, or an electrical outlet. When I lose them to a void, hole, crack or crevice, I'll then normally gas it with a non-residual insecticide made from chrysanthemums. This is a contact kill gas and leaves no residue, but be sure to ask and make sure that no one around is allergic to flowers before use (seriously). The talstar and bait are non-allergenic. More than likely you'll find them coming in around cracks around the windows and doors. People here in Naples leave their doors and windows wide open all the time. That's fine as long as you are doing a good routine of maintenance (spraying). Home owners should caulk all these cracks that are caulkable. Behind microwaves is a different story and if you live in a condo, chances are, there's a big hole back there where your vent goes up and out. In those cases you can bait and spray or one or the other.

Frustrations of a bug man:

People will always wipe up what you put down and then call you a couple days later. Condo communities need education and need to be informed about where their maintenance fee is going. Your building exterior should be treated once a month, not every other. Landscapers need to keep trees and bushes away from the buildings. If it touches, go out there at night and watch the thick trail of ants bypassing our chemical around the base of your house and filling your walls. People need to get a hobby and stop sitting outside with their idiotic jet sprayer 5000. The chemical is safe, folks. We've come a long way from arsenic and strychnine. It's not safe for fish (more on that in a sec). Condo associates are not pest control technicians and are often run by a board of volunteers who are just happy to have something to do. I understand and can relate, but take your jobs seriously. I've talked with several presidents of these communities and a couple have told me flat out that it's cheaper to just service people infested time and time again, than to afford landscapers keeping the ever growing tropical branches back from the buildings.

Finally, if your sprinklers are showering your home, you need to tell someone to adjust them. They shouldn't be and that alone will stimulate ant growth, as well as clean off the building’s protective coating from us pest people.

The primary ingredient is bifenthrin in most pesticides. The amount used in your house will not harm your pets. Don't, of course, spray their food bowls, but relax. The amount of actual chemical residual (once the spray dries) in your house is about 1/3 of a teaspoon in total, and that's if you have a fairly large house (not a condo). Bifenthrin is toxic to aquatic animals, so if you have fish, stay a good 10' away with where you spray. Yes, it goes on wet and dries to a microscopic sticky residue, but for fish (since they can't process it) just a small amount kicked up and into their filter can make them ill or even kill them. Don't spray bird cages. Around them? Fine, but not inside them. Again, it won't kill them, but remember your pets can't tell you when they’re in pain. A cat or dog walking through a puddle of it? Fine. It will lick its feet and clean them. A bird? It won't kill them, but I can only imagine how much their feet will burn since they can't immediately clean it off.

Finally, be diligent. If you've had an infection, you've most likely heard your doctor tell you to keep taking your medication even after you feel better. Same goes with ants. If you think you don't have any anymore, try to entice them. Leave some sweets out. A half eaten jelly donut, some chocolate (keep it out of reach of dogs of course), anything. "If you leave it, they will come". If they don't, congrats. Stop baiting what you can't see and keep up a good once a month spray on the exterior. Keep in mind that exterior treatment is essential. Don't believe chemicals (other than granules for fire ants) that say good for 90 days. It’s true if they are untouched on the inside, but not outside. If you wait, until you have them in your house, then chances are high you have an infestation that you might never fully control on your own.

It's called pest "Control" for a reason. They can't be eliminated. A true fact. Total the weight of human beings on earth. The weight in ants is more. Much more.

Oh, one last thing. Help us help you for those who have pest control service already. I can relate to people who don't want to "bug" us. I am like that and don't want to be a "pest" to anyone. People call us with no problem, the first time, and even the second time. After that, they see a few here and there and live with it. Don't. If you have a large infestation, the quicker we take it out, the better. If enough of them die, the colony collapses, but if you leave a few here and there, there will soon be a bigger problem then you started with. Spraying indoors is OK, if you are me, or 100 percent consistent. Imagine being in a platoon being bombarded with something that's killing you all off. What do you do? You split up in groups. Same with ants.

Persistence is the main key. After a treatment, you shouldn't see any more ants after two days. There is no such thing as an ant repellant for ghost ants, so they must walk through the residual in order to die. This will take a couple days, or even 24 hours. After that, if you see one, look for another. If you see two or more? Watch them for a couple minutes. If they're walking out in the open across your kitchen floor, chances are they're about to be dead so there may have been some late comers. It happens. If they are walking in groups again, and sticking to edges, that is a reason to call us back.

Last but not least, when you call us, entice them before we come. I can't stay on any one call for too long and often I won't find anything and you'll be telling me, "But this morning there were hundreds, I swear!" I believe you, but entice them so there's a trail formed or forming when I show up. It only helps you. Resist killing them.

Also, don't think we're in there spraying sugar water. Most chemicals will last 90 days indoors, but you have to keep in mind that the compound doesn't stay there after hundreds of ants pick it up and move on. You only see an insanely small amount of the ants you have if you're seeing them on a normal basis. 90 percent of the colony doesn't leave their nest and there are no chemicals out there that they take back to the nest. Baits they do, but not in a way that infects the nest like chemicals made for other species of ant does (like the white footed ant and good ole Termidor).

If you see a guy wearing clothes that looks like janitor attire, and carrying a can with a hose here in Naples, ask if it's Dan and check me on the spot. I will be using the chemicals I wrote about with a tube of bait in my pocket. Not looking for business (too much already). Only hoping you'll help us that do the job as well as those who want to know what they're up against.

Hey, we deal with bugs here in the tropics, but at least we don't shovel anymore. --Dan

By KaBoom — On Oct 29, 2011

I've heard that, in addition to sweets, ghost ants really like to eat grease. So if you're experience a ghost ant infestation, take note! In addition to closing up your sweet, make sure to dispose of any cooking grease in your kitchen in a timely fashion.

By JaneAir — On Oct 29, 2011

@indemnifyme - Boric acid is really great, isn't it? I've used it to get rid of a few different household pests. And I know it works on most kinds of ants.

Which brings me to my point: there are tons and tons of different types of ants. My cousin is getting her PhD, and she studies ants. From what she's told me, there are literally thousands of species of ants in the world, all specially adapted to the environment.

Anyway, while ghost ants may not be where you live, they are in the United States. My cousin actually went to Florida awhile back to study them!

By indemnifyme — On Oct 28, 2011

Luckily, I've never had to deal with ghost ants. They sound very tenacious! But, I don't live in a tropical climate, so I'm pretty sure we don't have any of these ants where I live.

However, I can vouch for the effectiveness of boric acid. When I was younger, we moved into a house in a new development. The land had been a forest before the houses were built, so there were still a lot of bugs and stuff in the area.

We had a terrible problem with black ants when we first moved in. Like the ghost ants, they're attracted to food. I swear, if you dropped one little crumb those ants would just appear.

Anyway, eventually my mom found out about boric acid. It totally cured our ant problem. That stuff is great! However, I believe it can be harmful for pets, so if you have a pet you should be careful where you put the boric acid.

By wander — On Oct 28, 2011

@popcorn - I really think getting rid of ants is the hotel's job, and you should have just gotten your refund and switched sites. Unfortunately, it also depends on where you were vacationing.

I have spent a lot of time in South East Asia and ants are a huge problem in hotels. The areas are humid, people leave crumbs around and it just happens. If you change hotels, there are still going to be ants.

The only time I worry about ants is if I see the more dangerous winged ants. Ghost ants as far as I understand are more of nuisance, but a lot of winged ants bite.

By popcorn — On Oct 27, 2011

I recently came back from vacation and we had a huge problem with ghost ants in our room. It was really frustrating because it seemed like the more we killed them, the more just showed up.

We spoke to the hotel desk and they told us that they were pretty common in the area and they would change our room for us. Killing ants was not something I wanted to keep doing so we moved. Low and behold, more ants!

Does anyone know what to do if you experience ant infestations at a hotel? Should you demand a refund and move or just stick it out?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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