When you find black ants on your countertop and in your pantry or carpenter ants in the foundation of your home, your first reaction is likely to want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
However, outside of the home, ants serve an important role in the natural order. According to researchers at Harvard University, ants turn and aerate soil, help spread seeds and pollinate flowers. They also serve as natural pest control agents by preying on other pests, like termites. Additionally, they're a plentiful food source for other creatures like birds, amphibians and spiders.
For these reasons, there has been a growing interest in striking a balance between finding ways to preserve ants in their natural environment while also keeping them out of the home. One solution that is often discussed is the use of natural repellents, especially those that can be made using common household ingredients.
Do natural ant repellents really work?
While there may not be a perfect way to kill ants naturally, there are several natural repellents that can help temporarily keep ants away from your home. Some of these methods work by creating barriers that ants are unable to cross. Others have strong odors that can interfere with the natural pheromones ants use to lead other ants to food sources. Some are toxic to ants and can eliminate members of an ant colony when carried back to the others. Each method has its benefits and limitations, so it's a good idea to understand how they work, how effective they are and how to get the greatest benefit from them.
Related: Types of Ants: Eight Common Invaders
Types of natural repellents
Food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) comes from dead sea life called diatoms. DE looks and feels like a fine white powder and can be effective because its particles have microscopic sharp edges that cut through the waxy layer covering an ant's body plates. The DE can then absorb the ant's moisture, causing it to slowly dehydrate. Because DE works mechanically rather than chemically, insects cannot build up a resistance to it. Before applying DE to kill ants naturally, it's important to read and understand the product label directions on how and where to apply. In all instances, dusts should be applied as a light, thin and unsuspecting layer. More dust only serves to accumulate and can actually cause facture and budding in some ant species. As researchers from Texas A & M note, one key drawback to DE, however, is that it may not eliminate colonies or stop ants that have already entered your home.
The key reason that ants continue to find their way into your home is because of a chemical they produce, called pheromones. Ants leave a trail of pheromones so other ants can follow that trail to find food sources. When ants encounter vinegar and other strong odors, it can cover the pheromones and interfere with an ant's ability to track the scent.
If you're looking for an in-home ant repellent, vinegar can be a safe and easy-to-acquire option. According to experts from Penn State University, vinegar, while not toxic to ants, will wipe out their chemical trails, making it harder for them to return to your home.
Borax (sodium tetraborate) is a powdered white mineral that has been used as a cleaning product and insect killer for over a century. Experts at the Colorado State University Extension Service say that the most common way to use borax to get rid of ants naturally is to combine it with equal parts sugar, syrup or another substance that attracts ants, then leave it out as a natural ant bait. It's worthwhile mentioning that experts have noted that ants' tastes vary, so it can be a trial-and-error as to the ratio of sugar or syrup in this mixture. Additionally, ants' tastes can often change with the season, too. In the spring, ants tend to prefer fats and proteins for egg production, while in the summer they prefer sugar and carbohydrates.
The key benefit of borax is that it's slow-acting, which allows time for ants to transfer the chemical to the colony and the queen, effectively keeping the colony from growing. Because it's slow-acting, it can take a few days to work, so you may not see your ant problem disappear right away. However, borax should not be used yourself, but instead should be applied by a professional. When not mixed and/or not placed properly, it can not only be ineffective at treating ants, but it can also become a potential danger to children and pets.
Studies have also shown that certain essential oils — like cinnamon, lemon, peppermint and neem — have strong odors that can serve as a natural ant repellent. Researchers at the University of Florida do warn that there is a lack of consistency among products, as well as large natural variation among essential oil compositions. They also suggest that certain oils may work well against certain types of ants but not others. The researchers also recommend that treatments should be carefully observed to see which types and concentrations of oils are effective.
Certain pepper variants — specifically the alkaloid compounds of capsaicin in cayenne pepper or of piperine in black pepper — are a natural irritant to ants. That makes them convenient ant-blockers that you're likely to conveniently have in your pantry. Like DE, pepper can create a barrier to entry, but its effectiveness may fade with time.
Related: How to Get Rid of Ants in the House
Call a professional
While natural pest control methods can help serve as temporary deterrents against ants, they aren't always long-term solutions. Different ant species will react differently to different treatment methods. Additionally, while some natural methods kill or repel the ants attempting to enter your home, they don't address the source of the problem: the colony and queen.
If you're looking for long-term solutions, talking to a pest control professional is your best option. They can assess the situation to determine what type of ant is infesting your home and recommend solutions to keep ants out and prevent them from coming back.
Want help keeping ants away? Terminix® has the experience and the solutions that can help keep ants out of your home. Contact one of our pest control professionals today.