It’s a sweltering day. The distance to your next destination feels like a walk through the Sahara Desert. Up ahead you see a discarded soda can. It’s covered with ants. You think to yourself, even they can’t resist a drink of that sugary beverage.
You are probably observing a group of worker ants foraging for food to bring back to the colony. Because of a weakness for sweets, these ants are often called “sugar ants.” However, the ants building a colony in your backyard or in the center of the sidewalk are probably not actual sugar ants. They are most likely odorous ants or pavement ants instead, although their names can often get confused. What’s the difference between these types of ants?
Sugar ants (Camponotus consobrinus)
These ants are commonly found in Australia. They are between 7 and 12 millimeters, which is larger than many other ants, and have brown-orange bodies with large black heads. They nest outdoors in hollow wood, branches of trees or shrubs and beneath rocks or soil. Despite their name, they are omnivores and do not primarily rely on sweet substances for nutrients. They do not have stingers and do not bite humans.
Odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile)
These ants are native to the United States and found throughout the country. They are commonly found in houses and considered a major pest problem in several regions. Odorous ants are between 2.5 to 3 millimeters long, either black or brown in color and put out a foul smell when stepped on. They typically nest in soil and beneath objects lying on the ground, if possible. These ants will sometimes occupy multiple nests at one time using scent trails to travel between them and relocating nests frequently, depending on the environment. The size of ant colonies depends on a number of factors, with some having as few as 15 to 30 workers, and others having more than 50,000.
Odorous ants also nest indoors in areas of the house where moisture can be found. These ants are sometimes called sugar ants because they have a preference for high sugar or high protein food. They do not bite or sting.
Pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum)
This species, sometimes referred to as Tetramorium species E in the United States, is prevalent throughout the country, often infesting commercial buildings. It is considered a major pest in the Northeast and Midwest United States. The pavement ant has largely been replaced by the odorous ant in the South, according to the Mallis Handbook of Pest Control by Arnold Mallis.
Worker ants of this species are between 2.5 and 3 millimeters long. They have a habit of nesting near or below sidewalks, driveways and foundations near soil or decaying wood. Indoors, they nest below baseboards and near radiators or heating ducts. They are sometimes seen forming trails indoors during the day, although they mostly forage at night. Like odorous ants, these ants are sometimes referred to as sugar ants because they also have a preference for sweet food and often enter homes in search of dessert.
Pavement ants have stingers to defend themselves against other ants, but their sting is not strong enough to break human skin. They become a nuisance particularly during swarming season, which occurs in late spring or early summer. During this time, ants looking to mate may begin to escape from their hiding places within the home.
While odorous ants and pavement ants are two of the most common home invaders, other types of ants may be attracted to sugar as well, although not all types are. Despite their taste for the sweeter things in life, these ants are distinct from the species of sugar ants that are predominantly found in Australia. If you are concerned about ants, call a pest management professional.