Pernicious California Butter Ants
May 11, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Please help me deal with these single-minded ants.

These tiny golden brown ants do not want water, sugar, fabric, wood (as far as I can tell; they certainly do not want paper or cardboard), plastics, or starch/vegetable matter.

They are also completely disinterested in Borax or Terra - I put out five of them, one or two ants went in and got stuck in it, everybody else ignored them.

These ants want fat, and nothing but fat. Drop a little crumb of butter on the counter, and it will be covered in half an hour. Leave a greasy plate in the sink overnight, they will get in it. The dogs* can only have their food set out for a few minutes and we have to pick up any stray kibbles that get dropped immediately, or they will be covered in a few minutes. We're keeping the bag in a chair, which has worked so far. The ants also enjoy high-quality moisturized toilet paper, which is bad enough, but this morning I found them trying to get into my $50 tub of Lush lotion and oh hell no.

They're in the walls. One particular kitchen wall for sure, plus the central wall in the house, and they appear to have come for the lotion out of the electrical outlet.

So far they have ignored butter or peanut butter with borax in it, and like I said they ignored the Terra stations, and also some Raid ones. They're more interested in a greasy fingerprint than any of those things. I'm willing to try again with different Borax ratios - I used quite a but last time, maybe it was too much.

Our landlord's solution to most problems is either ignore us or come coat our house and yard in random poisons without discussing with us, so we'll be handling this ourselves. It's a single story freestanding ranch house in San Diego, built in the late 70s.

I'm not even sure they can be eradicated; I suspect this is the kind of colony that has multiple queens. But if we can reduce or discourage, that might at least be a moderate victory. Any suggestions would be welcome.

*Obligatory 1, 2, 3
posted by Lyn Never to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Dude, that is disgusting. As far as I'm concerned and mighty fine reason to break the lease and move.

I'd call a big name exterminator, Terminix, Orkin, and have them do an assessment. Then I'd send it to Landlord with a letter stating that this particular, real issue needs this particular, real solution, or you'll break the lease and move.

Then I'd do it.

Of course I hate bugs, and frankly, when I saw a roach in my apartment in Oakland, I ran to the store and bought 5 bombs. For a studio apartment.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:12 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


My Mom swore by Grant's Ant Stakes. But I think you've got a bigger issue than they can solve.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:13 PM on May 11, 2012

We used ant-baits that appeal to 'sweet' and 'grease' ants. They stuff was a brown putty-like substance in a small, clear plastic bubble so you could track it's progress. The bummer is that they'll find it and pile on top of the thing, slowly clearing away the bait, so it's a bit gross for a few days. It always worked, though, and it was the same ingredient used by an exterminator we called (in fact, he's the one who told us what to buy after he left).

This wasn't the exact brand, but it looked just like this one. I could have sworn I still had some in a ziploc bag someplace. If I can find one, I'll give you the exact name.
posted by jquinby at 12:20 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

They sound like grease ants. I get them here occasionally and have learned to jump on them quick with vinegar in a spray bottle.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:20 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ants suck. I have sugar ants in my house - they showed up one day after the house next door was tented an my life has never been the same. There are two options, either call in the pros or bow down before your new overlords.

May the Force be with you.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:21 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

A tip for the dog dish: Put about 1/4 inch of water into something like a cookie sheet and set the dog dish in that. The ants won't bother your dog food.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:24 PM on May 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

You may have an infestation of Pharaoh Ants, which tend to like grease and fats. You need to be careful with them, as the colonies can easily fragment and re-establish themselves if threatened. If you can, seek a professional, but you can also try a combination of baits, and a scorched-earth policy with regard to cleaning surfaces and cupboards, and eliminating scouts. Remember that ants leave a scent trail, so wash areas where you find scouts with soapy water after taking care of the ants themselves.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:27 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those are argentinean ants. Most of the coast of California is one super colony, and they have knocked out most of the rest of the native ants.

It takes a two-pronged approach of cleaning and barriers to defeat them.

1) Clean every single thing that has ever had grease on or in it. EVER. Take your stove apart. Put everything that is greasy in glass or plastic containers.

2) Wash your floors and walls to kill the pheromone trails that the ants follow.

2) Attack the ants themselves. Pine-sol seems to be something they truly hate that isn't horribly toxic. There was a particular crack in our old apartment that they always came out of, until I poured a few tablespoons of pine-sol down there one day. Diatomacious earth will block them too- it is non-toxic to things that don't have exoskeletons.

Good luck.
posted by rockindata at 12:31 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only thing that keeps ants out of my house permanently is regular professional extermination. I have cats, and whatever my company uses is safe for animals. I would be calling in the professional help at this point. It's not that expensive; I pay $50 every two months and it is worth every penny.
posted by something something at 12:35 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I see that you tried peanut butter with Borax, and also Terro, but have you tried mixing Terro with the peanut butter? That's what I've done in the past with grease ants, and it's always worked well.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 12:57 PM on May 11, 2012

The trick is to mix borax with stuff they like.

So when we get summer ants I mix borax (20 mule team) with sugar water -- a little pile of sugar with about the same amount of borax and then a bit of water until it dissolves -- and put it in bottle caps around the kitchen. If your guys like grease, then mix borax with some butter or margarine or whatever, and spread that around in bottle caps. Keep them away from the pets of course.

Do that BUT ALSO make noises at your landlord.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:57 PM on May 11, 2012

Okay I see that you tried mixing borax with stuff -- really I read the post -- but I do suggest having another go perhaps with less borax mixed in. It works good on our ants and they are pretty crazy for the grease and sugar. We get hordes for a couple days then a trickle then they're gone in a couple weeks and stay gone as long as the caps are around.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:59 PM on May 11, 2012

I also would try to locate where they're entering the house outside, and focus your efforts there.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:01 PM on May 11, 2012

I'd say throw a dab of unadulterated butter somewhere, let them start piling up, and attack with Orange Guard.

This is the most awesome critter eradicator I know and love.

If doing this a few rounds still hasn't eradicated, I'd have words with the landlord, working out something along the lines of "You've put out something I have no way of being safe for my pets X times, it hasn't worked, I am going to call in a pet-friendly exterminator and get to the bottom of this." Look over tenancy laws in your area, verify what your rights are.

Seconding part of this, above - I don't know that you'd want to slather enough PineSol around to try to kill them, but it is a good cleaner.

Degrease everything, steadily. Pull out the stove, wash the undersides of the cabinets. Eliminate all the food.

And don't over do it with any chemical, be it vinegar, or Orange Guard or anything - GRAS is not "drown yourself in it".

When I get periodic infestations (stuff brought in, windows left open, forget to clean crevices for a period of time, monsoon rain season avoiders) I just start taking apart their favorite things a couple hours a week, dividing the affected area like so:

1. Clean out all the people/pet food that might be feeding them

2. Do a basic wipe down of all counter and floor surfaces.

3. Pick an attractor appliance out every couple of days, and do a heavy clean of them, under them, around them.

Since they are grease ants, pay special attention to grease accumulators, like toaster ovens, ovens, stovetops, under stove elements, the cracks where the ovens and doors and hinges are, the sides of the units, and so forth. I was ready to toss my toaster oven - went at it with an SOS (steel wool) pad instead and it looks brand spanking new (darn, I really wanted to upgrade to a nicer one but it works pretty well, even if I can't put a whole pizza in there). Also took the steel wool to the racks and trays and they look new.

If I tried to clean out my whole kitchen and pantry at once, I'd be there for DAYS (and I have a small, crammed kitchen). But breaking it into manageable chunks, I've got a fair bit done (spring is here and with it a new batch of sugar ants for me - over winter I managed to bring in grains with their own little beetle population ...). I break it down into 1-2 hour chunks, say, loading the dishwasher after dinner, then putting a show or movie on the computer to listen to while I scrub something. Last night I pulled out the toaster oven again, gave it a quick wipe, wiped under it with vinegar/water, put it aside, quick wiped the mixer (had a thorough cleaning a couple weeks back) and counter area, moved it to the toaster over space, quick wiped the crock pot, put it in the mixer space, wiped under the crock area, put the toaster oven there.

When I do the fridge, I do it a shelf at a time. Empty a shelf, take it out, wash it and the walls, let it dry, put the food back and empty another shelf. Deep clean after major disasters, but it gets done.
posted by tilde at 1:20 PM on May 11, 2012

Those are argentinean ants. Most of the coast of California is one super colony.

I know the Argentinean well, too well, and that's what could be in Lyn Never's photo, can't be sure. I've never heard of the Pharaoh before, and those in the photo look less like the Pharaoh than the Argentinean, but I've never known the Argentinean to be interested in anything except sugar. Nevertheless, spray 'em with Windex, which stops 'em all in their tracks, then observe where they're coming in, and seal up that portal. Repeat as necessary.
posted by Rash at 3:38 PM on May 11, 2012

I've lived in lots of places with lots of different kind of ants, and have always had success with undiluted white vinegar. It takes several applications, but it's quick, easy and non-toxic. Where there are ants, let there be a pool of vinegar. Using a wad of paper towels, wipe up all the ants and the pooling vinegar. I'm guessing this disturbs their chemical messages and trails, but whatever it is, they stop coming around after a few days. It's possible that the way I pour the vinegar is also a factor: in a stern, judgmental way, saying (out loud is good) "Oh no you don't, Ant Overmind! You cannot defeat me!" -- this is something my daughter taught me after living in Ant Heaven in the Palouse country.
posted by kestralwing at 7:20 PM on May 11, 2012

The borax killer I make up for the sugar-loving ants that periodically try it on at our place contains half a cup of water, half a cup of sugar and a teaspoon of borax. The ants will generally take away one or two teaspoons of the resulting syrup and then disappear for many months, so it doesn't take a huge amount of borax to kill a nest; you just have to get it into the ants.

Borax is not fat-soluble, so just mixing granulated borax with a fatty bait seems unlikely to accomplish much. I'd expect you'd get better results from dissolving a teaspoon of borax in a few dessertspoons of hot water, mixing that with a couple of egg yolks to act as an emulsifier, then blending the resulting creamy liquid with about half a cup of something you already know they like (maybe the dog kibble?) or a strong-smelling fat like bacon grease.
posted by flabdablet at 8:27 PM on May 11, 2012

I had a regular house ant infestation a while back and dealt with it by applying copious amounts of petroleum jelly everywhere they were coming in. They literally could not get past it, and the infestation stopped pretty much immediately. Maybe that'd work for you?
posted by ebear at 6:24 AM on May 12, 2012

I'm not going to mark this resolved until a later date, but an update: on Friday evening I put out about half a tablespoon of butter well mixed with a tiny bit of Borax in a couple of spots on the kitchen counter near their primary emergence point. Almost all the butterax is gone now, except for one awkward glob that they're still working hard on, and they have been working very hard: almost none of them have wandered past the butter in that time, and I've had no re-emergence in the bathroom (we keep the kibble situation super-clean, so I couldn't say either way there). There are a lot less ants bellied up to the butter bar now, but then there's less butter so it might be wishful thinking.

I am undecided whether these fall into the Argentine category. They do act like the descriptions I've read, but they really don't care about sugar so I don't know. When this last glob is gone, I am going to try flabdablet's suggestion to dissolve the Borax in something. Frankly, if I can keep them distracted this way indefinitely, I'll do it.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:12 AM on May 16, 2012

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