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How long can ant pheromone trails remain active?

Ants are social little creatures, and this means ants need a way to effectively communicate with the other ants in their colony. Like many other insects, one of the key ways ants communicate is through pheromones.  When a forager ant finds a good source of food, it will head back to the nest and create a special pheromone trail along the route. The pheromone trail ensures other ants know exactly where dinner can be found, and exactly how to get back home after picking it up.

Some ants species leave pheromone trails that last for just a few minutes, while other species can create trails that last for days. Beyond the ants themselves, the time of year, temperature, humidity, and nearby plants and animals all influence how long a pheromone trail will remain active.

Although finding and eradicating carpenter ants is a notoriously difficult goal for humans, carpenter ants are experts at finding and eradicating sources of food. This is because carpenter ants produce pheromone trails that remain active for several days. In contrast, the pheromone trail of a pavement ant only lasts about 10 minutes, and the pheromone trail of a fire ant lasts about 10 minutes.

Pharaoh ants (sometimes called ‘sugar ants’) have one of the most complicated systems, as they can mark trails with long-term pheromones, short-term pheromones and special negative pheromones. Pharaoh ant foragers mark the main part of a trail with a long-term pheromone that remains active for several days. When a tasty source of food is found along the main route, pharaoh ants release a short-term pheromone which lasts for about 20 minutes. When a food source is depleted or an area becomes dangerous, pharaoh ants quickly shift gears by releasing a negative pheromone by the undesirable trail. These negative pheromones last about two hours, and tell other pharaoh ants to avoid an area.

Although ants will sometimes target the tidiest house, keeping things clean is an important way of keeping away ants. In particular, because pheromone trails signal “food!”, deactivating pheromone trails makes your home desirable to ants.  You can remove pheromone trails by wiping floors, counters and walls with warm water mixed with a household cleaner (read the directions to ensure your cleaner is safe for different surfaces), vinegar (the vinegar will deodorize as it tries) or baking soda. Make this a daily habit if you suspect you have an ant infestation.

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