Carpenter Ants



I happened to notice large piles of sawdust at the base of an aspen tree in the Turtle Mountain forest recently.  The tree was really just a tall stump left from a blow-down.  I tapped on the side of the tree and several ants came running out:  assumedly carpenter ants.

Carpenter ants are comparatively large ants.  They are about a half inch long and are generally black or perhaps red and black.  The ones in this tree were black.  Their common name is an obvious reference to woodworking.  However, carpenter ants do not eat wood; they feed on other living as well as dead insects and also have a taste for honeydew and other sweets.

Carpenter ants do major woodworking in trees by excavating galleries to make their nests.  Actually they make two kinds of nests.  One nest, the parent colony, houses the queen and perhaps 2000 or so worker ants.  Satellite nests, on the other hand, house just worker ants.  I did not check close enough to determine which type of nest (or nests) was in the aspen, although I was not attacked by a horde of ants, so perhaps it was a satellite nest.

Carpenter ants have a preference for setting up residence in the moist wood of dead or dying trees.  Dead trees with heartrot are prime real-estate!  So this particular aspen was probably a carpenter ants dream.

As some of you may know, carpenter ants may be significant pests.  Although I have not heard of many problems around here, they may occasionally be a problem in homes and other wooden structures where some amount of rot has begun.  The carpenter ants then move in and begin to build their nests and associated galleries.  If this excavation is allowed to continue it may structurally weaken a building.

Carpenter ants are known to harbor symbiotic bacteria in their gut.  Unlike the bacteria in a termite which help the digestion of cellulose, these bacteria do not.  They do, however, help supply the ants with certain amino acids and other nutrients in exchange for a suitable place to live and constant food supply.  It is an interesting although far from unique living arrangement.

In researching carpenter ants for this Natural North Dakota I happened upon the website of a musical group from West Virginia called the Carpenter Ants.  They play old style rhythm and blues as well as gospel.  I listened to some of their music on the group’s website and it was pretty good.  As you might expect, their CD’s also have rather interesting titles such as “Ants in Your Pants,” “Insect Ball,” and “Ants and Uncles.”  You can check it out by simply searching for “carpenter ants” with your favorite search engine.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.


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