The little known Citronella ant

It’s not every day I get to see a citronella ant which is odd since I do pest control service for a living. They are more abundant in the north east United States but can be found almost everywhere. Today was a good day however because I found one as I was crawling out from under a home.

At first I thought it may be a wayward honey pot ant because of it’s golden almost translucent color but engorged honey pots never leave the nest and since he was rather large I ruled that out. The best way for you (not the ant) to distinguish if an ant is a citronella ant is by crushing it. Do this and you’ll know what I mean. Within seconds you’ll smell the sweet aroma of citronella.

Citronella ants are basically harmless and only occasionally come inside, usually when swarming. Their colony at it’s peak may only have a few thousand individuals and the most damage they do is a mound of dirt near their nest.

Once while I was being ‘trained’ for a new company, the salesman I was riding with responded to an ant call. When we got there we found many swarming ants in the home and the lady of the house was quite upset. Our sales guy who I’m sure meant no harm identified the ants as carpenter ants and proceeded to sell her a job. I picked up one of the ants and waited for a chance to politely interrupt his pitch. Seeing me holding one of the ants the salesman asked me “why I had one in my hand” while the customer was also nodding inquisitively. I explained about the ant and then crushed it between my fingers and let them both smell. The two looks I got were, relief from the potential client knowing she didn’t have to spend $700.00 on a carpenter ant job and a cold angry stare from the salesman who just lost 15% commission.

We don’t know a whole lot about the day to day workings of this ant because they feed almost exclusively on the secretions of other subterranean bugs so you don’t see them much. These ants will actually bring aphids and mealy bugs below the surface of the soil and ‘farm’ them much like cattle. The aphids suck on the roots for food and in turn the citronella ant eats the secretions. In warmer weather they may take them up into the foliage. They do eat other things such as sugar and occasionally you may find them inside trailing to the pantry or up on a counter. Before you break out the sprays consider removing the food source as this often cures the problem. It’s also believed that the ‘lemony’ smell is a defense mechanism but I could find nothing to say for sure.

Only about 3/8 of an inch and yellowish to golden in color you can find their nests usually under logs on the ground or under pavement. The excavated dirt makes them easy to spot. Should treatment be necessary you’ll need to drench or fan spray the mound area or you can use Terro ant bait which they’ll take almost all the time.

Sitting at my computer perhaps thousands of miles from where you are I can feel those same two stares I felt early in my career. The look from the many of you who are relieved and will go out to buy a $ 1.98 Terro jar or simply brush away the few ants on your counter and the many stares of angry salesmen who hope you never read this.

About The Bug Doctor

Jerry Schappert is a certified pest control operator and Associate Certified Entomologist with over two and a half decades of experience from birds to termites and everything in between. He started as a route technician and worked his way up to commercial/national accounts representative. Always learning in his craft he is familiar with rural pest services and big city control techniques. Jerry has owned and operated a successful pest control company since 1993 in Ocala,Florida. While his knowledge and practical application has benefitted his community Jerry wanted to impart his wisdom on a broader scale to help many more. was born from that idea in 2007 and has been well received. It is the goal of this site to inform you with his keen insights and safely guide you through your pest control treatment needs.

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  • Elm 1990

    Thanks for the info. I’ve never been so happy to smell the sweet aroma of citronella!!
    Do these ants repel termites?


  • They might since it seems logical that the citronella is an insect repellant. But I doubt the two ever cross paths and if they did neither is likely to attack the other.

    Glad this article was of some help.

  • mike malkowski

    i spent 650 dollars to ortho in march…well there back ! will be buying terro and do it myself …thanks

  • $1.98, much better 😉

  • Mbandrob

    I am being reduced to tears by my citronella ant invasion.  We have always had them in our basement.  I was able to finally kill one colony (after yearrs of being “nice”) by pouring boiling water into the area they were entering.  Unfortunbately another one has come back full force in a different section of the finished basement that is not accessible, so I can not do the water trick.  They are making me miserable.  It is our family room and they have over taken it.  I thought they would be gone after a week but it has been six weeks and any time I am down there I see HUNDREDS of them.  Please-any advice would be welcome.  (I have tried using an exterminator-I think it just made them more determined). 

  • Have you tried Terro? That can help a lot. Also- I find that moisture iis key with these guys so if you have an abundance of plants you water a lot- cut back some, downspouts drain near foundation or a/c lines- reroute. Also- and this may be hard to find… but this ant lives in the soil almost exclusively so there might be a crack or other such gap in the basement wall that you can seal up. Look for the heaviest concentration and I’d bet it’s not to far from there. you said your basements finished but is that true of the ceiling as well? Drop ceilings are common in bsmts and if you could access that and shoot dusts or Niban or granule type baits–that might work.

    I’d consider the exterminator again knowing that it may not be an overnight success story but at least he’d have the tools and products necessary to do the job.

  • Stitchnstrum

    My husband sprayed Ortho Home Defense in the basement where they were coming in and now we do it every year.  Haven’t had any since then.  The exterminator said to spread triacide near the foundation of the house outside – 4 times a year to alleviate the problem.  This seems to help as well.  Good luck.

  • Not sure that the Citronella Ant won’t attack the Termites.  It’s a fact that Termites and Ants are enemies.  I have seen Carpenter Ants carrying the carcasses of dead termites on a few occasions.  That being said, no one wants either of those insects in their home.  
    I too am a professional pest control technician.  Though I don’t have quite as many years under my belt as you.  Citronella ants can sometimes be difficult to eliminate.  If bait doesn’t work, it may require drilling through the slab or foundation to get to the colony.  I have had to inject Termidor or Phantom into these areas to eliminate colonies before.  If it were my home, I would rather have the harmless ant then introduce pesticides into my home.


  • I think you’re right about just letting them be- it’s rare that they are a real on going problem.

    Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment- you’re welcome anytime.

  • Silvester Burchardt

    I think I just discovered a colony preparing for flight right next to my front door. I just bought the hundred year old farm house a few months ago and the fear they might be termites sent me straight to the internet – I’m pretty confident they are Citronellas, but this is a new species to me… They are swarming on the ground right next to my foundation and front porch slap and in the leaves the previous owner never raked out of the flower beds. I don’t want to use pesticides, but I don’t want them getting any bright ideas about moving inside either… What to do?

  • First get a positive ID…squeeze one and see if you get the citronella smell…. If so you know you got em… I’d say a little soap and water maybe to ‘scoot’ em away and unless you’re seeing foragers inside I wouldn’t worry about them very much, they’ll be no bother to you as they live their lives out harmlessly in their little secret worlds….if you don’t get that smell then perhaps try & still get that ID, then you can investigate further as to what to do. ie;carpenter ants etc…

  • Rosemarie Frangella McKnight

    Do Citronella ants swarm and do the have wings?

  • Jennifer MST

    i thought they were Pharoah ants but they do smell like the citronella so im guessing that’s what i have too.. they’re everywhere in my yard and I’ve noticed that if u try to get rid of them like scooping up the dirt where they are and carrying it anywhere, if u drop just 1,there will be 1000s there the next day.. its crazy