How to tell a Thief ant from a Pharaoh

One question that often plagues homeowners and professional pest control people alike;

Is that a thief ant or pharaoh ant?

Ok, so here I am a professional with over 2 decades of working with bugs but I have to admit I sometimes can’t tell either. I mean they are both so tiny and they seem to come out of nowhere only to disappear in some barely visible crack that seems impossible for anything to crawl through. The problem with not knowing however can lead to frustration and a lot of wasted time and money.

Although both ants can and do eat a lot of the same things, thief ants tend to eat foods with a high protein content. This could be one reason they are often referred to as ‘grease ants’. Many times a do it yourself pest control person will bait these ants with Terro or other sweet baits and get very limited results. Baiting is the homeowners best option for indoor ants and as you can see picking the right bait is paramount. Spraying the ants will help alleviate your frustrations a bit but thief ants can ‘bud’ or split the colony just as pharaoh ants do when under stress or attack.

The two tell tale signs to look for

Rather than go through all the similarities of the two ants I’ll just give you the best ways to determine which one you have. Once you’ve determined which ant you have you can decide on a successful treatment plan. Just remember thief ants like proteins so purchase a bait with that in mind. Pharaoh ants love the sweets so Terro or other products of like kind will do just fine.

#1 Thief ants have a visible stinger


You’ll need a good magnifying glass to see it but the thief ant does have a visible stinger while the pharaoh ant does not. While you have the ant under glass you could also count the antenna segments and club ends but for me, I just leave that up to the guy’s with the phd titles and the pocket protectors.

#2 Thief ants curl up in a ball when they die

You won’t need a glass for this one and it’s almost always my first indicator. Now pharaoh and other ants curl a bit too from time to time but only a few. It’s not unusual to find a couple dozen or more thief ants dead in a corner ALL curled up in tiny little balls. I’m not sure why they do it but at my age when my glasses need glasses, I’m glad they do.

There are spray techniques that can aid in eliminating these ants but it’s a delicate balance that I’d leave up to the pros. A newer gel bait on the market for thief ants is called Optigard and works quite well and MaxForce makes bait stations with the protein rich food inside. For Pharaoh ants Terro is always a quick fix but I find Advion ant gel to be the most effective. If things get out of hand or your baiting just isn’t cutting it don’t rule out making the call to your local exterminator. Both of these ants can be extremely difficult and reoccurring problems. I’ve had many cases where they were so frustrating I wanted to just curl up in a corner and die. 😮

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. Pestcemetery.com 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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  • Rebecca

    Been using Terro. Hasn’t been working. Next resort was to call exterminator, but I’m going to try the Optigard and MaxForce brands you recommended… if I can find them sold locally. Thanks so much!!! I have been treating Pharoah ants, when I have, indeed, Thief ants! They are curling up and dying everywhere, especially by the traps. Frustrating but you might be my new hero. 😉

  • Rebecca

    Been using Terro. Hasn’t been working. Next resort was to call exterminator, but I’m going to try the Optigard and MaxForce brands you recommended… if I can find them sold locally. Thanks so much!!! I have been treating Pharoah ants, when I have, indeed, Thief ants! They are curling up and dying everywhere, especially by the traps. Frustrating but you might be my new hero. 😉

  • The Bug Doctor

    Thanks Rebecca,
    Let’s hope I become the hero in this story:) These ants have put enough egg on my face before. lol

    The Bug Doctor

  • The Bug Doctor

    Thanks Rebecca,
    Let’s hope I become the hero in this story:) These ants have put enough egg on my face before. lol

    The Bug Doctor

  • Marlana

    Been there done that as the saying goes.  I’m not kidding when I say those ant killer products you buy are nothing more than a rip off.  When I think of all the money I have spent with no results, I could have had a great vacation.  Maybe even gone to Martha’s vineyard.  Anyway, here’s the Winner..Make  a solution of half and half Dawn dishwater detergent and water.  Give those babies a good shot, even to the hole where they are hidding.  Don’t wipe it up just let it dry.  Next day do it again.  Keep doing it till they are gone.  Which doesn’t take long. Three or four days at the most.  Secret is not to wipe it up till there are no more.  A couple months check it out to see if you have any more thief ants by putting some raw egg yolk  down for overnite.  May have to do the same procedure again but this time the babies have hatched and hopefully these babies will have  no more babies.  Now you can pat yourself on the back for accomplishing your mission.  Didn’t cost you much either.  Go treat yourself for all the money you saved.         
    Learned by accident 🙂 Marlana

  • Quite the recipe Marlana-

    Thanks for sharing

  • Bugz

    I am disturbed at the misinformation here. Pharaoh Ants have a stinger … In fact, all ants with two “nodes” have stingers.

    The easier way to tell them apart is to look at the antennae under a microscope (or really good hand lens). A Pharaoh Ant has 12 segments to the antennae and a Thief Ant has 10.

  • Hey Bugz, Thank you so much for your insight. No reason to be disturbed. This article was written 4 years ago and as best I can figure, I simply neglected to put in one word. The rest is as I said “I leave up to you PHD types” .. (no disrespect–just quoting) Besides 10 and 12 hour days, and running a bustling company– I write articles well into the morning hours most of the time. Looks like missing that one word got me in trouble. 😉 I appreciate the heads up and thank you for visiting my site.

  • wanard.

    Bugs. I reread the article and he said visible stinger. I did not notice that he said no stinger but no visible stinger. Im going to get a very good magnifying glass and count the nodes. I will admit that it is tough to see them but I think I can find a glass strong enough to tell.

  • All good wanard… I want to be right and if someone can help in that regard, I’m happy to hear from them. Thanks so much for reading my blog.

  • Kathy P

    Hi… this is a great article! Especially you wanting to curl up in a corner sometimes! I have minuscule dark ants. I’ve been using Terro droplets and they do come and eat like crazy. However when I put it out vs a cat food kibble, that’s what they want. Just tried small ham pieces and much preferred! I’ve picked up the card with the ham and many ants and put it in a CLOSED! Plastic Baggie, good for viewing. There is no way with my two hand magnifying classes to count segments on the antennae but there two club parts on the end and the first part of the antenna is straight. Then there are bitsy segments, then the two club parts. They have two nodes but I can’t see a stinger. They do prefer meat right now though but will eat Terro drops. What good poison bait is meat based? And do they sometimes go back and forth, wanting meat then sugar?