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The mysterious above ground ant tunnels

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by The Bug Doctor

Do ants make tunnels like termites?

It’s a common question and even some exterminators too quick to respond will answer incorrectly. Ants DO make above ground tunnels in which they travel and I suppose it provides them some protection. Many termite jobs have been sold to unaware homeowners by misinformed pest control salesman and I’m sure a few by those who did know but took advantage. Ant tunnels are not as common as termite and with a quick look on the internet one might say they do indeed have termites and be all to willing to get a job done to save their home from damage. There are a few differences in the tunnels and in just a few minutes you’ll be able to tell which is which and hopefully save you from wasting money on a pest you may not have.

Let’s look at termite tunnels

Termites are blind and shun light so a tunnel not only keeps them in

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Large termite tunnel

preferred darkness but also prevents them from getting lost. Termite tunnels are made by worker termites placing tiny grains of sand or dirt to form a tunnel and securing the particles with their saliva and fecal matter. The mix creates a slurry and the tunnels can range from pencil thickness which allows two way traffic to a full blown super highway that can sometimes be 10 inches across. When dry the tunnels give them great protection from enemies such as
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Broken termite tunnel-with shadow

ants and should a break occur the damage is quickly repaired and any would be invader gets met by the termite soldier and his powerful pinchers. I’ve seen tunnels extend 30 feet or more up or along a wall and even free standing tunnels that go from the wood source straight to the ground with no support. When you scrape a termite tunnel off a wall you will see the outline left behind that is very difficult to remove. This is the dried slurry and more fecal matter which gets thicker as the tunnel ages and expands with construction. When the tunnel is really large the outline(sometimes referred to as etching or shadow) will be a much lighter color presumably from the heavy non stop traffic. Termites are industrious hard workers but seldom pass up a chance to construct these pathways in a seam like where two 2×4’s are side by side. The reason is that 2/3’s of the tunnel is pre built and they need only to seal off the joint between the boards. There is no surface that I know of that is immune to termite tunnels and I’ve seen them on porcelain bathtubs to tire treads.

Ant tunnels

Ant tunnels are usually not very elaborate and rarely go more than 6 to 8 inches high. Ants do not create any material to cement the

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Ant tunnel

passage so it is sort of like a Jenga stack and any direct disturbance may mean the whole thing collapses. I’m not sure why ants build these tunnels because they have fully functioning eyes and use pheromone trails to to get from point A to B. Perhaps it is some sort of disguise that they use so in that way it would protect them but these fragile structures easily fall apart with the slightest touch so that is about all I can figure. You will find these tunnels in seams at times usually in sheds or unfinished garages but generally I see them extending from the soil up to and under the homes siding or veneer. Since there is no sticky material the tunnels are usually only found on rough course surfaces such as bricks or cement foundations.

Do all ants make these tunnels?

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Broken ant tunnel-no shadow

The four types of ants I know of that have this behavior are the ghost ant, thief, pharaoh and fire ant. There may be more but even the subject of above ground ant tunnels is not found in any reference I checked. While the first 3 build the type of tunnel I’ve described fire ants only ‘technically’ may have a tunnel on your home. It is actually their mound and the cavities inside that may extend under the siding or inside the structure. Fire ants are famous for this at garage door jams or where siding or stucco is only a few inches from the ground. In fact fire ant mounds are built entirely using this Jenga method. Balancing millions of particles of sand they create elaborate mounds with tunnels and chambers that often get destroyed by a curious kid or passing lawnmower. Fire ant mounds do gain strength from rain when they dry but are still just a kick away from collapsing.

I wish I could tell you more about these mysterious tunnels that seem to have no real purpose but I just don’t know. Perhaps someone

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Undisturbed ant tunnel-almost exactly like termite tunnel

reading this blog will have the answer and share it with us. I do know that if you have a termite infestation you want to get rid of it effectively and as quick as possible. Termite work can run in the thousands of dollars while ant work rarely gets that high. Knowing the difference between an ant and termite tunnel could save you from a needless messy termite job and keep more money in your wallet. Now with all that money you saved there is no reason you can’t afford to sign up for the RSS feed on my site and your spouse will be so happy when they hear of where the money went, it’s a win win!


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  • Mel

    I did not know the other ants made tunnels. Up here its moisture ants or better known in other areas as cornfield ants which build the mud tubes resembling those of termites. Last year I treated an area of a garage for pavement ant activity. I noticed a tube, scraped it and pavement ants emerged. Talk about being confused. I cant remember if the tubes were made of dirt only or if they had fecal matter in it. Next time i’ll pay more attention.

  • Mel

    I did not know the other ants made tunnels. Up here its moisture ants or better known in other areas as cornfield ants which build the mud tubes resembling those of termites. Last year I treated an area of a garage for pavement ant activity. I noticed a tube, scraped it and pavement ants emerged. Talk about being confused. I cant remember if the tubes were made of dirt only or if they had fecal matter in it. Next time i’ll pay more attention.

  • The Bug Doctor

    Wow, I kind of thought this was a Florida thing because I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Get a pic if you run into it again, I’d love to see it.
    Thanks

    The Bug Doctor

  • The Bug Doctor

    Wow, I kind of thought this was a Florida thing because I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Get a pic if you run into it again, I’d love to see it.
    Thanks

    The Bug Doctor

  • Dave

    Has anyone seen these tubes out in an open field?  The reason I ask is that behind my house is an srea roughly 10 yds by 50 yds and these tube are everywhere. littererally you cant take a step without stepping on one or two.  the tubes appear to be built around avery stem of grass availabe.   sort of like building you basement around your garden instead of storing vegatables in you basement if that makes any sense

  • http://pestcemetery.com The Bug Doctor

    Hey Dave-
    never seen it personally but have seen at least similarly in training and documentary videos. Termites are known to come above ground and eat grass and or sticks and the like on the ground. They enclose it as they eat thus making mud tunnels above ground.. Could be something similar. (ps…the termites I saw doing this were in other countries like Australia or Africa)

    Hey–can you send a pic of this scene in your back yard? I would love to see it and even share it with my readers. You can upload one on the Ask The Bug Doctor tab.
    http://pestcemetery.com/bug-doctor/

    Thanks for sharing on my blog

  • DCB

    I did a search on ant tunnels because recently I saw two versions at two customer sites in a row.  The first was a loose tunnel from the ground to a weep hole.  The second was a “buttress,” a rectangular shape a few inches up the side of a small tree near a sprinkler head.  Keep in mind that Texas is about to set a new record for consecutive 100-degree days.  I am assuming fire ants (and yes, they are definitely ants, but very sluggish if fire ants), and I am assuming it has something to do with temperature/climate control.

  • DCB

    I did a search on ant tunnels because recently I saw two versions at two customer sites in a row.  The first was a loose tunnel from the ground to a weep hole.  The second was a “buttress,” a rectangular shape a few inches up the side of a small tree near a sprinkler head.  Keep in mind that Texas is about to set a new record for consecutive 100-degree days.  I am assuming fire ants (and yes, they are definitely ants, but very sluggish if fire ants), and I am assuming it has something to do with temperature/climate control.

  • http://pestcemetery.com The Bug Doctor

    Really good point – I hadn’t considered it to be a climate control issue. I know termites do the same. The ones I’ve seen here didn’t seem to be under duress, they just wanted to go from the soil up under the siding in shelter and peace. If you see any more send a pic–I’d be fascinated to see.

    Thanks for your comment and observations

  • Robertdbutler2

    Thank you for writing this article.  I found a 4-inch tube on my foundation, near a rain spout.  The tube connected the bottom of the siding to a classic dome-shaped mound built next to the foundation.  I was very worried about termites, but as I examined the mound, it became obvious that these were dark red fire ants.  This is the only article I have been able to find that confirmed my observations.

  • http://pestcemetery.com The Bug Doctor

    I’m glad it helped. Ants can be a bit easier on the worry meter than termites ;)

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