Nest of New York carpenter ants, Camponotus novaeboracensis. Credit: Elizabeth J. Farnsworth.
Like many other ants, carpenter ants are omnivorous. They range widely, foraging for food, primarily at night, hundreds of yards from their nest. When the colony gets too big for their original tree house, they form satellite colonies in other rotting trees — and sometimes houses — nearby. The satellite colonies remain connected to the natal nest where the queen remains; workers move food and larvae to and from the satellites.
Carpenter ants signal their presence as the sawdust they remove from inside the tree builds up at its base. When the dying tree finally falls, the decaying bole, with the help of soil nesting ants, returns its nutrients to the soil, bringing the cycle back to the beginning. Many logs also nurse a new cohort of seedlings, which will in turn support a new generation of ants and their allies.
So before putting ant baits around the woodpile, remember that these little creatures, which in aggregate far outweigh all of Earth’s vertebrates — including people — really do keep the world turning.
Aaron M. Ellison is the senior research fellow in Ecology at Harvard University’s Harvard Forest, and lead author of A Field Guide to the Ants of New England (Yale University Press, 2012). Learn more about ants and contribute your own observations and insights at www.NEants.net.