Carpenter Ant Encounters

During my 32 years in this industry there are several things that I have discovered to be incorrect and very dangerous to assume. One of them is this: Never go into an account with a preconceived idea.

Water is almost always associated with carpenter ants but the cause and effect are very different.

What follows are two carpenter ant infestation case studies that I have used in my training programs for years. Both case studies involve the common black carpenter ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus, and both were in single-family residences. The only glitches were as follows:

  1. Both of these case studies were in the middle of the winter;
  2. Both were extremely misleading in terms of where the ants were presenting themselves; and
  3. Both of these cases also helped our customers settle legal damage claims due to improper construction methods.

Case Study #1. A customer in an affluent neighborhood called our office about our carpenter ant program, as well as our general pest control programs. It seems that one of our competitors had failed to solve a carpenter ant problem despite treating for more than a year. The time of year was late February.

The lady of the house wanted a supervisor out on the initial service to explain what had been done previously by the other pest management company. One of our service supervisors accompanied our service technician out to the initial service. We were told that the main sightings of the ants were in the upstairs master bathroom and bedroom suite and around the back entrance of the house where the washer and dryer was located. Attics were treated, and a thorough inspection of both the interior and exterior was performed. Since the cooler weather kept outdoor activity to almost nothing, the treatment was concentrated on the indoors where the ants were being seen. Water damage was not noted as present in any areas of the house. While treating the washer-dryer room, the wall between this area and the kitchen was drilled and a medium-sized satellite colony was discovered and treated. The master bath and bedroom were treated with no insects found or noted during this initial service. It is worth noting that the ceilings were vaulted up to 15 feet in height with skylights in the bath and bedroom. The master bedroom also had a wood-burning fireplace.

During the next several months all activity in the washer-dryer area ceased, but the activity in the master bath was still ongoing. Our supervisor took ownership of this account personally, using a variety of treatment techniques and various pesticide formulations, and drilling wall voids and treating cracks and crevices. It is important to note that at this time carpenter ant baits had not yet been developed. Ant activity at this time would decline for a couple of weeks and then return, and the customer wanted more help from the office.

Upon showing up later in April, one of the first things that we did was to walk across the street and look at the house as part of the “whole picture.” This is very important for everyone — not just technicians — but supervisors, managers, and sales and inspectors to note. My grandfather always repeated the well-known phrase that “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again.” However, Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Going across the street in any inspection always lets you see the structure in a different light. A couple of things that were observed led us in a different direction. Since the weather was cooperating with warmer temps, a complete inspection with ladders was scheduled for the following week. We noticed a large (60 feet tall) white pine tree approximately 20 feet away, with branches touching several areas of the roof, gutter line and siding. This alone provided a lot of information but did not explain all the activity during the cooler months.

During our outdoor inspection, no activity in and/or on the tree turned up anything — no frass, no live ants, nothing. When performing an inspection I try to establish a pattern that I follow all the time. My standard operating procedure is to start on the right front corner of any structure and proceed in a counterclockwise direction; when finished I reverse it and do the complete inspection the other way around. A couple of issues led us in the direction we needed:

  1. Cobwebs under the gutter line near the chimney had carpenter ants captured in them.
  2. Dime-sized black mold spots on the soffit surface in the same area were observed.

While up on the ladder I used my screwdriver to probe the mold spots and found that with very little pressure applied I was able to penetrate right through the wood soffit into the void. Remember the ceilings were vaulted in this part of the house on the interior, so there was no access to the area over the ceiling. When we injected the holes that were drilled into the soffit areas, what appeared to be thousands of ants poured forth from every crack and crevice. Some were carrying eggs and pupae in their effort to escape. Problem solved right? Not yet. When interviewing the customer about the soffit area she told us that just prior to the winter months they had had the exterior of the house painted and repaired. This cost the owners more than $7,000. Going back into the master bath and inspecting the wall where the ant colony was discovered on the outside, we noticed upon very close inspection, “nail pops” in the dry wall within 6 to 8 inches of the slanted ceiling. Nail pops are what carpenters refer to as the shape of the nail head seen through the dry wall mud due to poor carpentry. Sometimes this just means the nail was not hammered in properly, but in this case it showed us that water was actually forcing the nails back out of the wooden studs.

A further inspection showed that the tin flashing installed on the back side of the chimney was rusted through so that water, cascading down the roof, hitting the back side of the chimney, was pooling and leaking down into the ceiling void area.

The customer confronted the housepainters and asked if there was noted rotten wood in this area. After a threat of legal action they reported that “yes” they noted both the rotted wood and ant activity during the painting project. They ignored the wood issues and just painted over the rotten wood hoping no one would notice and didn’t think twice about the ants. The painters gave back the money and repaired the damages they ignored.

Conclusion. Never underestimate the effect of water on a structure and always be ready to go the extra mile for customers.

Case Study #2. This particular case study wound up in court and while we were not required to testify, our records were subpoenaed to help settle a lawsuit.

Once again the common black carpenter ant presented itself in a part of the house that was not directly connected to the area of the infestation.

A customer called us to control “large black ants” in an addition that was built onto to an upscale suburban house in the Midwest. The time of year was February. Many mature trees were on the property with several of them overhanging and touching the addition as well as other areas of the house. During our initial inspection we found that not only were the ants being seen in the add-on, they were also present in another addition that was added onto the addition. Get the point? Construction seams presented many opportunities for ants and water to invade. This addition had a roof that was slightly angled with a skylight present. Piece of cake, right?

The customer agreed to our pest management plant and our service technician was dispatched to perform the initial service. Due to the fact that the ants were seen in specific areas of the house and these areas were associated with typical carpenter ant scenarios such as add-ons and skylights, it was assumed that this would be the proverbial “piece of cake.”

The initial service included drilling of the ceiling void around the skylight and 18 inches on center to get between the studs of the whole ceiling and adjoining walls. Dusts and pyrethrins were used and nothing showed — not one ant was flushed out of this area.

Further treatments of the rest of the house with various pesticides were applied with no results. (It is important to note that at this time carpenter ant baits had not yet been developed).

As a matter of course, all attic areas were treated with a dust formulation of boric acid using a power duster for general pest control needs.

For a few weeks the ant activity subsided and many dead ants were seen in the add-on and the porch. Soon after, however, live ants were seen throughout these areas and in some new areas, as well as the main part of the house. Patterns were always seen around the moisture areas of the house, such as kitchens and baths.

During the second month, with the activity just as high as before the initial service, it was decided to get a new set of eyes on the situation. While it is not unusual to see carpenter ant activity during the cooler months it is a little bit odd to see several hundreds of dead and live ants active in February and March.

Another inspection was scheduled and, as I stated in Case Study #1, a look at the house from across the street was included. While looking at the structure it was noted that not only was the peak of the house “sagging” but also the shingles were “cupping.” Both of these issues were not seen at the time of the inspection and initial service due to a snowfall that had covered the roof.

“Sagging” — the peak of the house towards the middle of the line — and “cupping” — what happens when the shingles actually curl up at the edge forming a cupped look — usually indicate an aged roof. When asked about the age of the roof the customer replied that the roof was only 18 months old. Not only had the shingles been replaced, but extensive replacement of the roof lumber was also performed, and a new layer of insulation had been installed.

The next step was to actually get up into the attic. The second floor was on the same level as the roof of the add-on and its attic area was another story above. At first, even with a good flashlight the attic looked good when viewing it from the attic access. However, it was decided that getting up into the attic would prove beneficial. Eventually we did get up there and discovered that one whole section of the roof was black with mold and fungus and was absolutely wet to the touch. No leaks down through to the second floor ceiling had been noted due to the new layer of insulation. The insulation was quite wet in several areas.

The customer’s insurance agency was contacted and a further inspection of the roof and the attic by a different roofing company was performed. What was found was quite disturbing to the customer. Two different issues were discovered.

  1. The plywood sheathing was stopped about 15 inches short of the gutter line and only the shingles were covering the roof joists. This was not preventing water from entering the attic at the drip line.
  2. NO tar paper was used on the entire front side of the house. Only the plywood and shingles were installed as the roof.

As many of you know putting on a whole roof is a costly function of owning a house. On one of my own houses, a roof replacement cost me approximately $10,000, and the house in this case study was larger and more expansive than mine.

Again, a lawsuit was filed and our records were subpoenaed into the case. Final settlements included a new roof, new attic timbers, new insulation and repair of all water and mold damage, as well as our costs.

I was not given the final dollar amount of the settlement but I can only imagine what the roofer paid for such poor craftsmanship.

Conclusion. This was a true case of the “canary in the coal mine” as the ants were just the indicator of a much larger problem. A real lesson to be learned.

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