Do Carpenter Ants Fly? Uncovering the Truth About Their Wings

Carpenter ants are often mistaken for termites due to their similar appearance and wood-damaging behavior.

However, unlike termites, carpenter ants do not actually eat wood; instead, they excavate it to build their nests.

Knowing whether carpenter ants can fly is essential in identifying and managing them in case of an infestation.

Do Carpenter Ants Fly
Carpenter Ant Alate

Yes, certain carpenter ants can fly. In fact, flying reproductives or swarmers, which include males and females, have wings and take part in a nuptial flight during mating season, usually in late spring and early summer.

After mating, the surviving queens shed their wings to search for a new nest site. This information helps homeowners and professionals identify and address carpenter ant problems in a timely manner.

Understanding Carpenter Ants

Biology and Identification

Carpenter ants are large dark insects that can sometimes become a problem in homes and structures.

These ants are known to create nests in damp or moisture-compromised wood, causing notable damage by tunneling through the wood to build their nests1.

Key Features:

  • Bent antennae
  • Large size
  • Dark color

Carpenter ants do not actually eat wood but rather chew through it and discard the sawdust-like material called frass2.

Carpenter Ants vs. Termites

Carpenter ants and termites can both cause damage to wood, but their behaviors and appearance differ significantly.

Comparison Table

Feature Carpenter Ants Termites
Antennae Straight, slightly bent Beaded and bent
Body Segments 3 distinct body regions 2 distinct body regions
Wings Two sets of different lengths Two sets of equal length
Eating habits Do not eat wood Eat and digest wood

Apart from this, alates of carpenter ants have two pairs of wings, with the front pair being longer than the hind pair.

This is a distinguishing feature from termite alates, which have two pairs of equal-length wings.

Color and Size

Carpenter ants can have black, tan, brown or reddish bodies and vary in size, depending on the species3.

Size range:

  • Worker ants: up to 12 mm (0.5 in)
  • Queen ants: up to 20 mm (~1 in)

Their size and distinctive characteristics make them easy to distinguish compared to other ants and insects3.

Carpenter Ant Lifecycle

Carpenter ants, belonging to the genus Camponotus, exhibit a fascinating lifecycle that is crucial for the survival and propagation of their colonies.

  1. Egg: The lifecycle begins with the queen laying eggs, which are small, oval, and sticky, allowing them to clump together.
  2. Larva: The eggs hatch into larvae, which are legless and grub-like. Worker ants tend to the larvae, feeding them until they pupate.
  3. Pupa: During the pupal stage, ants undergo metamorphosis. Enclosed in a cocoon-like structure, they transform into their adult forms.
  4. Adult: Upon emerging, adults can be either worker ants, male ants, or queens, depending on their roles in the colony.

Do Carpenter Ants Fly?

Alates: The Winged Reproductives

Formation: Alates develop from larger larvae within the colony, receiving special nourishment to form winged reproductive ants.

Appearance: Alates possess two pairs of wings, with the front pair being longer than the hind pair. They are typically larger than worker ants and exhibit a darker coloration.

Nuptial Flight: Alates participate in a nuptial flight, usually in late spring or early summer, depending on the region and weather conditions. This flight is essential for mating and the formation of new colonies.

Carpenter Ant Alate

Mating: During the nuptial flight, male and female alates mate mid-air. After mating, males die, having fulfilled their sole purpose of reproduction.

Colony Foundation: Post-mating, the female alates, now queens, shed their wings and search for suitable nesting sites, often in damp or decaying wood. Once a site is found, the queen lays eggs, marking the beginning of a new colony.

Importance of Alates

Colony Propagation: Alates are vital for the propagation of carpenter ant species. They ensure genetic diversity and the formation of new colonies, contributing to the survival of the species.

Ecosystem Balance: By forming new colonies, carpenter ants play a significant role in maintaining ecological balance, aiding in the decomposition of wood and controlling pest populations.

Identifying Winged Carpenter Ants

Distinct Features: Winged carpenter ants can be identified by their elbowed antennae, pinched waist, and the presence of two nodes in the petiole (the constricted area between the thorax and abdomen).

Sound Production: These ants produce a distinctive rustling sound, especially when tunneling through wood, aiding in their identification.

Distinguishing Carpenter Ants From Other Ant Species

Identifying Winged Carpenter Ants

Winged carpenter ants, specifically belonging to the Camponotus genus, are commonly found in forests and can cause pest problems in homes by building nests in wooden structures.

Here are some key features that help identify winged carpenter ants:

  • Elbowed antennae
  • A pinched waist
  • Two nodes in the petiole (constricted area between the thorax and abdomen)

Winged carpenter ants produce a rustling sound (while eating through the wood), which can be helpful in identifying them.

These ants usually appear during the late spring and early summer months.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this article sheds light on the intriguing aspects of carpenter ants, particularly focusing on their ability to fly and the significance of winged alates.

We’ve explored their nesting habits, the damages they can inflict, and the vital differences between them and other ants and termites.

Understanding the lifecycle of carpenter ants, especially the role of alates, is crucial for the effective identification and management of infestations, ensuring the preservation of our homes and wooden structures.

Footnotes

  1. https://extension.psu.edu/carpenter-ants
  2. https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/carpenter-ants-trees
  3. https://www.nps.gov/articles/carpenter-ant.htm 2

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about carpenter ants. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Florida Carpenter Ant Alates

Huge Ants Taking Over My House
Location:  South Florida
August 5, 2010 11:28 am
To What’s That Bug?,
I live in South Florida, and for the past few days, my house has been home for some humongous ants. At first, it was just the usual ”ewe…look at this huge bug!” (squishes ant with flipflop). But now, I see about 5 or 6 of these monstrous ants daily, especially in the early morning and night.

These bugs look like very large queen ants, measuring from 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch long. They have reddish black heads and torsos, but the abdomen is dark black and quite large.

All of these bugs that I’ve encountered have cellophane-like wings and big ”pinchers”. I want to get to the bottom of these pests, so I don’t have to worry about them crawling over me when I sleep. HELP!!!
Jackie

Florida Carpenter Ant Alate

Hi Jackie,
It appears as though you have Florida Carpenter Ant alates, the winged reproductive form that swarms and begins a new colony. 

There may be a Florida Carpenter Ant colony somewhere in your home, and the presence of the alates over the past few days will eventually cease until the next swarming season.  You can find out more about the Florida Carpenter Ants, Camponotus floridanus, on BugGuide.

Letter 2 – Winged Carpenter Ants we believe

Large ants, but what kind??
Location: Miami FL
December 20, 2010 11:54 am
Hi,
We have had a few 10mmish ants running around our Miami Florida home lately. They are fairly distinctive because they are mostly light brown with stripes on their their abdomen.
BUT last night there were tonnes of them, along with the larger and slightly darker winged-form too. These ones are about 13mm long. My picture is poor, but they look very similar in head shape to the kinds of ants I grew up watching in Ontario, Canada.

Roundish head, thin thorax, striped abdomen. Antenna are about 7-8 mm long total, and without a scope it looks like 2 segments one of 4 or 5 and the other 3mm. I would love to learn roughly what kind of ant this is, if possible.
Signature: Much thanks, sue gallo

Carpenter Ants: Winged Alates

Dear Sue,
Because of their large size, we believe these are Carpenter Ants in the genus
Camponotus.  They are winged reproductive alates.  You can read more about Carpenter Ants on BugGuide.  Perhaps one of our readers will be able to provide a species identification.

Letter 3 – Flying Carpenter Ant

Insect on high rise window
Location: Chicago, IL
May 4, 2012 3:57 pm
This insect was on my window 20 floors up in downtown chicago. The picture was taken in early May. Some sort of wasp I presume…
Signature: Chicago window

Flying Carpenter Ant

Dear Chicago window,
Since Ants are closely related to wasps, your identification is not too far afield.  This is a flying Eastern Carpenter Ant,
Camponotus pennsylvanicus, and you can compare your photo to this image on BugGuide

Flying Ants are the reproductive members of the colony and they are known as alates.  They swarm when conditions are right and after mating, a fertile queen will begin a new colony. 

Letter 4 – Eastern Black Carpenter Ant

Subject: Large Ant
Location: Stow, Ohio
June 9, 2017 11:10 am
Found this guy snooping around the house today. 6/917
Signature: Cooper

Eastern Black Carpenter Ant

Dear Cooper,
This is an Eastern Black Carpenter Ant,
Camponotus pennsylvanicus.  According to BugGuide, the habitat is “Broadleaf and mixed forests (both floodplain and upland), woodlands, tree-studded parks, cemeteries, and lawns.

The nest is in dead, usually already rotten wood. Occasionally nest in wooden buildings, typically where wet or dry rot has softened the wood. Probably increasing in numbers and distribution in the West due to extensive tree planting in the Plains.”

Letter 5 – Flying Carpenter Ant: Swarming in Home

Bug infestation in living room
February 3, 2010
These bugs have started showing up about 2-3 weeks ago maybe 10-20 a day. Recently there have been 100 a day maybe. At the start they all seemed to die within the same day of showing up (by themselves no pesticide used) and have never reached any other rooms.

But now they have gotten to the front door entry way and into the basement. I sweep them all up everyday but they never seem to stop multiplying.
The bug look like flying ants but I have never seen one fly even though they have wings. They are maybe 1 cm long not very big at all.

I think they are coming out of the baseboards against a wall against the dinner room area, which is a split leveled wall (so only about 3 feet high). I have never seen these in my house before after living here for 5-6 years.
Dave Brown
Southern Ontario, Canada

Flying Carpenter Ant

Hi Dave,
We agree that this appears to be a flying ant, more specifically, a Carpenter Ant.  We suspect you have a colony in the baseboards.  The colony does not produce reproductive flying kings and queens until it has matured, and we suspect that after six years in the home with your growing colony, it has matured to the point that the colony has finally produced a reproductive swarm.  Compare your image to the higher resolution images posted to BugGuide.

Letter 6 – Mutilated Carpenter Ant, we believe

Texas woods insect
Location: River Legacy Park, between Dallas and Fort Worth, TX
January 14, 2011 11:42 pm
I found this insect clinging to a tree as I wondered through a wooded park in Arlington Texas. It’s a fairly moist area, with elms, oaks, willows, pines, and cottonwoods, and an assortment of low growing brush and vines.
Unfortunately this guy looked like he’d been dead a while and has possibly been decapitated.

The body is almost beetle like, but the long protrusions/legs on the back end have me stumped. If that is the back end.
The body was around .75” long, with legs 1.5”. Wish now I’d collected it. 😛
Thanks! Hope to hear from you guys.
Mandy
Signature: The Little Katydid That Could

Mutilated Carpenter Ant we believe

Hi Mandy,
We are in agreement with you that this image does not represent a complete insect, but we disagree with you that it has been decapitated.  At first we were confused, as were you, regarding the front of the creature, but we now believe that this is a mutilated Carpenter Ant with a missing abdomen. 

In most insects, the abdomen contains the most nutritional value, and predators will often feed on the abdomen of the prey leaving behind the harder head, thorax and extremities.  Think of eating a lobster. 

It is all about the tail.  We are linking to an image of a Carpenter Ant on BugGuide that you may use as a comparison.  What you have mistaken for legs on the back end would seem to be the antennae on the head.

OH! Now that you say that I can see it. 🙂 Good grief, that sucker was huge. Thanks, Daniel!

Letter 7 – Probably Carpenter Ant

Dear Mr Bugman,
Thanks for helping me identify a few Bugs. I am quite impressed with your collection of photographs. You have helped me acquire quite a bit of knowledge, Thank you! Hopefully you may be able to use these Ant Photo’s I’ve included. Maybe they will help someone else along the way.

These ants were almost a half inch long, in southwestern Colorado, close to Ridgway. Elevation about 8200 ft. Late August. Carpenter Ants? I’m also glad that I’m not alone in the bug lovin’ world. Afterall they don’t eat much. Some think I’m nuts, as I’ve reared a few spiders .

Orb Weavers and Widows. Rather fascinating and contrasting web construction. Both very strong silk. I would love to help you add to your collection of photos. If your so inclined. Thanks again!
All the Best with Kindest regards,
Brad Stolte
Spring Valley, Ca

Hi Brad,
Thanks for the nice letter. We are proud of our photo collection, but have to give all the credit to our readership. Now, regarding your ant identification. First the discaimer: We find it very difficult to possitively identify ants.

That said, we believe we found a match by turning to BugGuide. This could be the genus Camponotus. We will post and drop Eric Eaton a line to get a confirmation.

Letter 8 – Western Black Carpenter Ant with Spider

Subject:  Big ant with provision for winter
Geographic location of the bug:  Tonasket WA
Date: 09/04/2018
Time: 10:56 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Amazing how much ants can carry. And I suspect this was light for it! Do ants paralyze their quarry, or would this one be dead?  I feel bad about the spider, but grateful the ants get to eat.
How you want your letter signed:  Cathy

Western Black Carpenter Ant with Spider

Dear Cathy,
Based on this BugGuide image, we are pretty certain your ant is a Western Black Carpenter Ant, and according to BugGuide: “Omnivorous – eat honeydew, sap, living and dead insects, etc.

Do not eat wood, only nest in it, and usually only after fungi have softened it.”  That said, the curl to the Spider’s legs indicates it was probably dead before the Western Black Carpenter Ant discovered it.

Letter 9 – What’s That Ant??? Possibly a Carpenter Ant

Subject: Ant?
Location: Pasadena CA
April 6, 2014 10:07 pm
Hello, About a few hours ago I found what looks like an ant in my kitchen. I am writing to you because this possible ant is the biggest one I have ever seen around these parts. Normally We see the tiny black ants & out in lots we see red ants, but like I said, this one is much larger than any I have seen before.

It is about half an inch long, and about a quarter of an inch tall. It is a dark brown, almost black ant with Honey (lighter) colored legs. It has a light rectangle patch on its back (Thorax?). Elbowed antennae. At first I thought maybe termite? but from searching online it did not look like one.

As far as location, this insect was found in Pasadena CA in an apartment. Weather is spring (though warm enough to feel like summer). We have only seen the one so far & I have it contained in a specimen box. Please let me know if you need anything else & thanks!
Signature: Jeeb

Ant
Ant

Hi Jeeb,
We don’t recognize your Ant, and since it was found indoors in the spring, we would not eliminate the possibility that this is a queen ant attempting to establish a new colony after loosing her wings subsequent to her nuptial flight. 

Because of its large size, we suspect this might be a Carpenter Ant in the genus Camponotus and you can see some examples on BugGuide.  We hope someone with more knowledge on Ants can provide a definitive identification.

Possibly Carpenter Ant
Possibly Carpenter Ant

Letter 10 – Winged Carpenter Ant

Stung in my Bed!
August 8, 2009
I was crawling into the bed for the night, and something sharp poked me like a needle jabbed into my foot. I lifted up my sheets and a black flying thing hovered over my head. It was kinda like a carpenter ant that flys and stings, but I didnt get a close enough look. What was it?
Please help so I can see what treatment I need to put on it! Thank you!!
Plymouth Minnesota

Winged Carpenter Ant
Winged Carpenter Ant

Dear Please help …,
We agree that this is a Winged Carpenter Ant, probably the Black Carpenter Ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus which is pictured on BugGuide.  This is one of the reproductive adults after a nuptial flight that is in search of a new colony.  We do not dispense medical advice.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts

3 thoughts on “Do Carpenter Ants Fly? Uncovering the Truth About Their Wings”

  1. Our home get these little flying ants inside the house in the lower portion of our house every year. What are they and how do I stop the infestation. They crawl all over the floor and window.

    Reply
  2. I have had a recent experience as well as my neighbor with these ants attacking both her and my daughter. The bites are extremely itchy and leave large red marks. My neighbors attack occured the beginning of 07/2017 and my daughter was 08/2017 and we are located in glendale, arizona. Any more information would be great and sorry I do not have a picture just a discription from my neighbor. A large black ant with a red stripe down its back unlike any we have seen before.

    Reply

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