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Pharoah ants
Image: Time Out / Jamie Inglis

Never mind the bedbugs: London is being taken over by unkillable ants

Pharaoh ants are invading buildings across the capital – and they’re really, really hard to get rid of

Written by
Lucy Kehoe

Forget the bedbugs panic: London has a bigger pest problem. The creepy crawlies you didn’t know you already had in your flat? Pharaoh ants.

Tiny, brown and almost invisible to the naked eye (until you encounter a column of them snaking across your kitchen en route to that sandwich you left out), these anxiety inducing pests are invading London homes this winter as they head indoors to escape the cold weather.

Slurping up food, swarming bins and being as at-home in kitchens as they are in bathrooms and bedrooms, these invasive critters are taking over flats, council estates and hospitals across the city. Unlike bed bugs, they’re not prone to nibbling flesh, but the ants’ uncanny ability to infiltrate small spaces – including food packaging – means they can cross-contaminate your dinner with bacteria like salmonella and strep A. Mostly, though, they’re just annoying and gross. And they do sometimes bite people, according to the Mirror. 

New housemates

I first became aware of this impending ant-mageddon in June, when I spotted a lone ant explorer adventuring across my kitchen wall, antenna set for the peanut butter jar. Giving the kitchen an extra clean and moving any food sources to a high-up cupboard (forgetting I already lived on the fourth floor), the ant seemed harmless. I hoped it would disappear. But two days later, a small army were crawling across the counter – they’d found the new, undisclosed location of the PB.

These days, I’m keeping all of my food in the sealed solitude of my fridge to stop my pesky new housemates feasting. I’ve found them wandering through my kitchen, bathroom and even bedroom. Weirdly, they love hanging out on the top shelf of my bookcase. I’m not alone, though. Broach the topic of the ant invasion at the pub and you’ll be confronted with all sorts of horror stories. I’ve heard yarns of people finding ants all over morning crumpets and drowning in honey jars and tales of vain attempts to evict unwanted, six-legged housemates from a nest made in a toaster.

When I work from home, I open my laptop and see them crawling out from under the keys

Kate Plummer, 28, discovered she had a pharaoh ant infestation in her rented flat in Southwark after moving in last summer. ‘I left a bag of hot dog rolls unsealed in a cupboard in the kitchen and, in the morning, I reached up for one and began eating it absentmindedly,’ she says. ‘When I looked down, it was crawling with ants. I dropped the roll into the sink, and ran to the bathroom where I tried to be sick.’

Since then, Kate has started sealing all her food in airtight containers and kept to a rigorous cleaning rota, but the ants haven’t left. She’s found them feasting on her shower gel and toothpaste – they’ll typically eat anything, especially if it’s got sugar in it – and even hanging out on her toothbrush. ‘Sometimes, when I work from home, I open my laptop and see them crawling out from under the keys,’ she says. ‘I’ve never felt so ill.’

Proper pests 

But it turns out that pharaoh ants aren’t new to the capital. Tony King, owner of Chingford-based pest control company The Pied Piper, says he’s been treating infestations of the critters across London for around 35 years. ‘Originally, they were just in hospitals,’ Tony says. ‘Then we started getting them on council estates, where communal heating ran through the whole of the building’.

The British Pest Control Association (BPCA) tell me that they’ve not had reports of increased infestations – but Tony thinks social media has ‘upped the panic’ on the ants. With bedbugs making headlines, Londoners are on red alert for other pests in their homes, and they’ve started noticing the previously under-the-radar ant invaders. Once you see them, you can’t stop seeing them. ‘They don’t carry the stigmas that bedbugs do, so there isn’t such a panic, [but] they are definitely on the increase,’ he says.

Photograph: Nigel Cattlin / Alamy

Thanks to their tiny size of around 2mm long, pharaoh ants have an uncanny ability to get into things they shouldn’t. In hospitals, they’ve been found to squeeze inside sterile packaging. In homes, they’ll manage to navigate Tupperware seals and screwed-on lids while hunting for their favourite foods: anything protein-rich and sweet. 

According to the BPCA, the ants prefer to make their nests in cosy spots of between 18 degrees and 30 degrees in temperature, like gaps behind ovens and internal walls filled with heating pipes. The internal workings of laptops make perfect homes for them. Last year, the Wandsworth Times even reported on an ants’ nest found inside an intercom buzzer; it was so big, it pushed the buzzer off the wall. Their love of warmth means they have a particular preference when it comes to London housing, too: new builds.

Recently erected blocks of flats tend to be well insulated – and therefore warm – so they provide the perfect breeding ground for pharaoh ants, according to King. ‘A new build is ideal for the ants because there’s loads and loads of gaps and holes for pipe work and utility cables,’ he says. ‘So, it’s very easy for them to get up in there.’ 

Treating your ants 

None of this is really sounding nice, but we’re not onto the worst part just yet. What would that be? ‘Pharaoh ants are very, very difficult to treat,’ says King. Experts at survival, pharaoh ants will release pheromones to warn other ants of imminent danger if they’re squished or sprayed. Kill a line of them swarming up towards your biscuit tin using an off-the-shelf insecticide spray and you’ll only be encouraging the queen ant to up-sticks and escape, leading a fresh colony of ants to a new home somewhere else in your flat. The splitting of the colony, known as ‘budding’, also happens when the colony gets too large: a queen ant will lead a group of worker ants away from the main nest to a new location, thereby reducing the number of ants reliant on the original nest location – for example, your food cupboard – for survival. Most nests contain several queens, according to the BPCA.

That nifty survival trick is why pharaoh ant infestations are so hard to eradicate. Likewise, their preference for warm pipes means they often have access to entire blocks of flats, making it easy for colonies to expand into other parts of the building. Without treating an infestation across a block of flats in cooperation with building management, a single treatment in one property is unlikely to keep the ants at bay for long. ‘They are a highly sophisticated insect that can adapt and survive almost all conditions,’ King says. The solution? ‘You need to contain the whole infestation.’

In other words: I can’t wait to email the 50-odd landlords who own the flats in my block asking them to come together and collaborate in crushing the ongoing ant invasion. According to the BPCA, any treatment should use a food-based insecticide that sterilises the queen ants, preventing them from producing viable eggs. Unfortunately, only pest control professionals can buy this kind of bait, so if you have an infestation, the best bet is to call the experts in. ‘Treatment can take anywhere from three to six months,’ says John Horsley, a technical support officer at the BPCA. 

Nests can grow to a size of up to 50,000 ants, with only 5 to 10% of them involved in heading out to seek food in your flat

That’s not all, though. Building-wide treatments must be repeated three or more times to be successful. Even then, there’s no guarantee that you’ll never see another pharaoh ant. Research by the BPCA has found that nests can grow to a size of up to 50,000 worker ants, with only five to ten percent of them involved in heading out of the nests to seek food in your flat. Good luck getting rid of them all: visible ant numbers might deplete for a while, but if your home offers ideal pharaoh ant territory, they’ll likely be back before you know it.

That’s what happened to Kate when her landlord organised a pest control visit: despite repeat pesticide applications, the ants just kept coming back. ‘It’s revolting,’ she says. ‘I’ve always wanted a pet growing up, but not like this’.

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