All carpenter ants belong to the genus called Camponotus. However, not all species of Camponotus are considered to be "carpenter" ants, for there are many species that do not excavate wood for their colonies. Some simply nest in the soil, under fallen logs, or under debris piles on the ground.
The first character you need to look at, in identifying ants, is the thin "waist" between the thorax and the abdomen. This short area is called the "petiole", and it actually is part of the abdomen. All ants have either a single raised area on the petiole (a "node") or they have two nodes there. Thus, there are Single Node ants and Double Node ants, and you often hear them also called "one-bump" or "two-bump" ants. Carpenter ants are single-node ants, and that node is quite large and visible from the side, so with just a little magnification with the magnifier that you carry in your pocket you will see this important character. By noting the single node you also are relieved to realize that this is not a stinging ant, as most of the double node ants are.
At this point it is prudent to point out that while carpenter ants, and all other single-node ants in the U.S. Are NOT equipped with stingers, they often have developed a means for causing us pain. Many of these larger ants have large jaws, and they can bite. This is the case with the Field ants as well as Carpenter ants, and once they have bitten and caused a little nick in the skin they then spray some formic acid from their abdomen, and this acid causes a stinging sensation. The family name of all the ants is Formicidae, so with a lot of formic acid in their system you can see that this name is appropriate.
A second important identifying character for carpenter ants is the profile of the thorax. If you inspect it from the side (again with your magnifier) you can see that from the front of the thorax to the back of the thorax the top outline is a nice, even, rounded line. There are no dips or bumps or spines on it, as you would see with other groups of ants that might be similar - just a nice rounded profile that sort of drops off suddenly at the very back. One group of ants that is similar, large, and commonly mistaken for carpenter ants is the Field Ants, or Thatch Ants, in the genus Formica. However, these have a distinct valley in the top of the thorax that distinguishes them from Camponotus, and they are not wood nesting ants.
Two more characters of Camponotus that will tell you for certain that these are what you have are the small fringe of hairs surrounding the anal opening and the twelve-segmented antennae that do not end with an enlarged club. To see these two characters you definitely will need good magnification, and a hand magnifier of around 20X power would be very useful. Another hint in proper identification is that you need to be looking at the larger workers to see the characters properly. The queen will not conform to these I.D. Characters, and the males absolutely look very different, so spending a lot of time studying them will be pretty useless.
You now know how to identify an ant as a carpenter ant, and this is a huge step. According to a survey taken in 1995 almost half of the ant problems treated by pest control technicians across the U.S. turned out to be carpenter ants. And if you find yourself having carpenter ants, it is best handled by a professional.
Carpenter Ant Identification in Mesa, AZ
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