What’s the one houseguest that no one wants, but everyone gets? The good news is that ants are generally considered a “nuisance pest,” meaning that they’re more of an annoyance than anything. However, some species of ants can cause a whole host of problems on their own.
Luckily, there are some defenses out there for these tiny intruders, and you likely have some good deterrents in your cabinets right now! Ants generally don’t like vinegar, citrus smells, or spices, and are also turned off by pepper and baby powder. Even the delicious smell of a morning brew will send ants running in the other direction.
So today, we’re going to tell you exactly what smells ants can’t stand, and how to use them.
Why Are Ants a Problem?
Ants are tiny. Easy to not notice, easy to forget, easy to ignore. Until you open your cookie jar and find it swarming with them. Or see that tiny black line of little legs making its way along your baseboards.
Little ants seem harmless enough, but just because they’re small, does not necessarily mean they are harmless. Some ants just stink, literally. Others cause wood damage just like termites. Others will actually bite the dickens out of an unsuspecting toe.
Fortunately, the ants in the US aren’t too scary, unless you happen to step into a fire ant hill. Most of the ants we deal with are “nuisance pests.” Others can cause actual damage to your home, or even contaminate food. Those are the kinds of ants we are going to investigate today.
So, without further introduction, here are some of the issues you can expect to see caused by these tiny intruders.
Stinkin’ Odorous Ants
Odorous ants don’t actually do much of anything. They are just…odorous.
Their smell is described by most who encounter them as being like a rotten coconut smell. They do not spread disease, they do not sting or bite. They just stink.
So if you accidentally step on a tiny ant and smell rotten coconut, then you are probably dealing with odorous ants. If your house smells like rotten coconut for no apparent reason, then you might be dealing with a whole colony of these tiny pests.
Measuring from only 1/8 to 1/16 of an inch in length, the workers of this tiny ant species are hard to miss, and are hard to distinguish from other tiny ant species if you are going from appearance alone.
Their bodies are solid black or brown, with 12-segmented antennae without clubs, an uneven thorax, and a single node connecting their thorax and abdomen. And, they stink.
Add to that the fact that they like to get into your favorite snacks and are annoyingly hard to eliminate. You’ll probably agree with us that odorous house ants are not going to be your first choice in house guests.
Oh, and these ants can even get into your pet food.
Dirty Pavement Ants
You can usually spot tiny pavement ants outside during the warm spring and summer months. They prefer to nest in cracks between pavement slabs, along sidewalks, in stone and brick walls, in building foundations.
Basically, pavement ants will live in anything that resembles the consistency of hard, protective pavement.
So how do they get into our homes? Well, pavement ants can’t eat pavement. Sometimes they end up inside houses as they search for their next meal.
Homes with stone foundations and dirt basements are especially likely to have a pavement ant sighting or invasion.
Adult pavement ants can be any shade from dark brown to black. A distinguishing feature you can use to identify them is a pair of small spines that extend out of the rear end of their thorax.
These might look like stingers, and they are, but the good news is that pavement ants rarely sting people. They are primarily another “nuisance” pest and not a threat to people’s safety.
Worker pavement ants are fairly small, only reaching about ⅛ of an inch long. Meanwhile, queen ants can end up growing to about ⅜ of an inch.
While typically only considered a nuisance pest, pavement ants can crawl through filth and then deposit harmful substances on foods or food-prep surfaces.
Pavement ants might be small, but they are not picky eaters. They will eat anything from sweets, fruits, and cheese, to grease and dead insects and more.
You can learn more about the types of smells that ATTRACT ants here.
Unhelpful Carpenter Ants
Unlike our other two species of ants, carpenter ants are a bit more than just “nuisance pests.”
Like termites, carpenter ants are wood-destroying pests. These ants are by far the most dangerous type of ants when it comes to home integrity. They can target wood used in construction, outbuildings, wood stored on the property, and even wooden crafts inside our homes.
Worker carpenter ants are pretty easy to identify, even though several distinct species of them live in the United States. The main thing that gives them away is their size. These shiny, black (or dark brown) ants measure at around ¼ to ½ an inch in length.
Carpenter ants can also be distinguished from other types of ants by their larger size, their rounded thorax, and their heart-shaped heads.
In nature, these ants are an important part of the ecosystem because they help with the decomposition of deadwood and decaying trees. But problems arise when they invade the wood of our homes, businesses, or personal belongings. Homes that contain moist or rotting wood are especially at risk for carpenter ant invasions.
Tiny ants – if you’re interested in learning more about tiny ants (house ants) you can read more about our best ant traps for tiny ants here.
Deter Ants Using These Recommended Scents
Insects, and especially ants, are notoriously difficult to get rid of once they decide they want to stick around. Sometimes just putting food away and cleaning up isn’t enough.
So we have brought you 12 useful scents that can help in your crusade to get ants out of your house.
Of course, these scents are not guaranteed to work 100 percent of the time or be 100 percent effective. The best way to be sure those ants don’t come marching back is to find their nest and treat it or have it professionally removed.
Please note that the best recommendation we can give you for guaranteed ant removal is to have the nest eradicated. For best results, consult with a local exterminator! We at pestpointers.com offer a nationwide pest control finder that will get you in contact with a professional in seconds, for free!
Vinegar Repels Ants
We don’t usually like to play favorites, but vinegar gets to be number one this time for a reason. Vinegar, specifically white vinegar, gets to sit atop our list since it works against ants in two ways.
Firstly, ants really hate the smell of vinegar. Secondly, vinegar is a natural cleaning agent and will remove the scent trails ants use to communicate with each other and navigate.
If you have a line of ants marching across your floor, you will notice that the ants in that line do not stray far from the path. They need that scent trail to know where they are going, and will usually double back and head home if you break the scent trail.
To confuse your ant invaders, mix up a solution of white vinegar and water (half and half.) Use this to wipe down your counters, floors, kitchen corners, and any other places where ants like to go.
Now, this process is not permanent by any means. It needs to be repeated several times each day to remain effective. If you have soiled counters or open food, ants will smell that delicious scent as soon as the vinegar smell evaporates and fades into the air.
Coffee Grounds Keep Ants Away
Coffee drinkers rejoice! Ants might love to crawl around on counters, but they are definitely not going to try to get a sip of your coffee. Ants are actually repelled by the scent of coffee.
Getting into the habit of sprinkling your used coffee grounds in the garden and around the outside of your house won’t just deter ants. It also seems to repel cats, in case that is also a problem on your property.
And good news for your plants: coffee grounds are full of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Something off-putting to ants, smells great to you, and is good for the garden? Sounds like it’s time to get sprinkling those grounds onto the ground.
Peppermint Oil as an Ant Repellent
Peppermint is a popular oil scent for repelling not just ants, but a bunch of common household insect pests. It’s simple enough to say that ants are also repelled by the smell of peppermint oil just like other 6-legged pests, but for science buffs, let’s look a little more into things.
Two of the major chemical compounds found in peppermint oil are terpene and menthol. These are each natural fumigants, meaning that the plant has evolved these compounds specifically to repel insects and rodents.
Basically, peppermint is toxic to ants, and ants know it from the smell of peppermint oil that they should keep.
While you can use and create your own peppermint essential oil mixture, It’s best to get a ready made product containing natural peppermint oil like Mighty Mint – 16oz Insect and Pest Control Peppermint Oil.
Insects and plants have a lot of history together. They evolved alongside one another, and at some point, plants figured out that these chemical compounds are toxic to insects. Insects also learned this around the same time, and now, insects just know to avoid the chemicals that give off a peppermint smell.
Ants Hate Cucumbers
Cucumber peel is another natural option that is known to repel ants. Cucumber is a bit of an unexpected option, but here is why it works.
Cucumber peels contain a chemical that is toxic to the types of fungi that ants feed on. It’s a bit of a round-about way of getting rid of ants, but it seems to work regardless.
To use cucumber as a repellent, simply leave slices or peels around entryways and other locations that ants frequent.
The trouble with using cucumber is that, since it is a food item, it has the potential to attract other pests, specifically roaches and rodents.
Just be sure to clear your cucumber slices and peels when they start losing potency and you should be in the clear!
Chalk/Baby Powder Discourages Ants
Draw a line in the sand, or, across your threshold, with chalk! This acts as a barrier that ants will not cross. It needs to be refreshed often since chalk or baby powder can blow away or be dusted away, but it will work as long as you can see that white mark across your doorway.
Ants do not like calcium carbonate, a substance present in chalk, as it disrupts their scent trails. In addition, they also dislike the texture similar to eggshells, seashells, limestone, and other vaguely chalky things.
Citrus Peel Repels Ants
If you don’t like the smell of cucumber, then citrus peel is a good alternative. It works the exact same way as cucumber and is about as effective.
The other benefit of citrus peel is that it can deter a whole host of other pests, including mosquitoes, aphids, mites, flies, ticks, and more!
The process here is pretty easy. Just leave a few peels around entryways, or create your own citrus-scented spray. Just note that artificial citrus smells won’t work, it has to be the real deal.
Lemongrass Essential Oil
Similar to citrus, ants strongly dislike the scent of lemongrass essential oil. However, it isn’t because ants dislike the scent but rather – lemongrass can confuse the scent receptors of ants, making it difficult for them search for food.
Wondercide’s Lemongrass Indoor Pest Control Spray contains natural lemongrass oil and as an added bonus, can even eliminate ants!
Ants Hate Cayenne Powder & Black Pepper
Ants hate cayenne pepper. They absolutely can’t stand it. It won’t kill them, but they won’t be running to participate in your next spice challenge.
If you don’t have cayenne pepper on hand, never fear. Black pepper will work just as well.
Both cayenne pepper and black pepper repel ants by infuriating their senses. The spiciness of both cayenne and black pepper keeps ants away from the area, as they do not want to be irritated by the scent. You can either sprinkle a barrier between yourself and the ants or create a water solution with the pepper to make a spray.
Both options work well but need to be reinforced if it rains, or over time as it loses effectiveness.
Cayenne pepper and black pepper won’t kill the ants but it sure will deter them from returning.
Tea Tree Oil Deters Ants
Like most essential oils, tea tree oil is a great natural repellent for ants.
To use tea tree oil to deter ants, you’ll want to mix together a few drops into a plastic spray bottle and then spray in the area where you see ants. The strong scent of tea tree oil will keep the ants away quickly!
Another method is to soak cotton balls in tea tree oil and place them around entry points in the home — ants won’t like the smell, and lots of other insect pests won’t appreciate it either.
Lemon eucalyptus oil
Oil extracted from the lemon eucalyptus tree is another natural bug repellent. This plant contains citronella, which is used to repel another pesky insect: mosquitos. If you don’t want your house smelling like peppermint all year round, then lemon eucalyptus oil is a good alternative.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus
Not to be confused with lemon eucalyptus oil. Oil of lemon eucalyptus comes from the gum eucalyptus tree, while lemon eucalyptus oil comes from the lemon eucalyptus tree.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus contains a chemical called PMD, which is an effective insect repellent.
PMD is classified as a bio-pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some people claim oil of lemon eucalyptus can repel and even kill ants. It’s also used to repel mosquitoes.
Cinnamon leaf essential oil
Cinnamon is one of those smells that just about everyone likes – except ants! This is because it contains a compound called trans-cinnamaldehyde which is effective in repelling and sometimes even killing ants. This includes not just pest ants, but carpenter ants and biting red ants as well!
If you don’t have the essential oil ready and on hand, then powdered cinnamon will work in its place. Simply sprinkling cinnamon around doorways and windowsills can work when it comes to keeping ants out, and that wonderful spicy smell in!
Long Term Solution: Stop Ants From Marching Back
Those smells will help you to keep ants at bay for the short term, and can even be long-term solutions if you keep refreshing the smells so they remain potent.
However, there is a lot of variability with scent repellents, so it is important to couple these defenses with a few other measures.
Always have a backup plan, and in the case of ants, your scent deterrents will be even more effective when coupled with a few other ant-repelling techniques.
Here are some practical ways to stop ants from colonizing your home for good.
Keep Surfaces Around Your Home Clean
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it is important enough to repeat again. Ants are drawn to your home because they think that’s where their next meal is coming from.
By cleaning up food messes, taking out trash regularly, and keeping food in sealed, air-tight containers, you can avoid a lot of pest-induced headaches.
Store Food In Sealed Containers
That’s right, seal up that food. We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again. If food is out, ants will figure out a way to get into it. Leaving it up in cabinets or behind closed doors won’t stop these tiny thieves.
It isn’t just off-putting to see your favorite snack covered in ants. Ants also track in contaminants, which they trail onto your food.
So keep that food in sealed containers, and have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that ants aren’t walking on your next snack.
You can even protect your pets’ food while they still have access to a snack. We recommend considering a Yuwoda Ant Proof Pet Bowl Tray so that even your pets’ food is ant-free.
Use Ant Baits In Active Areas
If repellents aren’t doing the trick, then lure in those annoying little guys with bait traps.
Bait traps are a bit of a long game. You can expect to see a swarm of workers around the trap. It is bait after all.
Instead of immediately eliminating the scouts, workers will scoop up the toxic bait and carry it back to the colony, where it gets eaten up by all. This will effectively eliminate the entire colony, not just a few stray worker ants.
Terro Liquid Bait Stations is a tested and highly-rated option for a long lasting solution, to boot!
That’s All We’ve Got!
We hope this list has given you more than a few ideas on how to repel ants from your home, and how to keep them out for good.
To recap, here are 12 different scents you can use to repel ants:
- Coffee grounds
- Citrus peel
- Lemongrass oil
- Cayenne powder/black pepper
- Tea tree oil
- Peppermint oil
- Chalk/baby powder
- Lemon eucalyptus oil
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus
- Cinnamon leaf essential oil
Remember, the most important thing is that worker ants are looking for food. If they smell any food in your home, they’re going to come in and take a look around.
Store food properly, spritz a few essential oils, clean those countertops, and watch as those ants run for the hill.
Kasim, N. N., Ismail, S. N. A. S., Masdar, N. D., Hamid, F. A., & Nawawi, W. I. (2014). Extraction and potential of cinnamon essential oil towards repellency and insecticidal activity. International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, 4(7), 2250-3153.
Guerra, M. D., Suiter, D. R., & Scocco, C. M. (2011). Topical toxicity of nine essential oils to Camponotus pennsylvanicus (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Sociobiology, 58(2), 419.
Chen, J., & Oi, D. H. (2020). Naturally Occurring Compounds/Materials as Alternatives to Synthetic Chemical Insecticides for Use in Fire Ant Management. Insects, 11(11), 758.
Scocco, C. M., Suiter, D. R., & Gardner, W. A. (2012). Repellency of five essential oils to Linepithema humile (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Journal of entomological science, 47(2), 150-159.
Field, H. C., Evans Sr, W. E., Hartley, R., Hansen, L. D., & Klotz, J. H. (2007). A survey of structural ant pests in the southwestern USA (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Sociobiology, 49(3), 151-164.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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