How to Get Rid of Ants

“Help!  Ants have invaded our boat — how do I get rid of them??”

That’s the e-mail I got last night.  And I’ll admit, I’ve seen a few ants recently in my kitchen and have had to take action.  Depending on where you’re located, you may be facing the same challenge.  Certain times of the year just seem to bring out the ants.  The good news is that you can rid your galley or kitchen of the little pests without resorting to lots of toxic sprays, which I hate using around food prep areas.

NOTE: Click here to read my newer article to see how to get rid of a serious ant infestation

The first thing to do is to get rid of their food sources.  When food is easily available, ants quickly reproduce and any efforts to get rid of them are bound to fail.  So you have to cut off the food supply before doing anything else.  Even galleys and kitchens that appear spotless have some microscopic food particles available to bugs.  But it seems that ants (and cockroaches) don’t like things that have come into contact with ammonia or vinegar, so wiping down all the surfaces with either one gets rid of what they consider “food.”

  • I start by wiping down countertops with either ammonia or vinegar (white or cider — usually white as it’s the cheapest), paying particular attention to all the little nooks and crevices.
  • Then wipe down all the vertical surfaces (locker fronts, refrigerator enclosure and so on).
  • Clean the inside and outside of your trash bin(s), again using some vinegar or ammonia.
  • Clean the stove and oven thoroughly and wipe down with ammonia or vinegar.
  • Then clean the area around the stove.  Often, there are food and grease spatters behind or around the stove — you’ll have to figure out how to access these on your boat, as almost every stove is different . . . but most do have a way to either clean around them or remove them.   See my article on cleaning the gap between the stove and counter.   I know, it can be a pain to get to these areas.  But if you don’t get rid of the gunk, it’s almost impossible to get rid of bugs — not just ants, but cockroaches as well.
  • Next, take everything out of your lockers and wipe them out, too, as well as wiping down the food containers themselves.  Don’t put them back until you treat the lockers, below.

Over the next several weeks, make an especial effort to keep your countertops spotless, using more ammonia or vinegar.  Clean up any spills immediately and don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink.

It’s also important not to let any “food” get into your trash bins.  Wash down empty containers before putting them in the trash — I know, this uses up valuable water, but it’s worth it in the battle against the ants.  Keep food scraps in a 100% leakproof sealable plastic container and keep the outside of it wiped down.

Dog and cat food can also become “ant food.”  Watch to see if the ants are getting into your pet’s food — if so, you’ll have to figure out a system to put your pet’s food away at times when they’re not eating it (it’s particularly important to put it away overnight).

For years, my next step was just to put a bunch of ant traps in the lockers and hope to kill them off.  And it never seemed to get rid of them.  About five years ago, I learned a better solution:  cloves.  I particularly like cloves because they’re nontoxic to children and pets — both of whom are known to try to eat or lick everything.

I’ll be honest:  I don’t know if cloves actually kill the ants or just repels them from food areas which eventually causes the colony to die out.  What I do know is that by using cloves, I don’t see ants.

To use cloves:

  • You can use whole cloves, ground cloves and/or clove oil.  I use all three in different places, but any one type will work.
  • Put a few whole cloves, a sprinkling of ground cloves or a few drops of clove oil in each locker.  I like to put a drop of clove oil on a Q-tip and run it along seams where the sides and bottom of the lockers come together, too.
  • Clove oil is also good to use on seams along the edges of your counters and where the sink lip meets the counter.  If you don’t have clove oil, sprinkle a tiny bit of ground cloves in these areas.
  • Put some cloves around the back, sides and bottom of the stove.
  • Put a clove in the bottom of your trash bin (under the bag) and another one in the bag itself.  Every time you change the bag, add more.
  • Put a clove in every container of sugar and with sugar-y things.  Make sure that sugar-y food is all contained in sealed plastic containers.
  • If you’re tied to a dock, put a few drops of clove oil — or a sprinkling of ground cloves — on all of the dock lines to keep ants from coming aboard via them.  Ditto for the shore power cord and anything else that may connect the boat to the dock.

You’ll smell the cloves for an hour or two, then it’s unnoticeable.  However, the effect goes on for about three months, at which time you’ll need to replace the cloves.

I don’t use ant traps or sprays since I started doing this, and I’m much happier without toxic chemicals near my food.  However, if you really feel that you need to do more, my recommendation is to use a paste made from boric acid.  In many places, you can find this ready-made, or you’ll find ant traps that contain boric acid.  Almost everywhere outside the US, you can buy boric acid at pharmacies.

My research says that there are two types of ants:  those attracted to sweet things and those attracted to protein.  You can mix up a paste of boric acid and powdered milk or instant creamer that will work for both, then put it in small bottle caps (like soda or beer caps) in lockers.  Boric acid is very mildly toxic to humans, but it should still be kept away from children and pets because of their small size.

You can buy pre-made ant traps that are filled with liquid (such as Terra brand in the US).  However, these are very prone to spilling with the motion of the boat and I don’t recommend trying to use them afloat.

Finally, you may hear of “Chinese chalk” recommended against ants.  I found it numerous places in Mexico, generally marketed as “completely safe.”  However, it’s not safe — it’s actually quite toxic and is banned from sale in the US.  Don’t use it!

For more information on avoiding bugs of all sorts in the first place, read “How to Store Food:  Avoiding Critters.”

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  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 05 January 2012 Reply

    Just bought cloves and powdered cloves on Tuesday when I made my grocery run!! So I will be pitting it out. I used to have success with Terro but it seems like they just enjoy it now-as there seems to be an endless onslaught lately. LOL. Have a good one.


  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 05 January 2012 Reply

    You have my sympathies! Good luck!

  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 06 January 2012 Reply


  • Suz
    Posted at 29 April 2013 Reply

    Ants, put a shallow container of cornmeal out. The ants come, take it back to their colony, everybody chows down and the whole colony dies. Ants can’t digest the cornmeal and it more or less explodes in their stomachs. Give it a few days and avoid the temptation to kill the ones you see in the cornmeal. The idea is to have them take it back to the nest. It works, no ants.

  • Melody s/v Vacilando
    Posted at 01 May 2013 Reply

    We’re doing a combination of the cloves and the boric acid. So far the cloves are great – they don’t come anywhere near them, but for some reason, after the rain they are all over the outside of our boat so we put little caps of boric acid/coffee creamer paste out there and they seem to dig it. Hopefully it kills them off!

  • Melissa Swan
    Posted at 23 July 2013 Reply

    Hi Carolyn,
    I thought I would just add that clove oil is potentially toxic to children. The active ingredient, eugenol, is toxic in concentrated amounts. Using it on ants is probably safe but making sure the bottle of clove oil is kept out of reach of children is probably a good idea. I imagine you will probably do your own research and encourage readers to do the same but I thought I would mention it. I am by no means an expert, I just recently took a university class on medicinal plants.
    Thanks for all your work at the Boat Galley!

  • Willie Haskins
    Posted at 11 March 2014 Reply

    Thanks! Will you be doing “Getting Rid of Roaches” next? please.

  • Zowie Meissner
    Posted at 11 March 2014 Reply

    Over a year ago I started cleaning with vinegar and I have never had an ant problem since. Seems all bugs are anti vinegar. I love how it does not bother my skin and cleans up things pretty well.

  • Colin Mombourquette
    Posted at 11 March 2014 Reply

    Wow, what a great facebook page and website – started following you after I bought your cookbook. Being a long-time day sailor who will start cruising this year, the advice you provide is practical, easy to follow and I’m sure will make cruising even more enjoyable. Thank you.

  • Jane Overbeck
    Posted at 18 June 2015 Reply

    I was enjoying my first cup of coffee for the day on the bow of our boat when I noticed a stream of tiny bugs — ants! I Googled how to get rid of them on a boat, and my favorite boating Web site came up. I should have known TBG would have solutions and gone to you directly. I’ll be wiping everything down in vinegar and shopping for cloves and clove oil today. Thanks for the awesome advice that is so targeted to cruisers!

  • Ken Thoman
    Posted at 28 February 2017 Reply

    Liquid dish soap spread on surfaces and crevices works as well. I use it on pet dishes especially to good result.

  • Jerry D Miller
    Posted at 02 May 2017 Reply

    I’m not a cruiser, more a wanna be, and have never used cloves for ants, but I have used powdered cinnamon to keep ants out of my “camp kitchen” that I built for lake camping. The ants won’t cross cinnamon. I’ve also used it at home where ants were coming in the window. No ants.

    Nice to know that cloves work too!

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