The ant is an incredibly resilient insect. I know this because we have killed at least a couple million of them since we’ve lived here, or so it seems. And yet they continue to rule the house.
We find the ants everywhere. In the cupboards. On the floor. One evening we found a swarm on half of the egg strips our cook had prepared to go on top of our noodles. She simply scraped them off and brought the rest of the eggs back out. They quickly find anything sweet on the coffee table, especially if you’ve left your glass of Coke sitting there, or a stray cookie. I think they would open the fridge if only they could, and carry off the food – in fact, being industrious, I’m sure they’re working on a way to do just that at this very minute. They are even on the bathroom counters, and sometimes appear in my toilet at the most inopportune times.
One night when I got up to go to the bathroom I was thirsty, so I took a quick drink of water out of the coffee mug I keep on the counter. You can see it coming – I hadn’t turned the lights on, so along with the water I got a few ants. I suppose it’s just some extra protein.
Don’t get me wrong – the house isn’t a swarming nest of ants. As I sit in our living room writing this I cannot see a single ant. But they’re out there, plotting something (maybe how to raid the fridge) or boldly doing ant things, oblivious to the giants who live among them.
These particular ants are tiny – perhaps no more than .5 centimeters in length. But what they lack in size is more than fully compensated for with an amazing speed, which makes them rather difficult to kill. It takes a quick hand or foot to dispatch them to ant heaven, which is probably E.O. Wilson’s basement in Cambridge. And they’re social insects, so they never seem to travel in packs of less than ten, with their groupings often containing many more than that. This makes it an interesting challenge to try and wipe them all out before they scurry off.
While this seems to be the predominant ant in the house, we have found others. There are red ants, slightly larger than our black ant friends, who come in the front door periodically. Rarely a flying ant of some kind will appear, usually on one of the curtains. But fortunately none of these species have managed to hold onto a beachhead here – yet.
To deal with the ants we do a couple of things. Any open food goes promptly into the fridge. Cookies, chips, anything that might attract ants most certainly will unless secured in the refrigerator.
We also spend our time killing these tiny ants. For Adam it has become a game of sorts. Like most boys, he’s both fascinated by watching the ants while at the same time scheming about how to best dispatch them. His favorite choice right now seems to be a quick hand slap, but sometimes he also enjoys using his heel (a technique I’ve adopted when I’m too lazy to get up and actually do something about the ants – but even I won’t stoop so low as to use this method when they’re on the coffee table. At least not when someone is watching). He’ll also use the blunt side of his knife in some way I don’t quite understand.
It’s actually difficult for me to write about this. After all, I’m here researching noted British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. For god’s sake, he collected Romblonella ants while on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (known as Celebes in his time) in the mid-1800s. But somehow I think he will forgive me, or at the very least understand. In his writings from his years spent in the region, he mentions several times the difficulties ants caused him. He took to placing the legs of his work stand, upon which he would prepare his specimens for shipment, in cans of water to prevent ants from destroying his specimens while he slept. The water seemed to be the only thing that would slow them down, because ants generally can’t swim. But even with that precaution, he writes of one species of ant that still seemed able to swim across the water and wreak havoc. (Actually, it turns out that ants are very intrepid. While most can’t swim, some have ways of making it around water barriers anyway. One species, the Jerdon’s jumping ant, can synchronize the movement of its mid and hind pairs of legs to, well, jump across small stretches of water. Other species can form chains to cross short distances, while still others can form floating rafts). So wherever Wallace is now, I suspect he’ll forgive us.
My friend Tim thinks we’re brave, and says he couldn’t live like this. He blogged about his experience with ants in a hotel room in Niagara Falls last summer, an adventure that didn’t end well. And that was for one night. We’re doing this for 10 months.
Let me be clear about one thing. We believe in the sanctity of life. Ours is not a family that normally seeks out ways to randomly kill small invertebrates. We don’t pull the wings off flies, or go hunting for the sheer joy of killing. So initially, killing the ants was difficult. But frankly, now it’s us or them, and I say, let the best man win.