Jessie Raymond: Ant invaders pose pesky challenge

Every time I walked into the kitchen last week, I began singing, “The ants go marching 10 by 10, hurrah, hurrah …”
I wasn’t singing for the fun of it. I was singing in reaction to the scene before me: We had an ant problem.
Ants are nothing new. In an old farmhouse like ours, they’re just one of the varieties of creepy-crawlies that take up residence in the warmer months. In a normal year, we’ll have a few days where tiny ants march in line across the countertop, looking for sweets or maybe just water.
Then, during the height of summer, it will be earwigs. Later, spiders will show up, followed in September by houseflies. Mosquitoes will hang around for months, with a few who missed their flight to Boca Raton sticking around all winter. But for the most part, the bugs come, they leave, life goes on.
This year was different: For the first time, we had an invasion of large black ants. They were fast-moving. They were far-ranging. And they were better organized than the few stragglers we’ve seen in previous years. I mean, they wore military parade dress. They marched in formation.
Every morning I’d go downstairs and hear a faint and tinny fife and drum corps leading a platoon of ants across the kitchen floor, up the cabinets and onto the counter. Then they’d break ranks and run amok. They’d frolic in the sink and the trash can. They’d pile on a single crumb that had been left on the counter. They’d hide on the black stovetop where they knew I couldn’t see them (though their nervous whistling usually gave them away).
At first, I dealt with them the way I deal with most insects: by squealing in panic and disgust and hoping the noise would drive them away. As soon as they’d see me coming, they’d scatter. But not for long.
They got so bold after four or five days that they’d pounce on any food left out for more than 30 seconds. I served dessert one night and returned to the kitchen moments later to see a half-full pan of blueberry pudding cake moving steadily across the counter on a bed of six-legged power lifters.
Screaming, it turns out, doesn’t do much to deter ants. So I took up a fly swatter, occasionally going on a full berserker rampage around the kitchen.
“You kill them?” you may be saying. “But aren’t you the bleeding heart who used to save ladybugs?”
Yes, I still do. But ladybugs, taken in small doses, are cute and iconic. Black ants are too numerous and too cunning to get my sympathy. Granted, they have a fascinating and complex social hierarchy that scientists are just beginning to unravel. That doesn’t give them dibs on the Raisin Bran.
I knew the only comprehensive way to get rid of the ants would be to poison them, a move that went against my live-and-let-live philosophy. But in swarming my sugar bowl, they crossed a line.
I’m chemical averse, however, especially around food. I didn’t want to spray the kitchen, cook dinner and an hour later find my husband lying on his back on the floor, legs kicking feebly.
I looked on the internet for some more environmentally friendly methods. I wrote up a shopping list of reportedly anti-ant substances, everything from peppermint oil to lemon juice to food-grade diatomaceous earth. (These wouldn’t kill the ants, of course, but I hoped to at least annoy them.)
I’d like to tell you how well this approach worked, but I never had a chance to find out. The day I made the list, the ants cleared out, leaving no trace of their visit except a Yelp review (“Pros: The contents of the compost pail under the sink exceeded our expectations, and the single droplet of maple syrup on the counter made for a great Sunday brunch. Cons: Our hostess shrieked a lot and flattened 87 of our buddies with a fly swatter. Still, we’ll be back next year for sure!”).
I don’t know what prompted the ants to show up, and I don’t know what made them leave. I just know that we’re expecting the next wave of invaders to arrive with the first really hot, humid days in June.
For my next number, I’ll be singing “Everything’s Coming Up Earwigs.”

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