Tuesday, May 05, 2009

THE ANTS GO MARCHING TWO BY TWO

Three weeks ago, I got myself my first brand new riding mower. Now, it probably says something about me as a woman that I am excited about this, more so even that I care that it is my favorite color, red. Should I care what color the dad burn lawn tractor is? It isn’t that I like lawn work very much, it’s simply something that must be done, I would much rather tend the flowers and patio plants. But after years of paying someone to do it, then a couple more years feeling horribly guilty about my wonderful next door neighbor doing it and not letting me pay him for it, I finally had to buckle down and spend the money. It had to be a riding one since I have several acres to mow and I once tried to do it with a push mower last year when the weather was still cool and I barely finished just the front yard before conceding defeat and collapsing in a heap of sweat and lost breath, covered in a think layer of pollen. I just couldn’t do that every week during a sweltering Virginia summer without it seriously affecting my physical and mental health.

My new mower was delivered on a Saturday morning and once daughter #2 was safely napping in her bed and daughter #1 was equipped with a walkie-talkie in order for me to check on her while still keeping her inside the house and away from the mower, I hopped on to do my duty as a home owner. It was almost a pleasure zipping back and forth across my property, the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the grass clippings in my teeth. My only complaint is that in taking my foot off the brake to round corners or stop, once started again the thing would take off in earnest, causing my head to whip back and my hands to grip the steering wheel in a panic so as not to topple off backwards which might wound more than just my pride; precious body parts would be at stake!


Once I finish with the lawn, I still must start up the push mower to get at the smaller spaces where the riding mower won’t fit. Finishing that, I should then use the weed wacker to trim the edges of everything, but at that point I am done-for and usually quit, I don’t really care if there are a few raggedy edges. My next door neighbor however, usually comes over with his weed eater and does mine after finishing up his own yard, he is so amazingly helpful, or perhaps it just makes him crazy to see the frayed edges of my lawn.

After coming in from my first successful lawn cutting experience, I headed to the shower. My dirty clothes were left in a heap on the floor until I finished and as I gathered them up to take downstairs to the laundry room I discovered that more than just grass clippings were carried in on my pant legs; a large host of tiny ants had also hitched a ride! I stomped the tiny beings and threw the clothes into the washer to be done immediately, but by that night word had apparently gotten out through the ant grapevine and the little critters were arriving in droves. Now I know that I did not bring this many ants into the house with me, so I am amazed at the speed with which the diminutive creepy-crawlies passed along that there was a new place to hang out. I am also mystified as to why they would want to, it’s a bathroom for pig’s sake, there is no food in there, nothing to interest an ant; I just don’t get it. Not to mention the fact that it is the upstairs bathroom, do you have any idea how far those wee bugs had to travel to go and tell their friends about the novel resort they had found and then trek all the way back? And for what?

Ants are actually very complex creatures, there are 20,000 species of ant. They are social, and live in colonies, the adults caring for the young and their queen. They are divided into specialized groups and castes; there are reproductive castes (the queen and her boy toys) and the nonproductive caste (the workers, all female). The queen ant has wings until her first mating, which when once completely she tears off (ouch!) The males keep their wings, but their only purpose in life is to mate with the queen, once a guy succeeds in doing so, he dies within two weeks .(Dies of what I wonder? Did that little tryst with Queenie take so much out of him that he must now lay down and die? Harsh.) The female ants do all the work; they raise the kids, gather the food, and build, tend and defend the nest. Huh, so the boys live in a little ant harem at the beck-and-call of the queen, but if they win the grand prize and mate with her they die, while all the women raise the kids, gather the food and do all the work. Not really sure who has the better lot in ant society.


For a couple of days I let them be, I figured that they would discover nothing of interest and move along. If I don’t have to participate in a mass extermination, even of insects, then I would just as soon not. Besides, I don’t like bug sprays in the house, especially with curious young children and to this point we hadn’t needed any. But after two days the crowds of tiny black dots had grown and it was obvious that not only were they not deterred, but that they quite liked the place. Was the trip to my bathroom some sort of adventure for them? A holiday away from the colony? Or just something new to investigate and report back on? I just couldn’t figure on why these petite creatures would desire to visit my toilet so badly.


So I tried placing a paper plate full of sticky honey in one corner of the bathroom thinking that they would come, gorge and then get hopelessly stuck like a fly in amber. It sort of worked, but as the air dried the honey out a bit not all of the ants got stuck, they just came….and gorged….and invited their friends and family. In no time at all there was a major highway of ants marching down the wall, across the floor and having the party of their lives right there in my tiny loo. It was at this point that I lost it and started searching the house for a simple can of insect spray, but because of my afore mentioned hesitance to use such a product, none was to be had. ‘Think! Think!’ I frantically thought to myself as I raced through the house grabbing the spray bottle used for ironing and a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s liquid peppermint soap. I mixed, I aimed, I shot. And shot, and shot and shot. At last, success! Those little buggers finally went belly up, and since most likely a large part of the colony was merrymaking in the paper plate, they were conveniently congregated and effectively wiped out in one soapy battle. And as an added bonus, my bathroom got a much needed cleaning.


For the next 24 hours, the occasional stray ant would wander into the previously fun-filled area, but I had my trusty spray bottle filled with minty deadliness at hand and soon my bathroom was my own again and smelling decidedly refreshing. I imagined one lucky little gal, for remember, all the foot soldiers in an ant colony are female, sent to find out what happened to the queen’s explorers and actually making it back to report due to my being elsewhere in the house at the time and therefore unable to shoot her with my spray bottle of annihilation. “Your highness, I have traveled far, but no trace can be found of my many sisters. Oh woe dear queen, our colony is a ruin! What horrible evil has offered up such sweet riches only to snatch it away along with the lives of our brave soldiers?”


As annoying as it is to have vast amounts of tiny insects crawling around one’s bathroom, it was, non-the-less, interesting to watch them. In fact, I kept having to prompt my eight year old to leave off the ant gazing and come and eat dinner. When I went to take a shower I would find myself staring in fascination at how each wee being greeted all others that she passed. What information was being transmitted I wondered. Ants communicate using pheromones. These chemical signals are more developed in ants than in any other of their insect group. They perceive smells with their thin, mobile antennae which provides information about the direction and intensity of scents. They leave a pheromone trail that their sister ants can follow. When an ant foraging for sustenance finds food she marks the trail on her way back to the colony; then the other ants follow her trail back to the food and in turn reinforce the trail when heading back with the goods. (well, this explains how and why the ants were able to invade my bathroom so quickly, but doesn’t explain what they found so interesting. Did the sweet smell of soap perhaps confuse them into thinking there was something good to eat?)


Pheromones are not just used as trail markers though; a crushed ant emits an alarm pheromone that sends the message to nearby ants to attack and attracts re-enforcements from further away. (ah ha! This explains why my stomping on them did not make them go away, but sent even more ants!). Some species even send out “propaganda pheromones” to confuse enemy ants and cause them to fight amongst themselves. (How very interesting! Political ants making little pheromone propaganda posters!) Ants even exhibit interactive teaching, which makes them the only group to do this outside of mammals. An experienced ant will take on a na├»ve nest-mate and she will follow along and learning from her tutor, step by tiny step.


Not all ants are pests though, weaver ants are used as a biological control for citrus cultivation in parts of China. Ants also perform other ecological roles that benefit humans, such as keeping down other kinds of pesky insect populations and aerating the soil. In parts of Africa and South America large ants are used as sutures to close wounds. Any one else see this demonstrated in the movie “Apocalypto”? The wound is pressed together and ants are applied along the cut, the ant “bites” the edges of the wound with its mandibles and they lock in place. The rest of the body is then cut off at the head leaving the closure. And anyone ever drink rooibos tea from Africa? The seeds that comprise this tea are too small for human collection; ants do it and then store the seeds in their nests. Humans then raid the nests of up to half a pound of seeds.

Ants are also eaten in many parts of the world, not only by animals and other insects, but by humans. In Mexico there is a dish known as escamoles that consists of two kinds of ant larvae. They are considered a kind of insect caviar and are priced accordingly. In Colombia they are toasted; In India, Burma and Thailand, a paste is made of green weaver ants and served as a condiment and ants and larvae are also used in salads. In Australia they are mashed up in water to make a lemony tasting drink.

Okay, so it didn’t occur to me to make a meal of my little visitors, but perhaps another time, honey covered ants anyone?
©KKW 2009

2 comments:

Debby said...

When I lived in CA, I would get ants nearly every summer & they would often by pass my pantry in favor of the bathroom. I always thought they were seeking water. Has it been as dry in VA as it has been in FL?

Congrats on the new riding mower. I inheirited my dad's when he bought a new one. The worst part for me is backing it out & down the 2 board ramp of the shed. I hate that part!

Anonymous said...

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