adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 16: protest ants

I don’t hate ants. When I was a kid living in California’s central valley, we would get lots of those tiny little garden ants in the kitchen.  Some mornings I would come downstairs and flip on the light, and the counter next to the sink would be absolutely blanketed in them. They moved about in thick waves like those weird flocks of birds.

Fine, I looked it up, because I think “weird flocks of birds” doesn’t capture the image I’m going for. Here’s what I’m picturing:  STARLING MURMURATIONS.

Only it was ants.

After the initial terrors, I learned to just sweep the ants up with a sponge and wash them down the sink.  Sometimes a few would manage to crawl onto me during this ant-ocide and I would get jumpy, but they were so little and helpless, really. In the battle to the death, I was victorious every time.

* * * * *

Once I came downstairs into the kitchen, bleary-eyed in the early morning, and stepped on what my mom called a “water bug.” This was a euphemism for “oh sh** that’s the most enormous cockroach I’ve ever seen.” I felt that nearly-2-inch-long creature squish under my bare foot; I heard the sound of its exoskeleton crushing, and I felt the warmth of its goo. I screamed and hopped into the adjoining room, arms flailing meaninglessly. I calmed down by making “ew ew ew” sounds in diminuendo, as I hopped to the bathroom to wash my foot off.

This is an aside, but I offer it as some context for my eventual relationship with ants.

* * * * *

When Anthony and I bought our first home, it was on roughly 19 acres of woods on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We got it cheap, a good-sized modern timberframe kit-build with two bedrooms. For the same amount of money, we could have purchased a tiny, badly-appointed one-bedroom apartment/condo in a mediocre neighborhood in DC, where we worked and lived.  We decided to keep renting in DC and buy the house and big land instead, as a weekend getaway.

Since the land was basically wooded wetlands, we shared the space with a lot of creatures — skunks, possums (one lived under our back porch for a while), snakes, frogs, wolf spiders, birds, squirrels, raccoons, deer, mice, the usual.  We also had a lot of mosquitos.

This was when I learned that I have a terrible allergic reaction to mosquito bites.  After many bouts of cellulitis big and small, including a few that required oral antibiotics, I asked my doctor: how do I prevent things from getting this bad? He answered, verbatim, “Don’t get bit.”

Thanks for nothin’, doc.

So this is when I started wearing a lot of DEET whenever I went outside. We also consulted with Anthony’s father, an organic chemist who had made good use of pesticides during his life. He recommended malathion, sprayed not just on the cleared yard around the house but also on the foliage of all the trees nearby, as this is where the mosquitos would likely rest and lay their eggs.  He further recommended we spray for 4 weeks in a row, early in the morning, to break the cycle of life.

What can I say, it was the 90’s and we were in our twenties.  The first week we went ahead with the spraying. I don’t know how much poison we used, but we covered a good acre of land. We felt sick for a couple days afterwards, and that was disturbing.  But we are nothing if not persistent. We bought thick rubber gloves, tyvek suits, and double-canister asbestos-style rubber-gasket masks.  We suited up and sprayed the hell out of our yard for 3 more weeks in a row.

Sure enough, the mosquitos were much better after that.  Probably lots of other creatures were also “better.”  We definitely didn’t have many ants.

* * * * *

We’ve learned a lot of things since those years, about birds and bees and ecosystems and the art of not using products that require us to wear tyvek suits and gas masks to avoid feeling ill.  Nowadays, I mostly only spray water and the rare gentle fertilizer and I mostly don’t use traps or poisons  – but we’re not righteously bound to false perfection.  I keep wasp spray around to kill nests, I inoculate the land with milky spore to kill the dratted Japanese beetle, and every few years Anthony sprays the lawn to kill the creeping charlie, typically on a day when we are literally leaving for a several-week vacation.  We do things with vinegar, and I have a little flame thrower that I’ve been itching to use.  Otherwise, we live with what comes.  This creates moments of bug-based crisis, but honestly, we don’t have many pests in our house.  Spiders seem to take care of most everything. Except the ants.

In the spring every year, around this time, ants return to our kitchen.  I’m not sure where their nests are – maybe in the crawl space right below the kitchen, maybe under the stones on the patio next to the kitchen, maybe in the walls? I try not to think about it too much.

The little ants tend to stick to our counters and kitchen desk. I can’t blame them – thanks to the kids, there are always tempting treats to be had, often sweet and sticky.  These ants look like the wee ones of my California childhood, but they do it Wisconsin style – sparsely populated, stubborn. I find individuals here and there, rather than big swarms, and I kill them with a press of a finger.

When I was little, I would watch my grandma do this and wonder how in the world she could use her bare finger to squash a bug. Gross. It didn’t occur to me to feel bad for the ant.

Now that I’m over 50, killing a living creature feels bad. But I do it because I’m practical. I can’t have ants roaming happily on my kitchen counter, and I have no way to inform them of this fact except through their deaths. So I smash where I find.

At least, with the little ants.  The big ants are another matter.

The big ants come to our kitchen garbage and recycle bins, which hide behind a pull-out cabinet door. We don’t know how or whence they arrive.  They just appear in our bins, and more rarely on the floor or counter.  These ants range up to about a half inch in length, I kid you not. I swear they try to make eye contact.  They always surprise us when they first show up.  Anthony or I will pull out the kitchen garbage slide, and LO! 15 ants are crawling around in the garbage and recycling. It is really, really creepy because they’re so big.  I can’t kill one of those things with my bare hand, it would make crunchy noises and be gooey.  Even stomping on them with a slipper often doesn’t result in immediate death.  They’re tough, they fight for life, and they suffer to the end. It makes me really sad. 

Since I don’t want to spray poison, we’ve taken to using diatomaceous earth. This is not actually earth.  It is instead the grey powdery ground up fossils of some ancient little sea creature, and it has a variety of uses. As my brother Mark says, we’re so lucky these creatures lived 5 million years ago so that we could someday use their tiny little bodies to control ants and clean swimming pools.  A life of meaning after all, for the little empty-headed diatoms.

D-earth apparently is very painful for tiny little ant feet. I don’t know if it injures them to the point of death, but apparently it’s like walking on ginzu knives. I do know that I’ve observed ants coming up to the D-earth, touching it, and turning tail to run. I could almost hear them yelling, “ouchies!”

D-earth is also completely non-toxic. I read that some people use it as a dietary supplement for dogs. Which is weird, but I don’t judge.  What I do is, I spread a thin but extremely unattractive sprinkle of the powder along the counter edges where ants typically travel, and on the edges of the cabinet frame that holds our garbage and recycling bins.  After I do that, it takes a few days for the ants to become less numerous, and then we’re able to survive in our kitchen without having raised hackles every time we open the garbage.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a compromise I’ve learned to live with. If I see a big ant on the floor or a counter, I’ll smash it with something at hand – paper, slipper – and I’ve learned to live with the guilt. It’s better than listening to Nick and Jesse hollering at me all day long.

MOM THERE’S AN AAAAAAANT.

MMMMOOOOOOOOOOOM THE ANT IS SOOOOOO BIG!!!! KILL IT PLEEEEASE!!!

OH MY GOD I DON’T KNOW WHERE THE ANT WENT, MOOOOOOMMMMYYYYYYYYY HELP MEEEEEEEE.

* * * * *

In the early summer, we get an ant bloom in the living room.  These are medium ants, not as big as the garbage-monster-ants. So, not quite as scary, except for the wings.

The flying ants seem to happen as some sort of a hatching.  Suddenly they will arrive, in the course a day or two. I’ve never tried to count them, because there are too many. They crawl and fly around the living room, starting at the big window. Within a week or so they’re all gone or dead. We bring out the vacuum cleaner and clear their corpses. Do over in 12 months.

* * * * *

What I’ve learned from ants is that being relentless is both an admirable and an irritating quality. Ants just keep going and going, en masse, in community with each other, year after year.  The carnage Anthony and I inflict on them doesn’t even make a dent.

As I sat here at my kitchen desk, typing about ants and occasionally extending a finger to kill one, a remarkable moment of synchronicity arose. Jesse was nearby, doing her government schoolwork, and she literally asked me this: “what does it mean that JFK was the only president who wasn’t a protest ant?”

This led to many giggles, a tiny amount of education about religion and pronunciation, and a couple drawings. Our house is full of protest ants.

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