I was ready to declare war. Our kitchen counters were crawling with ants. Not the cute little “sugar ants” we used to get in California. These were huge, black ants that delivered a painful bite when they got their mandibles into you.
I admit it was my fault they invaded our house. They arrived from the surrounding forest, attracted by the sugar water in the hummingbird feeders hanging from the eaves over our balcony. I moved the feeders and changed the way I hung them, and the ants went looking around for another source of dessert. I have no idea how they got through our walls.
I realize that most insects are benign, and some are actually helpful. I don’t mind ants digging their huge anthills out in our field, or patrolling my veggie garden looking for bugs that might damage my crops. As long as they stay outside, they’re welcome. But I really dislike getting my bare toes pinched when I wander into the kitchen in the middle of the night, looking for a drink of water.
The first step in waging a war is knowing one’s enemy. Based on their size and appearance, my ants were either field ants (Formica sp.) or carpenter ants (Camponotus sp.), and I needed to figure out which. Field ants might wander into our house looking for food, but they would soon give up (I was obsessively keeping my kitchen counters devoid of crumbs) and return to their natural habitat. If these are carpenter ants, however, I needed to worry about them exercising their carpenter abilities—on our cedar home! We don’t have termites at this altitude, but carpenter ants perform the same function, and they can do significant damage over time.
A quick web search turned up CSU Extension’s Fact Sheet on “Ants in the Home” (written by entomologist Whitney Cranshaw). He explained that field ants (left) “are black or reddish-brown and black ants of medium size (3/16-1/3 inch) and sometimes are mistaken for carpenter ants,” while carpenter ants (right) “are the largest ants that occur in Colorado (1/4-3/8 inch) and are particularly abundant in forested areas. They may be either black or black with a reddish brown thorax.”
He went on to describe how you tell them apart: Carpenter ants “can be distinguished by examining them in side view, with the thorax of the carpenter ants being uniformly rounded without indentation.”
Right. “OK, ant, please lie down on your side and hold really still while I get really close and squint at you through my magnifying glass to see if your thorax is dented.”
There had to be another way.
I could hire an exterminator, or just pull out the spray can and blast them with insecticide, regardless of which genus they belonged to, but I had no desire to apply poison where I prepare our meals.
I was still trying to decide what to do when we got incredibly busy. For almost a week, we were both out every day and most evenings. I didn’t have time to think about cooking, much less dealing with the ants. And that turned out to be a good thing.
One morning I wandered into the kitchen in search of breakfast and a cup of tea, and realized that there wasn’t an ant in sight. Nada. Zilch. Sometime in the last week, they had pulled up stakes and gone in search of more productive pastures. I hadn’t had to do a thing.
Even better, this told me that I’d been dealing with field ants. Whew! No worries about the integrity of our house, at least this time.
While some insect invasions require an immediate response (tomato hornworms, fleas, and mosquitoes come to mind), others aren’t quite as urgent. Sometimes, the best course of action is no action at all. Our cultural penchant for zero tolerance when it comes to insects is really inappropriate. If we can be patient, and live with the problem for a few days, we just might be surprised.
Close-up of ant head, Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org
Field ant, David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org
Carpenter ant, Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org