my green vermont

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Ant Jihad (with apologies to E. O. Wilson)

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

At first, only a few scouts showed up in the mudroom. They ran discreetly along the base of the walls, and I was not alarmed. \”It\’s a sign of spring\” I said to the cat Telemann. I have never begrudged the occasional ant a few crumbs from my table. Ants don\’t frighten me the way spiders do, and I admire their work ethic and organizational talents. But soon those scouts were followed by an entire army, an army that was marching towards the litter box.

The litter that I provide for Telemann is the most ecologically pure on the planet, free from artificial scents, and made of corn. It gives off a mild sweet smell, which is so lovely that when I add fresh handfuls to the box Telemann has been known to take a taste. Now it looked like, along with the rest of America, my ants were addicted to corn-based sugars, and had sent a colonizing army to ensure an endless supply of the stuff.

In the past, I had dealt with ant incursions with a spray of water mixed with a few drops of dish soap. This not only killed the ants, but destroyed the pheromone trail that led others in their wake. It was simple; it was green; and it always worked.

I happened to have a bottle of the solution in the cabinet under the sink. I gave it a good shake, and sprayed along the ant column. The little creatures scurried out of the way, trying to avoid the deadly spray, then curled up in agony and eventually dwindled to little black motionless specks, and I felt like a vengeful deity wreaking havoc on hapless mortals. It was a miniature version of the kind of spectacle that I cannot bear to watch on TV.

The soapy solution worked for a while, but soon new battalions of ants arrived, and were making off with golden nuggets of corn litter. I sprayed more abundantly this time, leaving little slippery pools on the linoleum, then refilled my bottle and resprayed. But back in the nest the ant draft boards were calling up fresh recruits, and the army kept coming.

I googled DIY ant repellents. The techniques ranged from spreading coffee grounds on the ant trails, to smothering the insects under a paste of cornstarch and water. But the most popular solutions involved the use of essential oils, especially peppermint.

I happened to have a bottle of peppermint oil left over from an unsuccessful attempt to discourage field mice in pre-Telemann days. These being desperate times, I ignored the instructions to dilute the oil with water or witch hazel, and sprinkled the concentrated oil directly on the ants.

As with the soapy water, the results were instantaneous, at least for the ants that came in contact with the oil. The mudroom was now littered with tiny cadavers, which I left in the hope of demoralizing the troops, but more still kept coming. I sprinkled more oil. 

“What on earth is that smell?” my spouse asked. “It makes my eyes water.” Not only did the entire house smell like a bag of cough drops, but I was starting to worry about the stuff’s effect on Telemann’s willingness to use the litter box. When he was a kitten and I was trying to keep him away from a certain house plant, I had bought a bottle of cat repellent. Its main ingredient was peppermint oil.

If the ants were attracted by the corn-based litter, the obvious solution was to switch to a different litter. But I didn’t want a different litter. I wanted to stick with my ecologically pure brand, and I didn’t want to disturb Telemann’s bathroom habits.

I returned to the DIY sites, some of which sang the praises of white vinegar. I happened to have a gallon of it, which I had bought in a vain attempt to control static cling in the laundry. I dumped the soap solution out of the spray bottle and replaced it with vinegar. The ants were no longer marching in columns, but had broken ranks and were crisscrossing the mudroom floor, raping and pillaging. The ones dispatched to colonize the kitchen had reached the cabinets, in search of the toaster.

I flooded the mudroom and the kitchen with vinegar. Again, several ants perished on the spot, but more took their place, ready to give their lives for corn litter. Now the house smelled like a salad bowl. I was opening windows to air out the place when a friend came by. I apologized for the smell and told her my sorry tale. “Why don’t you just get some ant bait?” she said.

And so I did. I hid six cookie-shaped, non-green, non-DIY bait dispensers in various spots in the mudroom and kitchen. Within two days, the ants were gone.

Ant bait consists of an attractant that is also a poison. The ants carry it back into their nest, where eventually it exterminates the colony. The EPA allows the manufacturers to keep the inert ingredients secret from the consumer. Who knows what environmental outrage my ant baits perpetrated? Perhaps a titmouse ate a poisoned ant, and got a stomach ache, or even died.

Should I have persevered with the oil and vinegar? Should I have switched to a non-organic litter? Should I have learned to coexist with my ants, and if so, how bad would things have gotten? Would they finally have had their fill of cat litter and left of their own accord, or would they have turned our cottage into a giant ant hill, like those termite mounds in Africa?

The alacrity with which I jumped on the ant bait solution has humbled me, and softened slightly my attitude towards pesticide-spraying farmers and wolf-shooting ranchers. I still don’t approve of what they’re doing, but I now know that there lurks in my supposedly green heart the same hot rage that fuels their abuses.



5 Responses

  1. They have – and colonize rather well – the entire rest of the world. They cannot have your house.They're not coming for a few crumbs – they aren't planning in eating all your cookies and then leaving. Sad to say, these very organized little beasties are not capable of taking a hint – it's them or you.You don't really have a choice of anything but the method, and any one kills a lot of them. Sigh.

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