By Mary Lowengard
BUGS, LIKE CHILDREN and houseguests, don’t bug me so long as they know their place. Previously, I discussed the antics of the Bucknoll tick community. Ticks, for better or worse, know their place, which is outdoors.
Ants, however, are far more arrogant. Once they cross the threshold into one’s cottage they will gallivant inside your box of Frosted Mini-Wheats or make off with the crumbs of your almond croissant. And worse. They can, quite literally, eat you out of your house and home.
My antennae first went up when a neighbor posted a request on Nextdoor seeking a pest-control firm to deal with carpenter ants. Not long after, another bugged out of Wednesday yoga after her carpenter (how apropos) stumbled on a nest of the same chitinous critters.
Trickles and Trends, Carpenters and Ladies
As one of my favorite editors used to say, “One’s a trickle, two’s a trend.” (This supposedly justifies the journalistic predilection toward making up “trends.”) The pile of wood shavings in my basement that I’d ignored for two years suddenly seemed significant, albeit circumstantial. Might my modest five-bedroom cottage too be hosting meetings of the United Brotherhood of Carpenter Ants? And if they were carpenters, does that make me a lady?
I set out to first find answers, then panic. Turns out, when it comes to ants. I was significantly ignorant.
North America is home to more than 1,000 ant species, including the piquantly named Argentine Ants (exhibiting a penchant for tango and Malbec), Bulldog Ants (Yale aspirants?), Pharaoh Ants (reluctant to let their people go), Fire Ants, Ghost Ants, Odorous House Ants and Sugar Ants. And there’s the recent variant, the GEICO ant.
And then there’s the Carpenter Ant—Camponotus pennsylvanicus—which is Latin for The Ant You Don’t Want in Your Bucknoll Cottage.
These bugs are black (unless they’re red, brown, tan, yellow or some vibrant combination) with scant white or yellow hairs on the abdomen. As the likelihood of putting my face close enough to see hair on an ant’s abdomen is zero, I note they are allegedly distinguished by their petioles, and bent antennae.
The petiole is its waist, which is of Scarlett O’Hara proportions. Their antennae do not pick up WETV or any station that reruns classics such as A.N.T. Farm or Antz. Carpenter ants can be as large as 2.54 cm, roughly the size of my Aunt Sally’s Chihuahua, if I’m converting the metric system correctly. Which is large enough to wear a carpenter’s tool belt. And apprentice to Bob Vila. That is, gigantic.
An Ant’s Life
Carpenter ants are not termitic. Termites eat wood and will chew at the entire perimeter of your cottage until it topples off its foundation.
Carpenter ants eschew wood as mere antipasto, preferring to tunnel through it, creating superhighways to their nests. They are, in fact, entomological foodies, with a penchant for carbs, meat, sweets and other dead insects, from which they extract bodily fluids, leaving the exoskeleton, though sometimes present the head as an offering to their queen.
And they are bulimic-with-a-twist, barfing up dinner so their compatriots can feast on it. Unpleasant, to say the least. Outright repugnant, in my book.
Like many Bucknollers, carpenter ants have two (or more) homes, that include a main nest, typically in a wet tree, and a satellite cottage, which may be in your house and which they reach by marching (presumably, one by one) across electrical wires.
Figuring out where the nests are is important. One way is via lures. First, lock up the cat. Then scatter solid, packed-in-water (never oil) bits of tuna all over your house. Follow the ants as they enter, search, find and cart it away. Researchers have yet to determine if they prefer Bumblebee or Chicken of the Sea. In lieu of tuna, anything from ShopRite’s house brand Wholesome Pantry is an alternative.
The Queen’s Gambit
The kingdom of Camponotus pennsylvanicus (yes, that capitalization is correct) includes workers, queens and males. The first two do all the work and the males are good for just one thing. Once. I will refrain from further comment. After mating in nuptial flight, males drop dead. The queen removes her wings (roughly the equivalent of removing one’s Manolos and Spanx), and then dumps her eggs at her cottage, to be cared for by servants. Quite the antithesis of my notion of a romantic night out and inconsonant with sound childrearing practice.
Any rustling you may hear could in fact be carpenter ants whistling while they work. Their anthems, of course, include “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Close to You.” (Editor Note: Click at your own risk.) Or, you might recognize a few bars of the Adam Ant canto suggesting you consider giving up drinking and smoking.
My research not only added 22 irrelevant SAT words to my vocabulary, it convinced me carpenter ant detection is not for amateurs. I called in the professionals. When the pleasant rep arrived, I was anticipating a trenchant discussion of trophallaxis and the probability of the presence of Camponotus saundersi—suicidal exploding ants—in Monroe County.
I led him to the basement, where he examined my sawdust, seeking evidence of frass (ant poop). After sweeping his flashlight hither and yon, he declared, insouciantly, my cottage was a carpenter ant–free zone.
I was jubilant! I had expected exorbitant charges would be warranted. Such a welcome anticlimax. Apparently, I had been making an anthill out of a mountain.
To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pile of sawdust is just a pile of sawdust.
Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here.