Critters: Part II

As someone who rarely takes a vacation–and it’s always a visit-my-relatives type of trip, not a lie-on-a-beach-under-palm-fronds excursion–I feel a bit hard done by this year. My absence was brief, but critters moved in with no waste of time. Squirrels were bad enough, but there was much worse to come. Forget the Chinese zodiac. I’m dubbing 2018 the Year of the Ant.

I’m hardly alone with this problem. Everyone in my community is busy fending off these determined, industrious little creatures. Walk in any local store selling ant poisons, and you’ll find gaps on the shelves where the very product you most want is sold out. Mention ants in any conversation, and everyone has an invasion story to share. They are everywhere. They are legion. They are taking over.

When I asked my lawn man recently for suggestions, he reeled back two steps and proclaimed, “You’re the fifteenth customer to ask me that question this week!”

For this installment of my critter saga, let me go back to March. The week before Spring Break, when I was stumbling groggily through the house at daybreak, assuring myself that there were only three more teaching days to endure if I could Just. Hang. On., I entered my guest bathroom to use the shower. It had been a week since I had ventured in there, but I like to keep the plumbing in use. I bent over the shower/tub combo to pull the On lever. Along with the water, a golf-ball-sized wad of black ants shot from the end of the faucet, and this cluster of crawlies separated to spread across the bottom of the tub.

Screaming, I sloshed water all around, sluicing ants down the drain. Finally, when none were in sight, I gingerly stepped into the tub and showered. Needless to say, shaken and definitely stirred, I arrived late to work.

That night, I ventured into the bathroom armed with Terro ant bait–the borax-based glop my mother swore by. No ants in sight. I left a bait in there anyway and decided the weird experience was over.

How little did I know.

Upon my return two weeks later, I again turned on the guest tub faucet. This time, a tennis-ball-sized wad of ants shot into my tub. A black horde of them spread across the white enamel. Suddenly they were crawling everywhere … on the shower curtain, along the top of the tub, on the chrome faucet.

I was beyond screaming. Pausing only to notice that my Terro bait held not a single ant, I shut off water, slammed the door, and fled. On the opposite side of the house, in the master bathroom, I stared at my bleary reflection in the mirror while listening to the squirrels tap-dancing above my head.

How are they getting in? Why the bathroom? Are they after water? Why aren’t they attracted to the ant bait? How did they get inside the faucet? Does that mean I have a leaking water pipe under my slab foundation? Have they invaded my plumbing? There must be a colony beneath my house.

Jackhammers! Concrete saws! Dust! Noise! Chaos! Money!

With visions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions and billions and zillions of small black ants marching back and forth through all the pipes, I headed to campus. Needless to say, my mind was not on student inquiries about dealing with plot holes. My lunch break was spent frantically running an Internet search on local houses for sale.

With varmints in the attic and ants in the bathroom, I was ready to depart permanently.

Now, sure, every summer there are ants. And usually during the heat of July and August, a few make their way somehow into the utility room, where they venture about 24 inches from the corner of the base cabinets toward the dog food bowl. But they never actually crawl inside the bowl. They don’t swarm the countertop where the sacks of dog food are kept. They keep to a very small area, and although I would label them a nuisance they are hardly pestilence and plague.

However, the minute creatures in the guest bathroom were a different species. They were not polite. They were not restrained. They were a pulsating, crashing, overwhelming invasion worthy of an early Spielberg film. Only if they had been enormous and mutant sized–like the gigantic ants in the 1950s film, THEM–could they have been worse.

Each time I peeked in the room, there were more. On the walls. On the ceiling. On the tile. Along the baseboards. Still filling the tub by coming and coming and coming. Why they didn’t march the full length of that bathroom and spill into the hallway, I don’t know. There was nothing to stop them but their own inexplicable agenda.

I set out an entire package of Terro ant baits, to no avail. I steeled myself and stood in the pesticide aisle of Home Depot, reading every package of every poisonous product on the shelf. There was a time, a few years ago, when I couldn’t have walked down that aisle without getting ill. Now I had a short window of time where I could tolerate the toxic stench of combined chemicals. I bought something that promised to kill the queen. Kill sounded good.

Die, baby, die! It’s not personal, mind you, but if you come in my house, you’re going down.

Except her workers refused to take the bait, let alone carry it home to mama.

A resourceful friend, appealed to with much wailing and cries of woe, researched “safe” alternative solutions and came up with a formula of vinegar, water, and peppermint oil. She tried it in her kitchen, since it was okay for her cats to be around, and assured me that it worked.

Although I knew I was beyond the mint oil and cucumber peel stage of repelling a few antennaed explorers, I buzzed off to the store and invested in oil of peppermint. When concentrated to an essential oil, that stuff is potent. My air passages are still clear. I counted drops and mixed stuff like a medieval herbalist in ye olde apothecary shoppe, and went forth to do battle with a squirt bottle.

Well, it does work.

Sort of.

You have to directly blast a particular ant and make a drenched type of target acquisition. No doubt the ant drowns in diluted vinegar. Ascetic acid versus formic acid. And the air smells like Christmas.

However, this solution was not enough to stop the ever-marching horde.

When I was a child, one of my favorite films was a 1954 Charleton Heston movie called THE NAKED JUNGLE. Set in South America, it dealt with army ants invading the jungle and destroying Heston’s plantation. The ants ate everything in their path, including people. They were like tiny piranha on feet. Little did I know, as I sprawled on the living room carpet, drinking in the terror of screaming actors, that one day I also would be facing an alien army of my own. At least, in my real world my crawlies haven’t been biters. I don’t have to worry about waking up with ants munching on my eyeballs.

I noticed my swarm was marching into the tub from beneath the handle plate and no longer spewing from the end of the faucet. That allayed my fear of plumbing pipes with holes. But now I knew they were living in at least one wall of my house. I threw my usual rule of no pesticides in the house to the four winds and brought home a gallon of ant killer. Any multi-legged creature found in my home was going to perish.

A friend removed the wall plate and filled the cavity with borax and vinegar and pesticide while I wore my respirator mask and stayed at the opposite end of the house. It’s a wonder the mixture didn’t set off a chemical reaction like mixing baking soda and vinegar. But nothing foamed, and ants died. The wall plate was replaced. The ventilation fan was left running for hours. I stayed far away until the fumes dissipated and it was safe for me to breathe.

Were the ants gone? Not at all. They poured in around the window instead. They died on contact with the pesticide residue, but still they came. Call this room the Ant Alamo. I felt I was down to my last bullet. In a surge of what psychologists call “battle madness,” I strapped on my respirator mask one windy midnight, grabbed the gallon jug of Home Defense killer spray, and circled my house in the darkness like a demented fiend, hosing down the windowsills and foundation despite gusts that blew the stuff hither and yon.

Thank you, wind of the prairie. The pesticide blew away, and stopped nothing.

More friends offered more suggestions. Gels and potions and unguents and enchantments. The lawn guy begged me to let him know if I found anything that would work. I lurked in Lowe’s pesticide aisle, listening to the conversation of strangers discussing how to remove their thresholds to spray ants beneath door frames.

Finally, when I stopped searching Realtor ads despite teetering on the verge of barking madness, the battle turned. I stood outside the south side of my house, bleakly staring at the ants crawling along my sidewalks, my foundation, my walls, my windows, and even in and out through tiny gaps in my brick mortar. My handyman was repairing the soffit screen torn open by the squirrel squatters, and when that was finished, I asked him to caulk the outside of the shower window which was too high for me to reach.

It has helped.

No longer do they march up and down the bathroom wall tile. The last time I checked, the ones on the ceiling are dead and need sweeping down. No doubt the invasion has moved on to another wall cavity and another room. Or, in the mysterious way of ants, they have left.

A few ants of a different species wander across my computer desk. Last night, I kept flicking a wanderer off the monitor screen. Someone that I usually call friend could not wait to tell me about the so-called “crazy ants” from South America that eat electronics and circuitry.

Do I need to know this? Haven’t I trauma enough?

One childhood Christmas, I was given an ant farm by my parents. It was probably chosen by my father, always keen to provide me with educational toys. And I’ll admit it was fascinating to watch my little colony of carpenter-ant sized ants tunneling through the white sand in their glass enclosure. My mother, less enthusiastic about my pets since she’d grown up in the desert southwest among fire ants, admonished me daily not to let them escape. Each day, I carefully opened the small stopper on top and sprinkled ant food, then closed the stopper. Each night, my mother asked me if I’d closed it, and I always answered yes and showed her I had. Then came the day when I arrived home from school and found the stopper open. My ants were gone. Mom was horrified. She hunted those ants high and low, but they were never seen again. Where did they go?

Wherever it was, I wish these bathtub ants would follow them.

Here’s a day’s supply, all dead. Huzzah.



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