Jim Murphy & Sons

Ants created summer of my discontent

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Ants have moved to the top of my list of least favorite creepy crawling critters, even ahead of brown recluse spiders. This should tell you some because spiders give me great trepidation ever since I was bitten on the face by a brown recluse arachnid.

My list also includes squirrels, moles, mosquitoes, flies and fleas, rats and mice. Although not crawling, we might as well include incessantly barking dogs and unleashed cats (see Dave Catlin’s “For The Birds” column on feral cats in GREENE, April 2013) if you really want to know. That’s 11, but ants were not even on my list until recently. So 11 it is until these little formicidae hymenoptera have been sent packing.


Above, male pavement ants, called drones or swarmers, have wings to follow a queen. Above left is a well-worn ant trail.

For much of my gardening life, I have been given ants their place around the urban campfire, but no more. I am right there with Bill Murray, the groundskeeper in the movie, Caddyshack, willing to try dynamite if necessary. With or without the approval of Congress, I am declaring war; maybe even a personal jihad. There can be no negotiated settlement, although given a good faith gesture, I might be willing to visit Paris in the springtime to discuss a cease fire. But by then it will be too late.

Know thine enemy

Ants operate entirely on instinct, whereas I try to operate on research before taking action. So far the ants intelligence is better than mine. Their spies are everywhere.

My patience ended when we first used our new microwave oven. It was barely in use when we discovered ants in it. Aaaah, they have walked right into a radiation zone of their own free will. I zapped them 30 seconds and popped open the door. They were unfazed, so I gave them another 30 seconds of Chernobyl rays. Not only were the ants unscathed, there were more of them, and a couple of tiny beach umbrellas as well. Perhaps you sense my alarm. There are more of them than us, you see, dating back to the mid-cretaceous period between 110 and 130 million years ago.

I will admit there are some fascinating facts about ants. There are meat-eating army ants that will consume anything in their path; fire ants that will just about set your pants aflame; ants that capture the eggs of other ants and make slaves of them to hunt food for the “master”ants, who don’t know how to find it.

Every ant colony has a queen. Very British. Fertile males are drones; females are “workers,” or soldiers. How ungentlemanly. Once flying male drones mate, they get tossed from the nest. Sounds French.

Unlike humans, ants work collectively for the good of the colony. Sounds like a chapter right out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with some ants more equal than others. Ants don’t sleep either, although they don’t seem to go out much at night.

All told, there are at least 22,000 different ant species; about half of them have been catalogued. Lately in the Ozarks, pavement ants from St. Louis have invaded. Living in potted plants, these invasive Japanese ants apparently arrived when we were distracted by Japanese beetles, which surely raises a question about how much more we can take from the Japanese insect world. Pavement ants are headed west, probably along Interstate 44 or Route 66. How they plan to cross the Rockies is a mystery. I’m sure they will find a way, because proportionate to the rest of their bodies, ants have the largest brains in the animal world.

Pavement ants have shown themselves in some very strange places, often one at a time. But let one of them find something edible, which seems to be about anything, and they release powerful “pheromones.” These chemicals are like silent chow bells for ants. Once released, they make Twitter seem tame. Every other pavement ant seems to know there’s a party, and it’s BYOBF (Bring Your Own Best Friend).

Pavement ants are unrelenting little explorers. I have even found one in the shower; on a picture frame; on this very computer screen; and climbing up the side of the refrigerator or a coffee cup.

My friend, Lloyd Morrison, a former ant researcher back in the day, now an ecologist for the National Park Service, confirmed their presence using DNA. But he was no help advising how to get rid of them. Now I’m not sure whose side he’s on. Ivan Eftink, president of Bug Zero, offers his views on pages 32 and 33.

I wish I could tell you this story has a happy ending.

Nothing like that seems likely, although there has been talk of a movie. But probably it would have to be R-rated, because if we don’t win this battle soon, it is going to escalate far beyond a war of words.

* * * *

In fairness, as the worm turns, the ants seem to have learned a lesson lately about co-existing. Although maybe it was the borax mixed in a five percent solution with grape jelly as a peace offering. The soldiers take it to the queen, who succumbs to a very upset tummy. Piece de resistance! Trouble is, it only works with some ant species.

Since I started this, I have encountered only one ant in the wrong place, and she may have been on the hummingbird feeder. Ants compete with the hummers for simple syrup, but the hummers don’t seem to mind sharing.

I do mind, but now it’s time to negotiate with the squirrels, which have been eating the doors off the potting shed.

George Freeman is editor of Ozarks Living Magazine. He often writes Urban Campfires (Tales from My Own Back Yard) in the Outer Office, and posts both words and photos on Facebook and at Ozarks Living.com.


George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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