Infestations of insects

Ants, and A Mild Case of Insanity

Ant

If I can get rid of ants, anyone can.

As those of you who read this blog know, we live in the jungle. I’ve often said our kitchen is one inch from nature; one inch is the thickness of our single-wall constructed house and our native hardwood flooring.

The One Inch precept has made me a fastidious housekeeper. Leave one blob of mayonnaise on the counter, and bugs will arrive to scarf it up. Leave the dishes unwashed overnight in the sink, in the morning they will be crawling with little crawly creepy things like cockroaches, or worse, ants.

I hate ants. I’ve examined my aversion to them, because I don’t hate nature in general; in fact, I am the one who will capture a bug in a glass jar and remove it to the out-of-doors rather than kill it. I have no animosity toward spiders, scorpions, or even wasps. But show me an ant, and I start obsessing about how to exterminate it. I think it is their unremitting self-determination I find so daunting. Frightening, really. That, and their violent relationship with other ants, which reminds me of us. Humans.

I recently heard about a scientist researching cancer, how he based his treatment to target it. Because cancer cells divide rapidly, and tend to hide within the normally dividing human cells, he focused on organisms that use swarm intelligence, and specifically  ones that never give up. Ant colonies. Place anything in their path and they will find an alternate route. They are the squirrels of the insect word.

Last year we had an ant outbreak that just about drove me insane. I scrubbed the counters within an inch of their lives, sprayed them with ammonia or Clean Green. All of which had the effectiveness of water. Ants scattered out over the my counter tops casually bumping noses and sending messages, no doubt about some delectable food find.  Every morning, when all I wanted was a peaceful cup of coffee, I did battle them for fifteen minutes or more. I eliminated bacon from our diet—not a bad thing, I suppose—because the grease attracted them in throngs. Bacon has also become outrageously expensive in Costa Rica, but that is for another post. Or, read my friend’s blog on the subject of increasing taxes on food and other items.

I moved the small compost container (with snap-on, air-tight lid) from the counter to the kitchen table. I quit using the countertop by the stove to prepare any food. And still ants ran roughshod over those work surfaces. I’d find them coming up the side of the counter. I sprayed. I applied poisons— I know, I know—between the counter and the wall. A few days would pass and there they were again like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I’m baaack! Heeeer’s Johnny! [Note: this has been edited due to mass cultural confusion, mixing up Poltergeist’s, They’re Baaack!–my original post– with Nicholson’s cry from The Shining. Just trying to be accurate here] Anyway…a thick stream of them coming up the side of the stove, panning out like river deltas, covering my counter. When I began thinking of things like flame throwers to kill them, I knew I needed a permanent fix.

I went to my trusty Macbook and googled ants + eradicate + traps. Countless sites (herehere, and if you prefer video, here) referred to a mixture of boric acid and sugar. It was purported to work, but I was despondent because I’d tried that a couple of years before and it didn’t work for me. However, I realized, I had made a liquid mixture, as recommended. Hmmmm, maybe if the mixture is dry the ants will track the boric acid to their nest and infect the whole mess of them.

What the hell, I thought, I’ll try it. So I mixed the boric acid and powdered sugar in a 50/50 dry mix and made cocaine-like lines along the back splash of my countertop. It took a day, but I noticed the ants began to focus on the bait. In fact, within two days they attacked it like addicts, snorting up my little lines of white powder. They ate so ravenously I had to replace the thin lines almost every day. I said to my husband, “Well, if this is a far as we get, I’m happy to have them away from my space.” I was able to prepare food on the same countertop; the ants stayed with the bait at the back of the counter, eating and tromping around in the mix. They trailed back up the back splash, through a crack, and disappeared behind the counter.

I left them alone.

The method is not fast, but it has been impressively effective. Within two months I had little to no ants. And because the mixture was up on the countertop, I did not have to worry about the dogs getting into it. This is something to remember: boric acid is poisonous to children and pets, so if you use it, keep it away from them. You can do that by putting the mix in a jar and punching holes in the lid, but my outbreak (and mental wellbeing) required the ants find the bait post-haste. It would have taken too long for them to find it inside a jar.

How does it work? According to Debbie Hadley in her About.com article, How to Make and Use Homemade Ant Baits,

 “Boric acid works primarily as a stomach toxin on ants. The worker ants will carry the bait food, loaded with boric acid, back to the nest. There, the ants in the colony will ingest it and die. The boric acid seems to interfere with their metabolism, although scientists aren’t exactly sure how it does so. Sodium borate salts affect an insect’s exoskeleton, causing the insect to desiccate.”

I don’t know about that, but I know it works. Hadley and others recommend the liquid mixture, but, as I said,  it did not work for me. The dry mix is easy to control, and, once the ants focused on it, I increased the amount of boric acid in the mix. Eventually it was a 3:1 mix, more or less (this is not rocket science), and the ants never stopped going for it. They loved it. I removed the bait when they appeared to be gone. When I saw another small outbreak–probably a new hatch– I replaced the bait. Four months later, none. Zero. Zip.

Hoo-ah!

We haven’t had an ant problem now for about a year, but I can never get lax in my housekeeping. The other day I left some chicken scraps on the counter after making a chicken sandwich with mayonnaise (always a magnet). When I came back after lunch there were about ten ants orbiting the countertop. I squished them with my thumb and then sprayed the counter and the back splash with vinegar, which also works; I’ve written about its excellent properties before.

No more ants…. for now. But I am always aware that they lurk a mere inch from my kitchen.

 

More resources:

13 natural remedies for the ant invasion  by Kimi Harris

How to Stop an Ant Invasion WikiHow

Getting Rid of Ants  The Frugal Life

 

Dog Days~


There is a saying, adapted from the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, the meek shall inherit the earth.

Of this I am sure, people: this passage is not referring to the pious or mild-mannered followers of the Christian faith. As a full-fledged Darwinian I believe it means that things like ants, cockroaches, and, yes, fleas will be the last remaining inhabitants of this planet.

La Zona Tropical is a bad place to get a flea infestation, and this summer– especially hot and humid– has been a particularly bad one. We are still battling them.

Before I left for Japan we had a major outbreak and had to battle back with everything known to the toxic and environmentally friendly world of Pest Control. We bathed dogs every third day with flea shampoos. We have three dogs and one is so big it’s a bit like washing the side of a boxcar, but we lathered on. When they were dry, we powdered them, sprayed them, and, excuse the new verbs here, Advantaged® or Frontlined® them, depending on which product we could find and buy.

Alan crawled under the house, where the dogs den, every three days and sprayed with a combination of poisons and boric acid. Boric acid? Yes, boric acid. According to some literature I have read on the subject it is a miracle of sorts in the fight against insect infestations. My daughter-in-law, Yuka, says she remembers her parents making balls with “some white powder” and foodstuff to kill cockroaches in Japan. I’m almost certain that it was boric acid, but I’m unable to ask them as they speak only Japanese. But according to all I’ve read, boric acid kills cockroaches on contact and “apparently” will do the same to fleas. We were trying anything.

It’s been an uphill battle.

I’ve learned a lot about fleas in the past month or two. They, like other insects, pass through four stages in their life cycle- egg, larva, pupa and adult. An adult female begins laying eggs within two days after her first blood meal. Sounds vampirish, doesn’t it? How about this– within 9 days she will produce up to 30 eggs a day and consumes 15 times her body weight in blood every day. Multiply this by an infestation of twenty or more (lots more, actually) and it’s no wonder our poor dogs were scratching. That very scratching only spreads the eggs further afield, I might add, the game plan of the pesky flea. But there’s more. Once the eggs are scattered around nicely and develop into larvae, they live off the feces of the parents, manifested as partially desiccated blood.

The whole thing sounds really creepy and not so meek to me. It also makes me want to CLEAN MY HOUSE. Which, it turns out, is exactly what needs to be done.

According to the Texas A&M site I visited, and Texas should know about fleas, regular vacuuming is the key to controlling fleas indoors. They tend to nest in dog bedding, carpets, under furniture, and in cushions of couches. We keep our house very clean and free of any food products out on counters because we live in the tropics, but now it’s time to double up on the effort. I am now vacuuming every other day.

Here is an interesting fact and more ammunition for my postulation about the inheritance of the earth theory. When fleas, laid as eggs and fed on feces as a larva, enter the pupa stage of the transition to adulthood, they spin their own cocoon and reside inside until the time is ripe to enter the world. Normally, they will emerge within a couple of weeks but if the environment doesn’t suit them, the adult flea may remain in the cocoon for up to five months. When stimulated by a passing animal the adult can emerge within seconds. Old houses or apartments can still be infested and can “come alive” when new tenants move in. Yikes!

So, I am back from my trip to Asia and the fleas are still here. Not as fiercely as before, but still present.

There is a wonderful book called The War of the Flea, by Robert Taber. It is not about fleas, but about guerrilla warfare. Clearly Taber knows what it’s like to battle the flea and he uses the analogy well in his book. One passage reads: “The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.” He also points out The West’s inability to truly understand how to wage war against these non-conventional forces.

It’s a bit the same battling the lowly flea here in Punta Uva. It requires time, patience, and an understanding of the enemy.

I washed both our dogs today and hope that our hired man, José, will do the same with his. Alan was under the house again spraying and hopefully…hopefully we will put a dent in the flea population.

I know I’ll never be able to eradicate them, but perhaps I can keep them in check until I totter off this world, or… more likely, it gets colder.