Coffee heat rising

How to deal with ants

They’re b-a-a-a-a-c-k! The little myrmidons who think my yard is their empire are moving in on the house again. I had a little frenzy the time they got into the kitchen, where they evinced great joy at their discovery of the dishwasher, a rich new world heretofore unknown to the Ant Queendom. And then, after an hour of frantic activity, was a bit ashamed of myself for having sprayed them in a panic.

Yuck! How unecological. How self-destructive. How…messy!

After all, I do know better. When I first moved into this house, the backyard was overrun with ants…never saw so many biting ants in my life! About that time I realized I’d purchased the House from Hell, and the previous owner was Satan. The ants, it appeared, had burrowed all the way down to Satan’s throne.

Gila woodpecker

I really dislike bug spray—have had it make me very sick, indeed—and I will not have an exterminator on the property. (Not willingly, anyway.) Ant baits are pretty effective, but at the time I had two big dogs and didn’t relish leaving poison on the ground where they might get at it.

A little research, however, revealed that many birds, even seed-eaters, will eat ants. Matter of fact, a few local characters eat a lot of ants: the flicker, its relative the Gila woodpecker, the curve-billed thrasher, starlings, sparrows, grackles, Abert’s towhees, possibly mockingbirds. So, at that time I called in as many birds as I could by hanging bird feeders from the eaves and from a branch of the neighbor’s tree that overhung my side of the wall. This worked well. Within a couple of months, the ant population was under control.

Understand: I’m not interested in killing off all the ants. They serve many useful purposes, and besides, they’re interesting creatures. I just don’t want them to make themselves at home in the house. Or around the patios where I like to sit.

Abert's towhee

Lately, I’ve noticed it’s been unnaturally quiet in the mornings and evenings. At dawn, normally, the neighborhood is all a-chatter with birdsong. In the desert, a city with its lawns, trees, and shrubbery forms a kind of riparian area, and so we have a lot of birds. This summer’s extreme heat and droughty conditions, though, may have killed them or driven them to shelter. The heat really has been outrageous this year: we’re two days short of September and it’s still 114 degrees. Plus the ash tree in front has finally, once and for all, died. That removed a lot of shaded shelter, so they may have just moved on down the block. Still: weirdly silent. As in “no birds.”

Then a week or so ago, I’m sitting on the deck and yipe! My feet are getting chewed! The place was overrun with ants! Looking for nothing in particular, as far as I could tell: just foraging around. They were coming from a mound next to a lavender plant which, incidentally, they seem to have undermined and killed. I put down some baits, and, to keep the dog out, laid an old wire fan cage over them.

Red-shafted flickers

The dog and I decamped to the back porch for breakfast. I’d carried a dish of dog chews outside, so I could bribe her to leave me in peace to read the paper. Forgot to bring that in. That evening when I went out to retrieve it, lo! A blanket of ants was swarming over the doggy chews and all over the glass-topped table, carrying off the dog treats an ant-bite at a time!

Argh! In that encounter, a few of the little gals made their way into the house. I beat them back with dish detergent, eventually carrying the day.

But, it was clear, only a day. Time to mobilize the troops.

My neighbor next door—she of the overhanging tree limb—dislikes birds. Hates them. That could be another explanation for their absence, come to think of it. She threw a hissy-fit when she discovered Other Daughter, who’s next-door to her on the far side, was feeding the doves and thereby calling in a passel of grackles…which, it must be admitted, are messier than your average airborne elephant. As you can imagine, then, I need to be careful here.

This afternoon I bought some fresh bird feed, the old stuff having run out a couple years ago, and hung up the two feeders. If you enjoy using your patio to eat outside or just to sit and enjoy the fresh air, you don’t want to call birds in too close to the house. They can make quite a mess, not being amenable to toilet-training. So I placed one feeder in an orange tree, out of the neighbor’s line of sight, and one on an eave away from the patio and the deck, the same location where it hung the first time around.

There are other nonchemical, relatively nontoxic ways to engage battle with ants. Boric acid, available at drugstores and sometimes at Target, is more or less benign, unless you’re a cat and given to licking your paws. Sprinkle a line of it around the foundation of your house and across each threshold. It’s like fine cut glass to ants—slices up their exoskeleton, eventually causing them to dehydrate and die. Because it doesn’t kill them quickly, they’ll carry it back to the hive on their bodies, spreading it around among their sisters and, with any luck, getting some of it on the queen. Takes a while, but eventually it will get rid of them.

Some people claim you can “erase” the scent trails they follow (ants lay down pheromones to communicate where the food is) with 409 or similar strong household cleaners. I have never found that to be true.

Some say you can kill a hive by pouring boiling water over it. Ditto: never found it to work. Doesn’t do any plants around the nest much good, though.

Ant traps are almost as effective against the little ladies as roach traps are against roaches, which is to say very effective. You have to be sure they’re out of reach of pets and children though. And they do kill all the ants, which might not be the wisest thing to do.

No. Birds are your friends here. Bring enough of them into your yard and they’ll take care of the ants for you. They’ll make short work of field roaches, crickets, and other annoyances, too. A plastic bird feeder (available cheap at Home Depot; I got one of mine even cheaper at a yard sale) or even a planter dish full of bird seed will do the job. Remember to refill the feeder(s) every day or two, to keep them coming back. If you don’t have room to store birdseed, bread crumbs work just as well: save heels of bread, break them up into coarse crumbs, and scatter them around some distance from porches and patios. Then sit back, enjoy the show, and say good-bye to the bugs.

Curved-bill thrasher