I have adopted a policy of peaceful coexistence with outdoor ants. Now when I encounter one, as happened the other day when a big black ant crawled over my bare foot, I brush the critter off.
This represents a change in my thinking toward ants. For years I fought them, anthill to anthill.
I see now that my hostility toward ants was formed in a high school English class. When I was a sophomore, my English class read "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson. This is a short story that tells the harrowing tale of a jungle homeowner who battles a force of several thousand extremely organized and extremely hungry army ants.
Like many homeowners, Leiningen thinks he can outsmart the ants. He takes what professionals would call extreme anti-ant steps. He builds a moat around his property. (Do not try this at home.) As I recall, Leiningen first attempts to wash the ants away.
This doesn't work because the clever ants build little moat-boats out of nearby leaves and travel across the water.
Next Leiningen trys to burn the ants by filling the moat with oil. This doesn't work either because these are kamikaze ants, who keep jumping into the flaming moat regardless of the fact that they will be fried.
Eventually Leiningen runs out of oil. The ants advance and, while I can't remember exactly how Leiningen meets his demise, I do recall that the end is not pretty.
The moral that was supposed to be drawn from the story was that it was dangerous to mess with nature. Leiningen knowingly built his home smack in the middle of the ant's turf and soon he was toast.
The effect the story had on me, however, was to inflame anti-ant feelings. For years after high school, "Leiningen Versus the Ants" was my inspiration in backyard battles.
Like Leiningen I believed in confrontation. Whenever I found an anthill, I attacked. Often I, too, tried water. I leveled countless ant abodes with powerful sprays from the garden hose. This tactic failed. Rather than leave, the ants would simply rebuild their flooded homes.
Then I used pesticides. Whenever I spotted an ant hill, I would hit those brown bottles of pesticide pretty hard.
I am not proud of that period of my life. I see now that my compelling urge to obliterate ants was linked to Leiningen, to the American dream of living in an ant-free yard, and probably to testosterone.
That kind of behavior is behind me now, as long as the ants stay outside the house. If ants show up inside the house, however, I revert to primal behavior. First I play detective, and quickly find out where the creatures are getting into the house.
Usually the entry point is a kitchen windowsill or the drainpipe under the kitchen sink. After dispatching every ant I can see by whacking them with a rolled up newspaper, I use caulk to plug ant passageways to the outside world.
Then I spray everything in sight with a solution of equal parts water and white vinegar, and I spray the windowsill and other entry points with an anti-ant insecticide. Finally I move any potential ant food, especially foods containing sugar, away from the kitchen counter tops. Usually the simple combination of cleaning the kitchen and relocating the food persuades the ants to move outside the house.
I have never shared a house with carpenter ants, the type of ants that chew up wood. But veterans of these battles tell me that shooting hornet and wasp spray into the cracks of the endangered timbers drives carpenter ants away.
For now the ants and I share our outdoor patio in perfect harmony. Sometimes I sit out on the patio with my shoes and socks off and a beer in my hands and I watch the ants work. They are a hard-charging bunch who seem to be eating a lot of aphids.
At least I hope that is what they are eating.
Some nights, I pour a little beer down the ant holes, in reparation for my pesticide past. I have been sharing my suds in this way with my backyard ants for the past few years. I thought I was the only guy doing it. But then the other night I watched a beer commercial on TV that showed a bunch of ants draining a cold one. The idea might spread.
There are advantages and drawbacks to sharing your suds with your ants. It does tend to keep the ants in the backyard and out of the house. But as is true with other forms of life, once you give ants some free beer, it is hard to get rid of them.