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The Carpenter Ant: Insect or Alien?

April 7, 2013

Spring has arrived. I know this because:

  • the sun rises earlier, shines brighter, is warmer, and remains in the sky longer each day;
  • the snow and ice are slowly disappearing from yards and roadsides around town;
  • Iceberg Alley NFLDthe northern sea ice is breaking up and icebergs are beginning their journey south through ‘iceberg alley’;
  • crocuses, buttercups, tulips, daffodils, and snowdrops are pushing they way through the sleeping earth in my garden;
  • the dozens of trees on my property are fat with buds;
  • robins and other migratory birds have returned to my yard (and the swallows have returned to Capistrano);
  • baseball teams are in Florida for spring training (while college and high school students recently returned from that state – and other ‘points south’ – after engaging in their own spring rituals);
  • black carpenter ants have begun their annual invasion of the living spaces in my house.

The first few years after we moved in (we’ve been here 12½ years), the ants appeared every spring ‘en masse’ in the dishwasher, the sink, and on just about every surface in the kitchen, as well as individually here and there in the bathrooms, the dining room (which we use as a home office), the living room, and occasionally the bedrooms.  The quickest and easiest method of eradication was to squash each and every one of them (usually preceded by and/or followed with a mild yelp of disgust); we also took to running the dishwasher daily (boiling those suckers to death), pouring Borax (followed by hot running water) down the drains, sterilizing (repeatedly) all surfaces with a vinegar and water solution, and spreading ‘environmentally friendly’ ant repellent (everything from paprika, chili powder, crushed egg shells and coffee grounds to various ‘non toxic’ store-bought products) around the foundation of the house and on window sills and door frames. Gradually the invading army would retreat (although the odd few stragglers would continue to appear off and on for several days) and we’d feel victorious!

Until the following spring, when it would start all over again.

Carpenter AntCarpenters ants inhabit many parts of the world. In southern Ontario, the black carpenter ant is extremely common. They don’t eat wood but they do build large colonies in dead or rotting timber. Once they’ve established a nest, the ‘worker ants’ go out to forage for food, travelling up to 100 meters (yards) in search of sustenance (which they gather and take back to the nest). The ‘workers’ generally set off at night, travelling along chemical pheromone trails left by previous members of their ‘tribe’. They particularly love sweets (honey, sugar, chocolate, candy, jelly, fruit) but they’re omnivorous – meaning they’ll eat just about anything they can get their sharp little mandibles into (including all sorts of animal and plant foods, other insects or invertebrates [living or dead], meat, grease, and fat – pretty  much anything you might have in or around your kitchen). They can easily chew through moist or damp wood to gain entry to your home (they also come in via drainage systems), and they can squeeze through the tiniest of holes (the average black carpenter ant is about 1.5 cm or ½ inch long).  They don’t sting, but larger worker ants can bite.

In addition to being just plain creepy, they can cause significant structural damage to homes if they not eradicated.  So we’ve learned to fight them inside and out with a mixture of exterior ‘sprays’ (e.g., on the exposed end of the huge supporting beam that runs the length of the house, where we determined they had gained ingress) and interior ‘bait traps’ (where the cats can’t get to them, like the nifty little platform my husband built at the other end of the beam where we saw them popping out and wandering along the kitchen walls).  It took a few years, but we’ve mostly won the battle – every spring there are a few ants here and there (my two new cats have turned out to be great ‘ant trackers’ – they alert me to the presence of an intruder so I can kill it – what a team) but we haven’t had any more major infestations. Thank goodness.

Still, what probably creeps me out most about their appearance each spring is the sheer randomness of where they turn up. For example, the other day I was sitting at the computer, typing away when – out of NOWHERE – an ant starts walking across the top of my monitor. I hadn’t seen it wandering down the cupboard above the desk, or across the desk and up the side of the monitor, or even dropping out of the sky. It was just … THERE!   The same thing happened in the kitchen. I was making a cup of tea when an ant showed up right next to the kettle. Surely if it had been walking across the (white) wall, or along/down the (beige) cupboards, or meandering towards me across the counter, I would have SEEN it before it appeared out of THIN AIR beside the kettle, wouldn’t I? (I may wear glasses, but I’m not BLIND!) And just the other night, I was sitting in the living room with my feet up on the footstool enjoying a glass of wine before dinner when I spotted an ant crawling down my leg. How did it get there? Why hadn’t I seen it? Why hadn’t the cat, who was lying on my lap, spotted it? WHERE HAD IT COME FROM??!?!?!?!!?

Ant PartyAnother weird part of an ant ‘invasion’ is the way they sometimes congregate in groups (again, without me seeing them – either one-by-one or in groups – wandering towards the gathering spot).  One year the favourite spot for these clandestine meetings was under the wooden lazy susan I keep on corner of the kitchen counter. One morning I noticed a single ant near it; I looked underneath (and shrieked loudly) – there had to have been two dozen  ants lurking beneath it (I lifted it up, squashed as many as I could, swept the rest onto the floor and did a kind of hoochy-koochy dance across the kitchen as I stomped them all to death).  A similar thing happened just this past week (the first ‘warning’ I had that ‘the boys are back in town’) – I saw a single ant crawling across the top of the stove, towards a hand towel I’d left there earlier. I lifted it up – and over a dozen ants scrambled madly away.  I hammered and banged and swept and stomped (and I think I got ‘em all); for the rest of the day I kept my eye on the beam (the spot where they’d emerged years before), the wall, the cupboards, etc. and while I’d see the odd one here or there, I couldn’t pinpoint where they were coming from, or how they got to the places they got to without me spotting them sooner! It was rather disturbing.

AntBabylon 5 ShadowThen I remembered a TV series my oldest son and I used to watch back in the mid 1990s – Babylon 5. It was a sort of ‘space opera’ set in the 23rd century, after Earth had conquered space and set up an alliance of sorts with various alien species. There were, of course, other species who weren’t quite so friendly, including ‘”The Shadows, an ancient and extremely powerful race who [during the show’s second season] emerged from hibernation [and are] revealed to be the cause of a variety of mysterious and disturbing events” (from Wikipedia) Their very name gives you some clue as to their ability to stay well hidden; they (and their really cool ships) would appear and disappear using advanced ‘cloaking’ mechanisms. They could also ‘materialize’ just about anywhere they wanted to.  And they looked an awful lot like (really big) black carpenter ants.

Teleporting AntNow, who’s to say that all the species we share our planet with are actually native to it? We’ve all heard stories about UFOs, alien abductions, and theories about intelligent extraterrestrial beings who might have visited Earth thousands of years ago (and who may have influenced our evolution and the development of our culture, technology, and religious beliefs).  Perhaps black carpenter ants are really aliens! That would certainly explain their ability to mysteriously appear in places where they weren’t seen a moment or two before (they have teleportation abilities), their capacity to communicate without any audible language (they’re part of a collective), and our (human) apparent inability to annihilate them (clearly, resistance is futile).

I just hope they don’t actually take over the entire planet before I’m well past and beyond … the other side of 55.

Aliens Quote

  1. April 14, 2013 8:36 am

    I had the same problem and found that they were living, burrowing, propagating, colonizing in the wood structure of my expansive front porch. When I had to rebuild the porch because of the rotting wood, they were gone. You may want to seriously look into having the house examined to verify the structural integrity of the house but with the added bonus of getting rid of your friends.

    • April 14, 2013 11:25 am

      That’s probably a really good idea! I think they’re in the beam that runs through the main part of the house; I’m not even sure how they’d get them out of there but I might have to call someone. Thanks.

  2. Cathy Hendrix permalink
    April 7, 2013 11:39 pm

    I have to say I haven’t had an ant problem for quite some time. Don’t know why. And probably by writing this I have now jinxed myself. But I had to comment on your alien analogy. Loved it! And let’s hope that none of those little guys ‘live long and prosper’! At least not in your house!

    • April 8, 2013 8:51 am

      Hopefully they aren’t intercepting our communication and now plan to invade your home!


  3. April 7, 2013 6:05 pm

    We have the annual spring invasion of ants in our house also. I suspect they use some sort of inter-dimensional transportation device. How else could they appear out of nowhere in mass quantities?

    • April 7, 2013 6:58 pm

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s realized they’re from some other planet!


  4. April 7, 2013 4:26 pm

    Yeah, we get ants here – black ants, but I don’t know if they’re a certain type or not. Ours bite, big time. However, they like the patio best and the pebbles and rocks round the pond and stream, so they’re never far away. Thankfully we rarely see them indoors. When we do, they are tactfully and not so tactfully shown the door (sometimes in a somewhat flat state, though the only little things that regularly get offed are mosquitos and gnats. We know our place in the food chain, me and hubby, and it ain’t at the bottom!)

    However, what we started doing a few years ago was enticing the ants away from the places we didn’t want them (aka the house) by laying a trail of honey or syrup and then pooling it a long way behind the pond where we rarely walk. They are happy, well fed ants, and so far haven’t bitten us for a while.

    As for whether they are aliens? I don’t know, but if they are, they have a sweet tooth. Or whatever ‘tooth’ is in alien-speak.

    • April 7, 2013 6:57 pm

      I don’t mind them outside – in fact, they’re good for the garden. I just don’t like them crawling around in my kitchen!


  5. April 7, 2013 2:40 pm

    We have an ant problem here, too! I don’t know the official name, but my mom calls them grease ants. They are tiny tiny ones. Seemingly out of nowhere, you will suddenly see a LONG line of them going along the wall or across the counters. My garden in the front is totally infested, too. The little buggers bite and it stings!

    • April 7, 2013 2:52 pm

      We only had those once; they came in through a crack by the sliding door between the deck and dining room and marched back and forth to some ‘unknown’ spot. We finally tracked it down to a few crumbs that ‘someone’ had dropped on the floor (probably me, because they were under my desk). We put bait traps under the floor by the door and they gradually stopped. Creepy!


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