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THE GOODS : They're attacking from everywhere! What to do about... : Ants

July 15, 1994|CONNIE KOENENN

It's ant season. A couple of weeks ago, those armies of black dots marching across your kitchen were looking for relief from the heat, says Rosser Garrison, agricultural entomologist for Los Angeles County. "I had them in my own house."

If it's not relief from heat, then they're looking for relief from cold or from too much dry weather or from too much wet weather. And food is always on their agenda.

There is no single ant season. Ants can invade any time, streaming into the house in formation like a living highway, up the outside walls, along the baseboards, through windowsill cracks and even through electric light sockets.

"What you're seeing is the Argentine house ant (Iridomyrmex humilis )," Garrison says. "That's what everyone is talking about. They are harmless--small and black and incapable of stinging, but very aggressive."

The bright side: "If there are termites in the way, they'll eat them."

Although ants are happiest nesting in cool soil, any extreme weather from heavy rainfall to drought can displace them, Garrison says, sending their scouts out in all directions to find a suitable spot to camp.

When it's hot, Garrison says, "they're out looking for food, moisture and coolness."

That means a house, and once they're in with all the amenities--food, water and lots of places to hide--ants have a field day, says Jack Herson, president of Fume a Pest.

They also send for their relatives. "It won't stop," says Herson, who gets frantic calls from people who find ants as terrifying as rats. "Ants are social and will set up their entire family (numbering in the hundreds of thousands) almost anywhere. Basically, if you give an ant shelter and food, it'll be your friend for life."

Getting rid of ants requires securing the house inside and out. The kitchen comes first, says Yvonne Savio of Pasadena, a master gardener with UC Cooperative Extension. "Ants don't have a refrigerator at home--they are always looking for food."

Clean counter surfaces and cupboards with a wet sponge and a bit of detergent. "Ants leave scent trails and you've got to get rid of them," Savio says. She recommends Simple Green, a biodegradable household cleanser that not only stops ants dead in their tracks, she says, but also stops their replacements--they won't cross the dried path.

Don't leave food out, especially anything containing sugar or grease. Store all food in sealed containers.

Ants can be outwitted, Savio says. "If they are streaming into a potted plant, take it outside and flood it. If it's too big to move, bring in a pot of compost, put it next to the plant and put a stick between them for a bridge. Then flood the plant. The ants will move into the compost pot and you can take it outdoors."

Other home-remedies for stopping ants in their tracks abound. They include Windex, hair spray, liquid detergents or vinegar and water on surfaces where ants invade. Some say the ant parade may be stopped by sprinkling black and red pepper on windowsills and in doorways, sprinkling cornmeal where ants are located (they will eat it, but die when they drink water and the corn meal expands) or by drawing thick chalk lines, which ants will not cross.

But the real battle, the experts say, must be at the source. "Try to follow ant trails to the point of entry," Savio says.

Ants frequently nest in hollow spaces such as between walls or under cabinets, areas that can be sprayed with an insecticide dust or boric acid powder. Stuff fresh mint leaves into baseboards and wall cracks, crushing it so the oils are released. Or use glue to seal cracks where ants come in.

Outdoors, check out the footings of the house and all the utility connections. Savio favors Cooke's Ant Spray for long-term prevention. "I use it on the entire base of the house," she says. "I wear a mask and wash my clothes afterward."

Herson's preventive advice is to fix dripping outdoor faucets, caulk openings where pipes enter the house and check pool areas or barbecues where soda or beer cans might be left. "Ants not only like syrup and sugar, they love beer," he says.

Check trees that overhang the house for ant activity, he says. "You might want to cut the branches away from the house. Remove any fallen fruit that could provide an ant eating binge."

Chemical sprays, everyone agrees, should be approached with caution.

Too many people just grab the Raid can and fire away, Herson says. "Typically we'll come into a house and see five or six cans of different aerosol sprays sitting on the porch empty," he says. "Sometimes they are not even labeled for inside or outside. Spraying the wrong chemicals in the wrong place can put everybody in jeopardy."

For advice about chemicals, he says, call a professional exterminator or the Los Angeles Country Agriculture Commissioner's office. "If it's a seasonal thing, they can tell you what has been effective."

County entomologist Garrison's advice is to spray only as a last resort.

"You can diminish the population with a soap solution or insecticidal soap or pesticides from your nursery," he says. But you must read all the instructions.

"Bug sprays work for a rapid knockdown of an insect pest, but they smell bad and they are poison."

A common request he gets is for a pesticide that will be "totally organic, and totally safe for children, parakeets and the family dog, but absolutely deadly to ants."

That doesn't exist.

"If you think you're going to eradicate the Argentine house ant, forget it. They are a natural component of the urban ecosystem here. They are an important link in the food chain, providing a source of food for many, many, animals. They are decomposers; they help recycle nutrients in the soil."

In case you have trouble appreciating the noble qualities of your own ants, Garrison recommends Bert Holldobler's and Edward O. Wilson's 1991 book "The Ants."

"It won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction," he says. "It's a magnificent tome."

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