Alone, it's a thumbprint from eradication, a tiny dark speck scrambling on teeny legs across your kitchen counter.
But the Argentine ant has friends--lots of them. United, they create a scourge referred to by one expert as "the Genghis Khan of the ant world."
The troops arrived in Southern California years ago, but this season's weather has made the Argentine ant the largest pest-control problem Orange County has seen in years.
"About 85% to 90% of our business is ants," says Joe Tierney of American City Pest Control, which serves parts of Orange and Los Angeles counties.
"We have people we've serviced for ages who have never had an ant problem until this year," he says. The extended heat wave and high humidity have been the driving forces behind the infestation, pushing thirsty ants from underground nests toward water sources.
Alas, there's no reason to expect relief from rain or cold weather.
"After this El Nino, it will be worse. That's when they really come," says Ron Cruz, who runs a pest-control business in Lakewood.
The ants march toward kitchens, bathtubs and, ugh, even bedrooms.
"I had one gentleman who called last week and said they were in his bed and all the way around it," says Joe Wilson, a technician for Terminix, which has a regional office in Anaheim. "They can travel the whole, complete yard--up trees, over stucco walls, along wires. They get where they need to go."
Ants are very important structural pests in most urban areas of the U.S., swarming on and eliminating everything from sidewalk candy to the remains of bugs.
But, declares one victim of their wrath, "It has gone beyond just doing their job in the ant world. This is war."
What may be a crawling nightmare for homeowners has been a dream come true for those in the bug-battling industry.
That's because another household pest, the flea, has been weakened in battle. The number of clients seeking help from exterminators for fleas has plummeted everywhere. The market was seized almost overnight by new and effective prescription pet products such as Program, Advantage and Frontline--monthly flea treatments available through veterinarians for animals.
"All I can say is, thank God for the Argentine ant," says one area pest controller. "Without that little bugger, I don't think I'd be paying my rent."
Who are these ants? Why are they here? According to Hanif Gulmahamad, an urban entomologist from Anaheim, the Argentine ant, or Linepithema humile, is a species native to Argentina and Brazil that probably entered New Orleans via coffee ships before 1891.
The tiny blackish-brown species, about an eighth of an inch long, is the area's most common ant. It's found in California and the southern states, with isolated infestations in Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon and Washington.
It loves Southern California.
Though the hot weather this summer forced them to seek water indoors, the Argentine ant is also known to become particularly pernicious at the onset of cool weather in the fall, Gulmahamad says, when colonies converge and move to sheltered, warmer quarters under homes and begin to seek food. A single colony can harbor thousands of ants.
"Besides being aggressive, belligerent, pugnacious, semi-nomadic fugitives, Argentine ants are also very difficult to control," he says.
Ask the homeowners reluctantly serving as bed-and-breakfast hosts to scores of unwelcome guests.
"I don't ever expect to win; it's an ongoing thing," says an exasperated Mike Leland, 38, who continually treats his Seal Beach home against the Argentine ant.
"If we took the position that we were going to conquer them, we'd be kidding ourselves. . . . You can just isolate them and co-exist."
Says Huntington Beach resident Gwen Johnson, 35: "It was like a horror movie. At first I saw them outside in long trails, getting closer and closer to the house. After a few days, I was running after them in my bathroom like a maniac with a spray can. . . . It was hideous."
Leland and Johnson have plenty of company.
"We've been getting calls since May," says Jim Francisco, educational coordinator for the Orange County Vector Control District.
"Mostly, it's just people wanting to know where they're coming from. We advise them to either take matters into their own hands [with retail baits or insecticides] or call an exterminator."
As Orange County residents are discovering, the Argentine ant is a tough guy with a sweet tooth. Ant workers seek out and feed on almost every type of food--especially sweets--invading houses through tiny crevices and cracks.
They are also attracted to fruit trees, feeding on the nectar seeping from the fruit after other insects get to it.
"My peaches were covered," Johnson says. "After the other bugs bit the peaches, the ants would move in on the juice. . . . It's still a mess."
With 17 teeth, the Argentine ant is also a fighter, say experts observing its behavior. The species is highly competitive and quick to exterminate other species of ants in a territory it invades.