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Year of the Ant

With Outdoor Temperatures Rising, Thirsty Insects Seek Refuge Indoors


Disenchanted with ants?

Displeased by fleas? Demoralized by houseflies?

You, as they say, are not alone.

It's that time of year when ants and their ilk come out to play. Or more to the point, come in to play--in homeowners' kitchens and bathrooms.

"There's nothing like discovering a breadboard covered with ants on the kitchen counter at 6 a.m.," said Jack Robertson, a retired carpenter in Ojai.

And there are definitely more ants this summer, said Tim Cooley, who owns Tim Cooley General Pest Control in Thousand Oaks.

"This July, we doubled our revenues over July of last year," he said. "Every day it stays hot the phone rings off the hook."

Throughout Southern California those who make their living ridding the rest of us of pests say they are running to keep up with calls that have hardly slowed this long, hot summer.

"It's really bad all over," said Yvonne Zagal of Candlelite Pest Control of Oxnard, which serves communities from Tarzana to Encino to Santa Clarita. "The fleas aren't so bad this year, but the ants--there's no stopping them."

Zagal said that for her company, 1996 was the year of the rodent, due in part, she thinks, to the hantavirus scare. And 1995 was the year of the flea.

But this summer is definitely the year of the ant, she said. Ants in the pantry--or any place a stray bread crumb or a drop of water might have fallen.

"This weather does have an effect--the ants get thirsty and go looking for moisture," Zagal said. "That's why they come indoors."

The problem spreads across the economic strata as surely as invading ants march to syrup and peanut butter. In fact, the more lush the landscape, the greater the chance that ants will follow.

"It's terrible at our house," said Thousand Oaks resident Anne Scheck. "I didn't know ants can bite. I got a super vacuum cleaner. I suck up ants with it. But more [always] come."

Scheck's husband, Stephen, a professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, takes a more academic view.

"When we see explosions of ant populations, it's because of the heat, and they're always scouting for water," he said.

Ants will always be with us, he said. They just usually keep a lower profile. But this summer they are really making their presence known. And there are more of them right now, he said.

"The queen is laying eggs," he said, "and they hatch faster in warmer soil or climates."

Meteorologist Vladimir Ryshko at Oxnard's National Weather Service bureau, said the unusually humid air that insects thrive on comes from tropical moisture that has come our way recently, plus warm sea temperatures off the coast.

"For instance, the last two days, sea surface temperatures have been quite high--in the high 70s," Ryshko said. "The ocean temperature is usually in the low 60s and upper 50s at this time of year."

So the bugs go crazy, Cooley said. "They want to get inside to a consistent temperature," he said. "If it's a hot day outside, outside is not an alternative for them."

In other words, an ant will do what an ant has to do to get three essentials: water, food and shelter.

What can someone pestered by pests do?

Several things, of varying cost and effectiveness.

Although pest control businesses spray insecticides, they also use an arsenal of items like repellents, baits and gels that kill or sterilize.

"If it's a minor problem, I recommend Formula 409, Windex or liquid detergent," said Zagal. "It won't hurt you, but it will kill what you're seeing."

Cooley said people can alleviate their ant problems by cleaning out their cupboards, where stray granules of sugar, flour or rice may be exposed.

"And you need to spray your plants for aphids. Ants like aphids--they'll head for anything that has them on it," Cooley said.

Ants also give off, and are attracted to, scents called pheromones.

"Now we can fool them and put those scents on sticky traps that lure them," he said.

A last recommendation, from professor Scheck, is an organic one.

"I haven't tried this," he said, "but cucumber peelings are said to be repulsive to ants."

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