by George Ringwald


Even if I weren't hooked on crossword puzzles, it wouldn't take me a second to give you a three-letter word for "picnic pest" -- ant.

Only, unlike the puzzle makers, I wouldn't limit their pestiferousness to the picnic grounds. What bugs me, so to speak, is that ants think nothing of carrying on their picnicking in the house -- my house.

You may have read recently that El Niño's rains brought armies of ants marching into North Coast homes. Well, yes -- maybe. But there are also ant experts -- and I've discovered in my research that their number is legion -- who will also tell you that when it's perfectly dry outside ants like to come into an adequately plumbed house looking for water.

Doesn't matter the time of season, the time of day or night, ants, I can tell you, are going to be with us. They were here with the dinosaurs and they'll be here (along with the cockroaches) when we wipe ourselves out with nuclear weapons or whatever. There's nothing you can do to get rid of ants. Trust me, I've tried everything.

I read once that an herb called tansy repels ants. It doesn't. I spent two bucks for a tiny bag of the stuff at a health food store, and it didn't do diddly to deter the ants. Wound up tossing the whole bag into the garbage, and the ants probably had a ball getting high on the stuff.

Next time I went into the health food store I told the woman at the checkout stand about my failed experiment, and she said, "Oh, try nutmeg!"

I did. The ants apparently liked that, too, until I cut them off. Figured I had better things to use nutmeg on than ants.

I've read also that "ants avoid mint," and, again, that "a sprinkle of chili powder is one of the better safe ant repellents." Forget it; they just spiced up the picnic for my ants.

I once bought some little "ant hotels," which were supposed to contain a magic poison that the ants would tote back to the nest and kill the whole bunch. Well, those ants scurried in and out of the "hotels," and kept coming back for more.

In Walden Henry David Thoreau wrote about spending a good part of one day in his backyard watching a battle between armies of red and black ants -- "the red Republicans" and "the black imperialists," he called them. He said he wouldn't have been surprised "to find that they had their respective musical bands ... playing their national airs to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatants." Henry, who had a lot of time on his hands out there by the pond, would wax lyrical about things like that.

I confess that I myself spent 15 to 20 minutes one time watching ants marching in the kitchen of my former apartment, and what impressed me was their speed. If those had been humans in their Jaguars, you could have clocked them at 100 mph, easy. And there'd have been some horrendous crackups. I mean, those ants, the incoming and the outgoing, were bouncing off one another right and left. Stupid little buggers.

And they are. As Lewis Thomas, an acclaimed "biology watcher," once put it, the single solitary ant "cannot be considered to have much of anything on his mind; indeed, with only a few neurons strung together by fibers, he can't be imagined to have a mind at all."

But he went on, when you watch "the dense mass of thousands of ants ... you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating."

Frankly, I've seen enough of the whole beast, and I would just like it to stay out in the park by the picnic tables and out of my house.

Still have to consider myself lucky, I guess, that the ants in my life of late are those tiny critters, inelegantly known as pissants.

So far as I know, up here on the North Coast we have been spared an invasion of the Argentine ants. (And if they're already here, I don't want to know about it -- please.)

Those babies, as I gathered from a Los Angeles Times article a while back, are well established from the San Francisco Bay area to the rivers and streams near Sacramento, and along the Southern California coast. They are wiping out everything from harvester ants to horned lizards.

Times writer Tony Perry painted a grim picture: "The Argentine ants build huge colonies, with 20 to 100 super-breeding queens each, and intricate tunnels connecting colonies populated by millions of ants."

Hah! Try taking out that whole beast with ant motels. What I want to know is: How come we didn't slap an embargo on Argentina in the first place? And where the devil has the Border Patrol been. I say if they're going after illegal immigrants, let 'em start with the ants. n

George Ringwald is a free-lance writer in Eureka. He is a former investigative reporter for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside and was Tokyo bureau chief for Business Week magazine.

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