Wednesday, August 10, 2005

#63 - Fascinated by Ants

I am not fascinated by ants. Any interest in or sympathy with these tiny terrorists dissipated about eight months after we moved to Orange County and found that the Invasion is a regular summer occurrence. We catalog infestations the way Florida catalogs hurricanes. We're up to Infestation Quincy about now. It was a Category 5 infestation at first, but has since died down to a Tropical Depression. That is, I'm already depressed about having to deal with these pygmy pantry poachers.

It's my daughters who have become fascinated by the ants. It started with the Jelly Woodyette - the older one - noticing that she could easily move ants away from their chosen path by merely blowing on them. What power! Look how they scurry! This is, I have to remind myself, the same child that will refuse to eat at the table when those same ants are scouting for crumbs the girls have dropped. Of course there are crumbs. Of course there are ants looking for them. I tell Jelly these critters are the same ones she loves to torment in the kitchen, but she refuses to eat at the table.

The younger 'Ette has now picked up the script and also begun to poke around on the trail. I can tell the girls to leave the silly things alone until I'm blue, but they won't listen. Far more powerful than a father's exhortations is the scientific curiosity that has been awakened in them.

Meanwhile, the ants exhibit some pretty interesting behaviors themselves as a result of all this unwanted attention. I've studied them in spite of myself, and have made the following observations:

1. Ants aren't so very different from your average California commuter. The California vehicle code demands that motorists automatically slow to what we call the "Lookey-Loo" crawl the moment they see anything unusual on or immediately to the side of the road. One day (true story) I was driving a commuter van down the mountain from the high desert to "The Valley" at 5:30 in the morning. We came up on a very sudden, very slow patch of traffic in an unusual place. I suspected there must be an accident ahead, but of course I was wrong. What had every driver's attention on that freeway was a lone man walking well off the side of the road wearing a fishing hat.

Ants behave much the same way. When my daughters poke at an ant, or blow one out of line, a cluster of ants soon forms around the victim (or the spot where the victim used to be), acting exactly like California commuters who are wondering what exactly happened. Perhaps some of them have tiny cell phones out to call; not 9-1-1, but the local traffic reporter who will mistakenly announce that the incident occured in the southbound lanes instead of the northbound ones. After several minutes (equal to two or three hours in ant-time) the normal flow of traffic resumes.

2. Ants do not understand the implications of road kill. I have tried just about every means available to modern man to eradicate these pests. I have bait traps set all around the house, inside and out. I have tried numerous varieties of insecticides, having now settled on one that is supposed to be "food grade," but also makes your house smell like you've suddenly sprouted wild mint in your kitchen. I will, as a matter of course, mash ants on my sink while I'm doing dishes. Similar to the California commuter phenomenon, the ants will cluster around the dead ants as if they were ambulance chasers. "We can help!" they seem to say. "We can make sure your next of kin are well cared for with a hefty settlement against the 'deep pockets' humans!" Then they leave their little business cards and scurry away.

3. Ants are probably well versed in basic battle tactics. They know they have strength in numbers. They also have no compunction about sacrificing any number of troops in anticipation that the enemy will try something on one flank, and they can bring in reinforcements from another. Take my kitchen stove, for example. Heaven help me if I cook something with a high protein content, then leave the pan on the stove for an hour or two before cleaning up. Before I know it, some 20,000 of them suddenly appear and begin crawling all around the pan. In the meantime, someone wants me to warm up some hot dogs, and I put them in another pan to boil. The ants immediately surrounding the neighboring burner will simmer right along with the weiners, and leave hundreds of little empty ant-husks on the stove. Meanwhile, in the overhead vent, I swear I can hear thousands of tiny chuckles.

Anyway, Infestation Quincy has nearly burned itself out, but I'm already seeing scouts from Tropical Infestation Reina snooping around in the kids' bathroom. Time to make the bathroom smell minty fresh, I suppose.

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