Outwitting Ants, by Cheryl Kimball

Yes, I have ants in my cabin. At 5:30 the sun—already fierce—slams against the side of the cabin and pours through the window, scattering rainbows from Kate’s prisms across the walls. Within seconds, the ants begin to trickle from the corner of the roofline over my desk. Carpenter ants, as I know by the pile of debris and the swarm of flying ants on that really hot day, their lacy wings such a contrast to their hard black bodies. No matter how interesting, though, they are destructive and will have to go.

Mostly they don’t interfere with me as they scatter across the roof ledge and down the wall, though watching them take over the space is a little disturbing, and of course I have to brush them off the desk before they get to the laptop with its warm, inviting hum. I try to adopt Thoreau’s let’s-live-together philosophy towards them till the exterminator comes. It helps that they disappear at night, withdrawing with the sun’s warmth, bustling back to their nest. Some things that don’t bother me during the day really creep me out at night.

I figure that being in a cabin means welcoming the wildlife. I’ve gotten used to my 3 a.m. caller: some large animal that comes crashing down the hill, rustling leaves and breaking branches, to drink noisily from the pond. Not sure what my nocturnal visitor is, a raccoon perhaps or a fisher cat. I encourage spiders because they help to keep the ant population down.

I pulled this book from the library hoping it would also help. It’s very short, less than 150 pages even including multiple appendices, and the acknowledgement to Orkin right up front made me a bit wary. But the prose is just what I want from this kind of book: simple and straightforward. One of the things I learned is that ants are predators of other insects such as bedbugs and the chiggers that made my childhood a misery. I wondered why they seemed to have disappeared. Now if only the ants would eat all the deer ticks . . .

Some of the introductory material about different types of ants and their habits was interesting, but unfortunately was repeated several times throughout the book, as was other information and advice. I assume the repetition was included because readers are expected to dip into the book here and there, not read it straight through as I did.

I enjoyed reading more about the way they organise their colonies. I knew about ants being a superorganism, but there were details here about the ways different kinds of ants choose their queens and how some actually enslave other ants. Thoreau used ants in a fable about war, but there are certainly other comparisons to be drawn or pondered.

In the end, I didn’t learn any new tricks to discourage ants—the advice boiled down to keep the place clean and call an exterminator—but I was left thinking about different forms of social organisation.

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