My father bought a can of ant killer from the hardware store. I think he liked this can because it was so compact, square with a pointed dusting nozzle, and it packed such a wallop. He stuck the nozzle into the entry hole of a pavement ant colony, in the crack between two sidewalk slabs, and squeezed the deadly cyanide in. Then he called us to see the dissipating mounds of coppery, sandlike corpses, some still twitching in Brownian death motions. Maybe he was enthralled by the power in the can, the awesome decisiveness of his act, as I can’t remember these small creatures ever causing us any inconvenience.
Once, in the late afternoon summer heat, my brother and I rolled up newspapers and swatted a big blue garbage fly on the sidewalk. We waited and soon more came to feast on the corpse. We swatted these. And more came, and so on. Until we created a mass of oozing fly protoplasm, covered with voracious kin flies. My mom asked, “Why are you doing that?” We just looked at each other. We didn’t know.
My childhood was filled with nastiness toward the bug world–catching flies, pulling off their wings, then their legs, feeding them to spiders.
My friend AnJa was raised in Japan, where, she said, children are taught to appreciate insects. She and her friends squealed with delight when summer brought the tiny thud of june bugs crashing into window screens. They would tie a fine thread to one of the bug’s limbs and let the tethered creature fly round and round. AnJa told me this while deftly snatching up a cicada that was chattering close by and holding it gently between two fingers, under the armpits, so to speak, oblivious to the vibration of the wing, the buzz, so repulsive to many of us. AnJa appreciated the magnificence of this creature with a familiarity common in our culture only in scientist and exterminator.
Like the exterminator man who answered our call about termites. Clean shaven above the neck and in a tiny red coat, he perused the damage, opened the wood to reveal the culprits, dewinged one unfortunate, and popped it in his mouth for final identification. Termites reportedly have a flavor like Brazil nuts, but this man disagreed. “Tasteless. One hundred percent protein. And clean. They only eat wood.”
Our enculturated aversion to insects causes us to constantly seek their destruction. An arsenal of chemical weaponry is available at every grocery store. When I was a child it was fascinating to watch insects die. But now it is so much more fascinating to see how these small people live. To pull out of the haze of ignorance details of difference between termites and ants, for example.
Once when I visited AnJa she was outside her house bowing low in what I thought was a Buddhist meditation. But she was actually following an ant that was carrying away a bit of her delicious wonton noodles.
“I want to find nest,” she told me, and with great patience resumed her vigil. The ant finally disappeared into the rotting stump of a plum tree. AnJa laid down a cordon of dish-washing detergent across the patio to divert the creature from returning to her back door. And sure enough, the awful lemon scent was repugnant to the little fellow. He drew back his funiculus, the elbowed sensory organ, and proceeded tangentially to some other meal.
AnJa was playing with Camponotus, the genus of carpenter ants, whose mandibles, like Ginsu knives, can hack and saw their way into wood. She held a soldier of this species to her long pearl-colored fingernail to demonstrate the strength of their bite. The big-headed fellow locked its mandibles and refused to let go, even as AnJa tugged gently on its body. The arrangement of his jaw made it seem like he was smiling at us.
I recognize carpenter ants by the faint black and gray striping on their abdomens, and the prominent head and jaws on the workers. Camponotus are foragers. Unlike termites, these creatures have no capacity to digest wood. Their excavated dens are for nesting only and tend to have smooth, clean-swept corridors. The workers assiduously carry pile after pile of sawdust to the entry hole and toss it out. A characteristic cone of wood particles on the floor is evidence of their presence. By retracing the trajectory of the particles you can find the entrance to the den.
A disciplined army of omnivores, carpenter ants lay down pheromone trails to a food source, then carry it away, single file, bit by bit. When they appeared in my kitchen I remembered AnJa’s method, put aside unimportant things, and followed. I soon innovated by noting the direction of the ant’s pathways and looking for another forager. Usually you can see one coming or going a short distance away and in this connect-the-dot fashion work your way toward the nest. I followed the trail out of the kitchen, out of the back porch through an ill-fitting window screen, down the outside wall (to the rotting tree stump? No!), along the ground to the side of the house. Then all the way down the gangway to the front, all the way across the front stairs to the neighbor’s gangway, all the way down to where the chimney reaches up. There they climbed up and up the brickwork. I ran for the ladder and watched the procession disappear under the fascia. Quick to the attic, under the eaves with a flashlight. And there was the telltale mound pointing to the failed flashing around the chimney that weakened the wood that invited the Camponotus. Like the low-end contractors who knock on your door and, shaking their heads, point to the soffits, these ants can tip you off to problem areas in your home.
Replacing the damp, damaged wood and fixing the leak, we also removed the colony. Ant colonies have been known to recover from a 99 percent decimation of worker populations, so removal of the nesting queen or queens is essential. Relocating the queen, colony intact, allows it to carry on its important recycling work away from your home. But watch out for angry soldiers. They bite.
Unlike their ant cousins, termites literally eat their way through wood, their guts swarming with an assemblage of protozoans, bacteria, and fungi that reduce cellulose to usable sugars. Termite young have their guts inoculated with these cultures by eating fecal pellets soon after birth and feeding on liquid droplets from the rectums of adults. The young are also fed from the mouths of other termites, accomplishing a thorough exchange of body fluids. Within 24 hours of birth the young can digest cellulose. The unusable lignin portion of the wood is inevitably ejected in the form of rice-shaped pellets that litter the channels of termite domiciles–another way to differentiate between termite and Camponotus galleries.
Termites prefer to colonize woods that have been softened by the activity of symbiotic fungi. Ingestion of the fungi mycelia supplements the termite diet with vitamins and nitrogen not available in the cellulose main course. In return, the fungal spores are dispersed through the termite droppings. Fungal mycelia also retain water, which helps keep humidity levels high in the dens, a sensitive issue among termites.
The usual morph, or body style, of the worker termite caste is not that of the flying antlike creature most of us think of, but white and maggotlike, with a thin, sensitive skin, intolerant of light, open air, and desiccation. Termites usually tunnel along the grain of a wooden board, leaving a thin veneer intact to shield themselves from the outside world and reduce moisture loss. This crytobiotic life-style has helped assure the survival of this ancient animal. Add a TV set and it describes many human households.
In the spring termites reverse their hiding instinct and pile out of the nest. Fertile winged forms emerge in swarms for a brief celebratory dispersal flight. After some short interval they spiral to the earth, either because their wings snap off or because they’re exhausted. Then they mate. Attempting this flight, termites who have nested inside a house often cover interior windowpanes, bewildering the home owner with their miraculous genesis. Few mating couples survive, as ants, birds, and spiders gorge themselves on this holiday meal. Those that do survive and manage to establish a new colony will mate for life.
The termites common to our area are all subterranean types, dependent on soil moisture to maintain den humidity levels. By limiting wood-soil contact or constructing barriers of impenetrable materials, you can dissuade termites from eating wood that happens to be holding up your house.
If all else fails, you can differentiate between ant and termite by looking at their petioles, the linkage between the thorax and abdomen. Ants have a narrow one; termites have no such constriction. Where ants have an elbowed scape and funicula, termites have beaded antennae. Learning to recognize these distinctions makes me appreciate these small people and the ceaseless labor they perform.
This spring, for example, I helped harvest seeds of the Dutchman’s-breeches, a lovely woodland ephemeral. I worried over the tiny, rare pods entrusted to me and finally pinched off the tip of one to reveal its contents. The pod gave birth, squeezing out a litter of shiny black seeds with little white beards on each one. These tufts are known as ant candy, sweetened morsels that ants carry off, dispersing the seeds.
And ants disperse everywhere. One time I was getting on a bus when I felt a sharp pain on my right buttock–like a dart from a blowgun, I thought. The whole bus ride I scratched and rubbed at this irritation, ignoring the disgust of my fellow passengers. At my destination I ran to the bathroom, disrobed, and saw the head of a large soldier ant, mandibles sunk into my flesh, smiling. I had rubbed away his body, but the head would not let go.
Later I read that P. Bernabe Cobo in 1653 described how the Chiriquan people of Santo Domingo used Atta ants to suture wounds. “They use … the ants because they bite severely…. They bring together the skin of the two sides of the wound and apply these ants, which bite and hold the two sides or lips together; then they cut off the insects’ heads which remain attached to the skin, with their mouths or mandibles as firmly closed as they were in life.”
Besides the steadiness required in the surgeon’s touch, imagine the familiarity she must have had with the ant people to get their smiling cooperation.