Wednesday, May 21, 2008

More Wildlife Encounters

Three toed sloth in the Brasilian Amazon region.  Has absolutely nothing to do with the post topic.  I just like the picture which I took a year ago.

Anyone who spends time in the tropics certainly discovers a zoological fact: insects far outnumber any other form of life (other than microscopic) on the planet.  That includes not only numbers but varieties.  I've always been grateful for the fact that the percentage of insect species more or less incompatible with  human life is very small.  Otherwise, our species wouldn't be able to survive.

Those that aren't compatible range from the uncomfortable to the downright lethal.  Of the former, I give you the common ant.

Living in the Pacific Northwest as we did, we were aware of a few species of ant.  The most exasperating to deal with was the carpenter ant.  Nowhere near so bad as its cousin, the termite, carpenter ants could pose a serious problem to your wood-based house if left unchecked.  OK, from time to time I had to call in an exterminator, but it could be dealt with.  Other ants were pretty harmless.  Sugar ants could be a problem if you were careless around the house, but only seasonally.  Then there were the large black ones who seemed to mind their own business and pretty much operated on a live and let live basis.

Then we came to the tropics.

Our first year here, we rented a furnished Panamanian house not too far from where we live now.  It was, I discovered rather quickly, not well sealed, and we had a variety of unwelcome insect guests, the worst of which were the at least 5 different species of ants, some of them truly scary.  The most frightening from a size and numerical viewpoint were the black ones with red heads.  They were huge--almost the length of my thumb joint--and their heads were disproportionally large, or at least it seemed so to me.  They colonized everywhere in the house, and especially on the second floor which we were using to store some books and a few other thing that we didn't need in our rental house.  

I'll never forget going upstairs one day for some reason or another, and hearing this very strange, ominous rustling noise coming from one of the boxes.  I opened one of the boxes---

--and there was a HUGE colony of these ants, all in motion, it seemed.  I felt as if any minute they would rush out of the box in some irrepressible wave and carry me off.

I did what any sane person would do in that situation--I yelled for help.

Mary came running, and between the two of us, we managed to haul out what we could of the things inside, stomping ants like crazy.  Then we took the whole mess and tossed it over the side from the balcony to the garden below.  Left it there for a few days before we had enough nerve to approach it.  By the time I gingerly rolled it over, all the ants were gone.

Another time I found a colony under a decorative pillow on the rocking chair upstairs.  Must have used a half gallon of Raid.

Oh yes, you bet--this environmentalist kept Johnson and Johnson's profit levels up that year. It does work--and yes, it does have a residual.  I used it in corners of the floors and outside in cracks that ants were using to come in.  Killed them dead, I'm happy to say and would work for about 6 weeks or more.

The worst time I had with these ants was was during the time when Mary was in Missouri visiting family.  I was using the downstairs bedroom.  One night, while I was reading, I happen to glance up and over to the floor just in front of the bathroom door.  There, to my horror, was a line of ants coming from the bathroom and fanning out, headed straight for my bed.

It was dark, I was alone (dogs and cats really don't count in a situation like this), and I was unreasonably terrified.  I don't even remember what I grabbed, but as the ants had now reached the floor underneath the bed, I started a killing frenzy.  Then I raced for my handy cans (yes, plural) of Raid, and started spraying in the bathroom until there were nothing but ant corpses littering the floor.  I shut the door so that the dogs and cats wouldn't be able to go into the bathroom, and tried to sleep that night, ever afraid that ants would make it into the bed.  Not an irrational fear that one, since it had happened before, but with smaller, less threatening ants.  NOT your most pleasant memory, waking up in the middle of the night feeling something small crawling around on your legs.

However, the bloody ants were back again for the next two or three nights.  

I finally figured out where the armies were coming from--behind the bathroom cabinet that was under the sink.  there were two consequences from this discovery: 1) approximately 1.5 cans of Raid were used to saturate the area behind the cabinet and 2) I swore that we would never EVER have built-in cabinets.  Three and a half years later, we still don't, although we do know now what type to have to prevent this problem--no backs, built on to the wall, no place for the ants to hide.

You can't imagine the  lengths I went to while we were building this house in order to have sealed exteriors.

However, the Ant Wars went on after we moved--just a different location and with yet different species.

The first time I had a run-in with leaf cutter ants, we had moved in but there was still some exterior work to be done on the house.  I had already fallen prey to my craze for bougainvillea, and had bought my first small plants, which I put along side the car port driveway.  One of the workers, Joel, pointed to a conical-shaped hill of dirt and told me that I should kill "them" because otherwise they would kill all my plants.  I had no idea what he was talking about until the next day.  I had three or four potted plants; not one had a single leaf on them.

That hill, of course, was the mouth of a leaf cutter ant nest.  Our then-gardener told me what to do.  I bought a powder dispenser, quite common here--it looks like a bicycle tire pump.  you put an insecticide in powder form--in this case Hormitex--in the main compartment, shove the dispensing hose into the ant hill, and then work the handle, pumping the powder into the nest.

It worked.  Well, sort of.  The ants picked up and moved to another location.

One of the real problem with leaf cutter ants is that they will forage a very long distance from the nest--10 to 15 meters is as nothing to them.  What you have to do to eradicate them is to keep following the trail of nests until you've cleared them out.  It took me quite a while, but I did so.  We haven't had leaf cutters in years.

And finally, my favorite ants of all time--the stinging ones.

When we first came here, we were told that there were fire ants here.  After my first encounter with stinging ants, I was sure I'd run across them, but I now don't think so.  There may indeed be fire ants here, but the nasty little devils I've stepped into I think are just stinging ants.  "Just".  The bite stings like crazy thanks to the formic acid the ant secretes ("formiga" in Portuguese and "hormiga" in Spanish are derived from the Latin name for ant from which "formic acid"comes).  It stings like crazy for about 15 minutes and then goes away--to leave behind a blister filled with a white semi-fluid.

There are at least three different types of stinging ants that I am aware of, based on color and the way they build their nests.  Some nests are obvious and can be avoided, and others are not.

Doesn't matter--I hate them all and if I find a nest anywhere near the house, I haul out my trusty Arrivo and spray the nest.  I have some evidence but am not entirely certain that even some forms of stinging ants eat the leaves from young plants.  If I see a plant that is slowly being nibbled to death over a period of days (leaf cutters will strip a plant overnight), I look for a nearby ant nest, and almost always find one.  If I spray the nest, the problem seems to go away.  That's not enough proof to be certain but enough to keep on with the policy until I find out otherwise.

Another thing I really like to do is disrupt a nest if I find when when I'm weed eating.  This morning, I came across one near the bougainvillea (which are now too large to be in danger from that type of ant although a few would be susceptible to leaf cutters) while weed eating, and I ripped it open at half speed.  Why just half speed?  Having disrupted ant nests accidentally,  the line has thrown the miserable little beasts onto my feet and legs--whereupon they proceeded to climb towards various unprotected parts of my body.  Half speed avoids this.

Have you ever read the phrase "and they boiled out of the building" or something like that?  It perfectly describes what you see when you disturb in any way, including just brushing the edge, of one of these nests.  The ants come boiling out--no other description does it justice--by their hundreds and possibly several thousand.

And come straight for you.

Fortunately, they don't go more than a foot or two away from the nest, so there's safety in distance.  But you do, believe me, want to put distance between you and them.  Which is why I prefer to do my malicious mischief with a weed eater, with that nice long shaft between Me and Them.

I do not have a concern in the world about killing these ants.  They are not now nor ever will be on the Endangered Species list.  However, I don't wantonly go out and kill them if I don't have to.  If they're in the orchard area or any place some distance from the house--and don't look like they're threatening my new plantings--I leave them alone.  

Make no mistake, though-- it's war and the battle lines are drawn.


Theresa in Mèrida said...

I hope you get notice when you receive comments. What we buy in Home Depot (yes we have Home Depot in Mexico) is called Trompo. It looked like chocolate sprinkles, the leaf cutters (salles (sigh yes) in Maya) take them to their nests and feed them to the colony. It works! You may have to repeat if a new colony comes.
I, who gardened organically, never used bleach, once ran screaming and yelling and sprayed an entire can of RAID on a ant nest that had formed underneath one of my pottery urns. It still creeps me out!

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