When we first moved to Santa Cruz we lived over on the east side, in the Live Oak district. We were a short block from the beach and thus enjoyed regular sightings of sea otters, occasional trios of dolphins and even two days of hump-backed whales. Squirrels of many different hues gambolled on our deck, and there was a profusion of bird life to observe, too. A few months ago we bought a house on the upper west side, however, and while there’s definitely wildlife lurking around — a few spottings of deer, and a skunk who insists on digging up one of our lawns in pursuit of some kind of grub or other — we don’t get the otters, or many birds, or any squirrels at all in our yard, for some reason. What we have instead… are bugs. Spiders, in quantity. Crane flies with the wingspan of eagles.
And now… ants.
The first episode occurred just before Christmas, when I noticed a few very tiny little ants parading around the counter in the kitchen. I squished them but they kept coming back, and after a few days their numbers — while still small — were sufficient that I decided to get serious about it. I painstakingly tracked down the point of ingress (they’re wily little bastards, and it’s not always obvious where they're coming from) a hairline crack in the sealant around the sink. Using a degree of resourcefulness which is quite unlike me, and made me feel as can-do as all get-out, I sealed it with a dab of what in England is called Liquid Paper (I believe it's known as White-Out, Tippex or Twink in other climes). It worked. The ants stopped getting in. I felt justifiably proud of myself and received props from both wife and child. Dad, it turned out, wasn’t the complete muppet he might at first appear.
Cut, however, to a month later. Suddenly last week we had ants back, and in larger numbers, this time under the sink. Tons of the little bastards. At first I thought they were getting in via a tiny crack in the back left corner of the cabinet, and so I deployed the Liquid Paper solution again. It didn’t work, and after sitting and observing them for half an hour (yes, I am supposed to be writing a novel, and what of it?) I realised they were in fact entering via the joins where various pipes went out through the back of the cabinet — i.e. in about five places. I tried Method Two, which involves mixing orange oil with vodka, putting it in a spray bottle, and liberally applying it. This worked briefly but they soon regrouped and started doggedly coming back in again, coughing and smelling of orange. So then I got a roll of parcel tape and bloody-mindedly sealed off the tiny gaps around the pipes with several layers of tape. It took a while to track down all the stragglers who’d already made it into the cabinets, but eventually all was still once more.
Until the next afternoon, when I came in the kitchen to find a little hoard of them swarming around the opening of the dishwasher, which is positioned next to the sink. Evidently they’d just patiently moved along and found the next crack. I zapped them with orange spray again but was beginning to lose heart. You can’t find every infinitesimal crack and seal it with Liquid Paper, and we were running out of orange oil (and vodka). I’d also been somewhat daunted in the meantime to establish that what we’re dealing with are Linepithema humile, commonly known as the Argentine ant, a worryingly successful brand that tends not to compete with each other because of genetic similarity, and joins together into a mega-colonies including one that stretches five hundred miles — for the love of God — along the coast of California.
Unnerved by this news, I methodically sprayed again later, and continued my policy of squishing every single ant I saw. I’m about as life-preserving as a man can be who loves burgers, fried chicken, roast turkey, lamb shanks and bacon — i.e. an enthusiastic carnivore — but I draw the line at ants. They may well be a miracle of social organisation but as far as I’m concerned they’re freaky little robot bastards. I have a video I took on my phone several years ago of an ant that appears to be broken, in fact. It was out on the patio of our then house in London, going round and round and round in a circle about two inches in diameter. I watched it for about half an hour (yes, I think I was probably supposed to be writing a book then, too). So I continued to squish each ant I saw in the hope that eventually word would get back to ant HQ via word of mouth. I picture it like this: (in my mind, every ant is named “Bob”. I don’t know why)
BOB 1: “’ere, Bob - have you seen Bob recently?” BOB 2: “Nah, mate.” BOB 1: “He went in that crack, didn’t he? The one that goes into that bloke’s kitchen.” BOB 2: “Oh yeah, that’s right. But he didn’t come back.” BOB 1: “Hmm. Oi - Bob?” BOB 3: “What?” BOB 2: “Go have a look in that crack, will you?” BOB 3: “Right-o.” PAUSE BOB 1: “He hasn’t come back either.” BOB 2: “Reckon he’s been squished?” BOB 1: “Could be, Bob, could be. Oi, everyone!” BOBS 4 − 258,764,839,873,648,763: “What, Bob?” BOB 1: “Stop going through that crack. Bob did, and he didn’t come back. Or Bob neither. Could be dangerous in there. Let’s try somewhere else”.
The problem being that if there’s five hundred miles worth of the little bastards, Bobs are cheap. The spraying and the squishing seemed to be just about holding them at bay… but then two mornings ago we woke up to find a bloody army of them. Overnight they’d changed behaviour, too: coming in at the invisible crack near the dishwasher, but then going right to the other side of the kitchen by hugging the skirting board, then crawling seven feet up a wall and disappearing into a cupboard — where they seem to be disappearing into another crack and thus presumably into the innards of the house. There’s just too bloody many of them to squish or spray. Once in a while I attack the column with a dustpan and handbrush, sweep up a couple of hundred or so and throw them outside, but I have a horrible suspicion that they just patiently make their way back in again. I can’t be sure without painting numbers on their backs with Liquid Paper (which would be BONKERS) and so I don’t know. I don’t even know why they’re coming in — it doesn’t seem to be related to food or water, as for the most part they blithely march past examples of both that I’ve put out as an experiment. Which was actually a bit hurtful, as the food was a dab of a rather decent pork rillettes I made the other day. (I didn’t make it actually for them, obviously. That would also be BONKERS).
I have some bait stations on order, but it may be too late. I’ve tried to trace the line of ants I’ve subsequently found outside the house, but I can’t work out where the nest is and I can’t souse the entire garden in boiling water. I’ve also just noticed that there’s a second line starting to coalesce indoors, right the other end of the kitchen to the first line. Why the hell are they doing that? Why the hell do they do anything? Does our kitchen just happen to be on the route of some massive migration, a rest stop on the ant superhighway, or are they gearing up to invade? Am I going to be sitting at the counter blearily drinking my cup of tea one morning and look up to see myself surrounded? Will they carry me off, sniggering tiny sniggers, bearing me to some spot in the woods where a vast super-ant will come and squish me with one of its enormous feet?
Hopefully not. But if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.