We have been battling ants for the entire summer. This is nothing new. Every summer in Los Angeles, dehydrated ants make their way into our apartments and houses, coffee shops and restaurants, trying to find something to drink. Or at least, that’s what I thought. The ants seem to be uninterested in food (save for a horrible scrambled egg experiencewe had last month), and spend most of their time lingering around our pipes. They like faucets, drains, toilets, and… bodily waste. Any sign of a piece of cat food that has been licked or nibbled by a kitty becomes an ant swarm. I once found the largest ant invasion behind the photo albums — Cal had puked in the corner between the wall and the chest holding the frames. Hours later, the floor was black with frenzied ants. I almost passed out.
I’m allergic to ant bites. Any kind of ant, if it bites me, I swell. I get bitten by ants people swear never harm humans. And then I swell up. If it’s on my ankle, my foot will swell and I cannot walk. This has happened to me twice before in my life. So while I may not be too afraid of spiders, I can’t handle ants.
I also have a healthy fear of ants because of my time in the South. That means most of my ant experiences have been with the terrifying ant known as the fire ant. The ant that wants to take all of his friends over to your house, cover you while you least expect it, and then eat you alive. While we’ve been waging war against our six-legged intruders, we still have nothing on what the Katrina survivors are having to deal with. Do you know what a fire ant does when it gets its home flooded? This:
Fire ants have developed a unique method to keep from drowning. At first hint of rising water, worker ants gather the entire colony into a ball – sometimes as big as a basketball. As the water overtakes the mound, the ball rides the flood like a living raft, rolling in the water so all the members can take turns breathing. When they strike a solid object, be it a swimming dog or your canoe, they quickly swarm aboard.
Come on! You finally get out of your house, get some idea of where you are, and maybe even save your dog, and what comes rolling toward your head? A basketball of pissed-off fire ants? Then you get attacked by a ball of stinging ants who cover you and your belongings and expect you to rescue them before they eat you alive. There isn’t even a charity for that!
I’ve seen fire ant balls. You know I’m scared and awed by them because I haven’t made a joke once about the words “ant balls.”
It’s really quite scary because the fact that the ants assemble and rotate makes you start thinking of ants as things that can think, and that’s never good. I remember one time in high school it had rained enough that we’d had a little flooding in our neighborhood. I think the rain was bad enough that we were out of school, and a group of us were playing football in the flooded field by my house. We’d slide through the mud and splash through the puddles and pretend there were rules when really we were just finding excuses to slide through the mud while it was raining. And then we slid into the fire ant ball.
We ran back to my house, through the streets, screaming, trying to get to the hose as fast as possible, fire ants chewing on us. We soaked ourselves in freezing hose water, trying to wash all of the ants and mud and it was too late for some of us. The welts were already forming. I have pictures from that day, right after we got the last angry ant off our skin. We look shocked and exhausted, itchy and angry.
I try to remember that the ants we have here in Los Angeles are less bloodthirsty than fire ants. But at a certain point and ant is still an ant is still an ant.
Dan watched our house for a couple of days when we were out of town last month. “By Sunday, I think there was a significant drop in the number of ants,” he said, nervously. “I had to kill them a few times, and… well, I thought it’d be better to break the chain in the middle, instead of killing the ants in front or the ants in back. I thought if I broke the chain, killed the communication, it would send a bigger message. To the ants. If I killed all of them, they wouldn’t know what happened. But if I killed half, and left some of their dead bodies in your sink… they’d know who they were dealing with.”
“The only thing worse than watching ants die, was watching the confusing scatter of the survivor ants, who had no idea which way to run. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
The summer is getting near the end, which means we’re about to trade ants for skunks, which is somehow now a welcome change of pace. Stee, who patrols our hallways half the day holding a bottle of Windex and a can of Raid, has been confident that the ants were retreating.
Yesterday afternoon I went for a run. Sara was coming over for dinner and a movie, so by the time I got back I needed to jump into the shower and start cooking. I took off my sweaty clothes and piled them on the floor outside the bathroom door, as that’s the closest floor space to the washing machine that will also remain in my line of vision enough that I’ll remember to start the load (huh-huh).
I showered, got a call from Sara saying she’ll be missing dinner but will come after, cooked food, wrote, ate, watched television, and opened the door for Sara. I had forgotten about the pile of sweaty clothes on the floor. Maybe two hours had passed. Three tops.
Then I passed the clothes, and leaned down to pick them up and walk them to the machine. Except there was something wrong with my clothes. They were… moving.
It’s just so gross, people. The ants wanted to eat my sweat. They were clumped in parts where the clothes were wettest, which… I’ll just leave to your imagination. They were marching, running, streaking down from the ceiling, which means they were entering from the roof, which means I don’t even know how you prevent this invasion. Tall stee got to wiping ants from our eaves, and I ran down the hallway like Jo Beth at the end of Poltergeist, because at the end of that hallway, in my bedroom closet, was where we keep our dirty laundry.
Oh, people. The ants. The ants all in all of our clothes. At least I live slightly cleaner than I did when I had to go to a laundromat to clean my clothes. There was only a small pile of dirty things, but they were very dirty things — stee’s recent tennis clothes, my gym clothes from the day before, a towel, and then the unfortunate socks and … so many ants. So many confused, scared, whacked-out ants, high off my fumes.
[edited to add: Dan just turned to me with a look of horror on his face, open laptop in front of him. “You had ants in your pants?! Ants in your pants!” It’s true. It caused a flashback where I remembered putting a cheeseburger in my mouth, only to find it was filled with ants which were now running down my arm, out of my mouth and around my face. My history with ants is a horrible one, and all day now I’ve felt invisible ants crawling on me. Like right now, I’m sure there’s one on my neck, one in my hair, and one on my ankle. Help me.]
Sara, who’s so squeamish she winces at the thought of two bodies coming into contact, seemed more impressed than disgusted. “Wow. I don’t understand. Do you guys sweat sugar?”
“They don’t like sugar.”
Sara was deep into her ant lesson. “Ants like sugar water. So they must be interested in the sugar in your sweat. Ants like sugar, guys. That’s why they’re called sugar ants.”
“They don’t go near our food. They seem to be enzyme ants. Ever hear of enzyme ants, Sara? Amino acid ants? DNA ants?”
“Ugh. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US, ANTS?”
“That’s it. We have to call an exterminator.”
“Exterminators don’t do anything,” stee said.
“I can’t take this hippie Berkeley propaganda anymore!” I shouted. “Exterminators kill insects!”
“But Pam, these ants are coming from outside the house! OUTSIDE! Where all the bugs live! All of them! You can’t kill the bugs OUTSIDE!”
“Yes they can! They do! They pump poison into the ant beds and they spray juice all over the bushes and the trees and the side of the house and under the house and you don’t even need one of those pussy LA tents over your house. We had huge trucks spraying DDT at night, driving through the suburbs spraying pesticides into the air and we liked it! We loved it! Because it meant we didn’t have insects covering our bodies. And sure, many of the people from my street got sick and died of cancer, but they didn’t die of West Nile, and we didn’t die of fire ants.”
“I’m going to Windex the sink again.”
“What if the ants come for our earwax next? What if they decide they like the water inside our noses? We can’t live like this!”
“I’m coming over every night,” Sara says. “This is awesome.”