Last winter I noticed a few ants wandering around the bathroom. I suppose most folks would run for some bug spray or call the exterminator, but not me – I went to buy more film for my camera!! I have always been challenged by filming ants. They are so unusual and so… thoughtful, determined, pre-programmed, whatever – they are very cool animals. If you ever have an opportunity to spend some time following an ant around for a while, try to imagine what it is thinking – what its intentions are, it’s fascinating.
But to be honest, at first I killed the ones I saw. I figured they were scouts looking for some food (in this case, blobs of toothpaste on the counter) or worse, a new place to make a nest. So, I cleaned the counter (it wasn’t that bad, just a couple of small toothpaste blobs), and killed every ant I saw. This continued for a short time until another errant blob got left behind. The next time I noticed it, there were like 20 ants around it chowing! At this point, I suppose most folks would run for some bug spray or call the exterminator, but not me – I realized I could ‘summon’ the ants!
Now it was on!
I learned that a small pinch of brown sugar would call out about 30 or 40 ants to start mining and processing it. It only took about ten minutes before the action started. I got a bunch of cool ant video footage. (I have posted some, and will post more – much more) I got movies of ants making the turn from the side of the sink molding to the top, ant’s walking along the low space between the bottom of the mirror and the top of the sink, ants on the mirror and some walking on the shiny (cleaned) faucet. The ants on the mirror were especially interesting since you could see a double image for each ant – one from above, and one from below in the reflection. The ants were small enough to create a lot of separation between the real and the reflected, and this made for some very intriguing effects.
I was also thinking of other things to do with the ants. Since I could sort of control them, I could set up some novel shots. A photographer friend, Randy Rosen suggested I have them walk to the end of a pencil. I still haven’t done that yet, but it sounds like a great image! I did print a green rectangle on a sheet of paper with the intent of using it as a ‘green screen’ so I could put the ants in whatever setting I wanted, but I never got around to that one yet, either.
This is a short clip from the video work I've been doing with these guys. The music is by artist and composer, Paul Brown... beautiful!
So, in the meantime, the ants migrated to the kitchen.
Now, in our educational outreach programs, we always teach that ‘respect’ is a matter of making good decisions based on your understanding of the situation. I understood that a few, manageable ants in the bathroom could be afforded a much different level of respect than many in the kitchen.
The ants had upped the ante.
And I had gotten busy with the details of life. So we entered into a period of troubled tolerance and a bit of foul language (at least on my part, I assume the ants had their opinions about me, too) At this point, I suppose most folks would run for some bug spray or call the exterminator, but not me – but this time I did fight.
They became an annoying presence in and around the food. Bad form. So, we had some skirmishes. Every once in a while I would lift up a plate and there would be a big pile of ants under it. Hot, wet paper towel attack! I’m not saying I’m proud of what transpired, but it is my food, man! The survivors I noticed from the corner of my eye hobbled back and told the stories of the surprise attack and brave service of their sisters and so on and so on. I imagine I and my hot, wet paper towels may have reached mythological proportions!
A couple of times I squished one between my fingers to get it off my plate or something. Once, I smelled one. It had an unusual, not unpleasant odor. Not unpleasant but very hard to describe. I suppose it may have been like a cross between Chai tea and dish soap. Not too bad. So, I started thinking about maybe eating them. Michelle Harris and I had a “debate” (well, I’m not sure if it was a debate per se) about the wisdom of cooking up some of these guys. I know of people who eat ants alive and say they pop and are kind of citrus-y tasting. I have not taken that leap entomophagously yet – I’d cook ‘em first!
Michelle kind of talked me out of it because “you don’t eat ants that are in your house! You have no idea all the nasty stuff they get into!”
I figured it couldn’t be worse than what ants may get into in the woods. “You don’t eat ants from the woods either – that’s nasty!”
Then where do you eat ants from?!
I figure the things they would eat in your house are less likely to be bad for you than what ‘wild’ ants might eat. And, they process it. It’s not like eating ants would be like eating garbage. In the kitchen they would probably eat a diet similar to that fed to pigs in the pork industry.
Ants - The other black meat!
But, in this case, I didn’t try them. Yet. I decided I should do some more research first. I know ants can concoct some serious chemistry and I would imagine certain species could be quite bad for you, if not distasteful. So I waited until I had more time to learn about these ants.
And then one day, I noticed a bivouac of ants exiting the heater vent on the other side of the room from the kitchen. That vent came from the heater/ac in the basement. This seemed like it was getting out of control! I suppose at this point, most folks would run for some bug spray or call the exterminator, but not me – I grabbed my camera!
The ants had made a long parade from the vent (blue arrow - there's a plastic bag in it in this picture) up the leg of a nearby table and into the large, screened walking stick cage. There is dirt and detritus on the bottom of the cage (and a bunch of walking sticks), and so, it appeared the ants had decided this was a good place to hunker down.
But was it all of them? I doubted it.
Still too busy for aggressive measures (with a few moments of free time, I would have gone through all the counters in the kitchen with Formula 409 cleaner, and searched out any hiding places they had gathered in large numbers and then I'd have used the hot, wet paper towel method on them. I learned enough in college to deal with a measly little colony of ants!)
Every day or so, I would see other bivouacs here and there snaking out like an amoebic pseudopod to process some morsel that I clumsily let sit around too long, and a few hours later retreat. I was into another seeing-what-happens-next mode, thinking they were localized in the walking stick cage and so under control. The incidence of ants in the kitchen had diminished a little, too.
Then one day, I noticed ants streaming down the table leg and back into the vent! And they were carrying brood! At this point, I suppose most folks would… well, you know the story…
I got a lot of video of them up and down the table leg and navigating the pile of the carpet carrying large larvae, the size of their own bodies, in their powerful mandibles. There was one place where a little piece of something little – I mean little, made a bridge over a deep pile valley and they were all single-filing it across the bridge. I'm going to edit that video first!
But I did not want them to be able to complete their move. I didn’t know where they were going and the thought of ants taking over the house was indeed daunting.
So I picked up the vent and lined it with a plastic bag to keep them from their destination. You could almost hear them yelling frantically: “Turn around – turn around!!” as the scurried back up into the cage.
I saw almost none in the kitchen anymore. And they had been out of the bathroom for over a week. In the walking stick cage they were close to the bug shelves and so there were lots of little bits here and there. And they would send foraging parties to different places where there was something good.
And I was still involved in many other things. So, more detente. I did stop them once from going back down the vent, but the major ant infiltration seemed to have died down a little. Interesting.
Then, I was trying to film some assassin bug eggs hatching and went out to the back deck to get a nice piece of wood for a stage. I have some ‘wood cookies’ (cross sections) out there from when I helped cut up a friend’s dead tree and figured one would make the perfect background for the eggs.
The first wood cookie I picked up had ants on it. This isn’t too surprising since they’ve been sitting out there untouched for about five years. But I did noticed they looked the same as my recent co-inhabitants. I had maybe ten pieces of wood of various small sizes in a deteriorated corrugated box, next to a similarly degraded cardboard box with four partial cans of house paint in it. To keep them off the deck wood, they were sitting on an old, flat-side-up dresser drawer I got from somewhere.
The first wood piece I grabbed was too big, so I riffled through the rest to find the right one and there were ants everywhere! With brood! I think the ants had moved outside once the weather got nice enough. Of course, this pile of stuff was up against the house and it looked like this may be my chance to extricate the ants once and for all, so I sprang into action - I got my video camera!!
But first I carried all the ant bedding over to a patch in the grass – off the deck away from the house - to set up some shots of them frantically moving their brood to the closest secluded place – which I kept changing. If I lifted a piece of cardboard, there would be piles of larvae and eggs underneath it. And quickly, ants would scurry around, grab them in their mandibles (jaws), and move them back under cover. Many chances to get some great footage!
I shot and shot. And shot some more!
Some neighbors came by and I showed them the ants. I didn’t get a real good read on what they thought about it!
And then… well, then I didn’t really know what to do. It is a huge colony of ants. I didn’t want to – much less know how I would – destroy it. Hopefully I sell some of this ant stock footage someday and so I feel I owe them. They were only acting disrespectfully for a short period of our encounter when they were in the kitchen. I think my hot, wet paper towel Rambo approach won that flank. And so what to do with the ants?
For now, I turned over the old dresser drawer and jammed all the cardboard in it. It fit fairly nicely and I figured the ants will work out how the new nest will fit in there. I have an old, plastic garden pond thing that I turned over on top of it – it covers it just nicely. And I am not sure what to do next.
Maybe some brown sugar and a nicely sharpened pencil...