(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 29, 2008)
I've always considered the occasional infestation of household ants to be Mother Nature's way of monitoring my housekeeping skills. When ants appear, I see it as a sign to step up my domestic duties. Counters must be wiped diligently. Dirty dishes can't sit unwashed, and jars, bags and boxes that contain sweet or oily foods have to be tightly sealed.
Unfortunately, in the past few days, our household has experienced an ant infestation so extreme that I can no longer attribute its appearance to a mere slacking off of housekeeping efforts.
Great gobs of swarming carpenter ants -- ugly winged creatures and their wingless counterparts -- emerge at dusk from the walls of my former office where large sections of trim never secured the space between the wooden wainscoting and the painted plasterboard.
One disadvantage of being an owner-builder is that we often overlook finishing details that never would be left incomplete if a house were being built by a contractor. That's what happened in my former office, a small room with 30-inch-high pine lower walls. A piece of trim is supposed to cover the opening between wood and drywall, merging the two wall sections into one unit. Our intention was always to trim out the room, but we never got around to it. In 1992, we were busy with work, young children and a building project that was taking longer than expected. Certain tasks were put on the back burner -- the far, far back burner.
Besides, we rationalized with convoluted logic, a few missing pieces of trim wouldn't prevent the room from functioning as a viable work space.
For years that was true. The room did provide me with a pleasant work space. After a while, I stopped complaining about the missing trim boards and learned to live with an inch-wide lateral gap around the wall halves.
Until the bugs appeared.
One reason I moved out of that room into my current home office was to get away from pesky insects.
I'm not sure when I first noticed them or how long they lasted, but as the years passed, more ants and antlike insects crawled out of the horizontal wall gap and flew or crawled around the room. They were drawn to the light of my computer, and that meant they were drawn to me.
Because I try to avoid chemical compounds whenever possible, my initial responses were to shoo away, swat and, when that didn't work, satisfyingly squish the annoying intruders. I also poured and sprayed nontoxic products such as boric acid, diatomaceous earth and pyrethrum into the wall crevices and along window edges. When none of those methods made a significant dent in the bug population, I turned to harsher chemicals. I sprayed the room's interior and the house's exterior perimeter with one of the home defense systems available at the garden center.
Still the bugs came.
Eventually, I admitted defeat. Getting into a Zen-like state and coexisting harmoniously with nature's minutia hadn't worked, nor had environmentally friendly nontoxic methods. Even big bad chemicals had been less than successful at conquering the enemy. There was nothing left to do but move into another room and pretend that what I couldn't see wouldn't hurt me.
Unfortunately, it would.
Ignoring the problem enabled the insects to multiply unhampered by human intervention. The other night when the house exploded in a frantic frenzy of flying ants, we realized that the source of the insidious scourge was the glaring gap in my old office wall.
"Unbelievable!" I muttered to my son and husband. "This is where they're all coming from!"
The two types of carpenter ants -- Camponotus floridanus and Camponotus tortuganus -- that live in Central Florida dwell in colonies. In my case, that colony is somewhere inside the office walls. A single queen fertilized by one short-lived male produces larvae that develop into worker ants. Those workers grow up to care for the queen and help her produce more and more worker ants.
After two to five years -- that accounts for why I saw a steady increase in insect intruders -- the colony needs to expand its territory. To do so, it sends out alates -- those are the long-legged, small winged ants I'd noticed. The job of these reproducers is to make more workers for a new colony near the original nest.
Although just thinking about carpenter ants conjures up images of crumbling walls, the good news is that the types of carpenter ants that live in Central Florida homes don't damage a house's structural integrity.
But they do bite people, and that alone puts them on my must-eliminate list.
I'm not sure exactly how to overcome this problem. No doubt we'll continue spraying the ants to limit their vitality. I'm also going to take advantage of the wall opening to pour more borax and diatomaceous earth into their living space. Regardless of what we do, this episode of people versus pests should be the motivator we need to finally -- 16 years after it was built -- finish trimming out the office walls.
Maybe that's what Mother Nature intended all along. Instead of merely monitoring my housekeeping skills, she has upped the ante -- admonishing me to "get off your butt and finish what you started!" If that's the case, I'm on it. I'll do anything to stop nature from bugging me.