The Taste of a Thousand Ants

13 Aug

Our bathroom wall has been made of ants for a week or so now. I have been hoovering up as many as possible with my mouth, and releasing them outside in clusters. They have a familiar taste that I can’t put my finger on. It’s in the family of wood sorrel, lemons, geranium leaves…

It’s that time of year when ant princesses take to the air for their mating flights before founding new nests. At some point, a new queen founded a nest behind our bathroom tiles. I have no idea what on earth they find to eat there, since the wall is made of plasterboard and it’s not like we store sandwiches in the bathroom – but the nest is a successful and productive one.

To hoover up the ants, I use my trusty pooter, a bong-like instrument through which one sucks tiny creatures through a pipe into a collecting-jar. It reduces the risk of injury to them, but, as with siphoning petrol, it has its drawbacks.

One drawback is that ants are intimately familiar with structures shaped like chambers and tunnels, and so they have no problems navigating their way out of the pooter as soon as they are sucked into it. Thus, I must keep sucking and sucking continuously to keep them in the jar until I am ready to release them.

Another drawback is that, although there is a mesh to prevent creatures from hurtling into one’s throat, this does not prevent one from tasting them. A distressed ant will release a spray of formic acid into the air. Any nearby ant who smells formic acid goes on the defensive and starts spraying too. A hundred distressed ants can release a good lungful of the stuff directly into the back of the throat of any pootering entomologist. It’s like walking into a Mexican restaurant just as they are frying the chilli: it makes you cough.

Each time my coughing exceeded my sucking on that first day, I took my haul of ants outside, breathed the sweet fresh air, and released them onto the garden wall. If I don’t do this on a given swarming-day, it means Bunty and I cannot have a bath without it turning into a scene from Titanic.

The bathroom ants start swarming at around 6 pm each evening. How long they swarm for depends on the prevailing temperature, so my long daily soaks in a hot bath can keep them bouncing off the walls for hours. Fortunately, after my first day of choking, I got the sucking balance right, and was able to keep the ants more or less in the jar without triggering an acid bath for my uvula*. As a result, when I release them now, they immediately take wing to mate, instead of forming these defensive huddles:

Six potential queens with a male (bottom left)

Unlike the bathroom ants, my pet ant Betty has failed to produce a successful colony. She ate very little, produced very tiny workers, and eventually, after two years, she died along with her 20-strong colony. I have been rethinking and revising my ideas on how to care for ants, and have been keeping a sharp eye out for a successor for Queen Betty. The cats have been helping by getting in the way.

Two nights ago, Bunty found one in the bathroom: a wingless queen. The lack of wings suggests she has mated and is full of the fertile eggs of her unborn colony. Upon mating, a queen searches for a crevice in which to start laying her eggs. The only crevices available in the bathroom were already taken. The usual advice for keeping ants is to start a queen off in a test tube, then move her to a nest once her eggs hatch. This time I am trying harder to recreate her natural environment. I let Mab (that’s her name) crawl onto my finger, and I deposited her at the entrance to the hand-made  nest I had originally made for Betty. She immediately entered, and has not emerged since.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to pooter up Mab’s sisters from the bathroom walls, floor, fixtures and fittings. I enjoy playing with ants, but I must admit I’m looking forward to the end of this swarming season, and the prospect of having less exciting baths.


* Uvula: that dangly thing at the back of the throat.


52 Responses to “The Taste of a Thousand Ants”

  1. heretherebespiders August 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Ooh. I don’t exactly have a phobia of ants… But if they surprise me, I get goosebumps and step back fast. I have good reasons! Unlike the unwarranted fear of spiders or cockroaches so many have, I don’t like ants because I have been attacked by them innumerable times. I couldn’t even consider getting a live one anywhere near my uvula. I do admire your no-kill removal and fascination with them, however. They are pretty cool and I think we are learning a lot about how to use nanobots by teaching them to ‘think’ like ants and bees.

    • Snailquake August 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

      Luckily for us, this particular species of an is a non-stingy one. They have tried to bite me from time to time, but had I not been watching them try, I wouldn’t have noticed at all. If they were fire ants, I would be a whole lot more leery of them!

      I didn’t know that’s what was being explored with nanobots. What an interesting idea! I am fascinated by the communication of colonising insects, and the way a whole colony functions as a single contiguous organism.

      • heretherebespiders August 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

        Yike. Yes, I grew up in Florida as a barefoot kinda kid, and the fire ants got me a bazillion times! But what gave me an ‘issue’ were the harmless, enormous, wood ants. I sat down in an odd place one day to cry after a fight with my older sister… And felt something bite my waist. Looked down and I was covered in ants over a centimetre long… Screamed for the second time in my life, ever (and the last!) and never ever wanted to see wood ants again. But… I have enormous respect, obviously! I invaded, and paid the price :)

        • Snailquake August 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

          I “wood” love to meet some of those centimetre-long ants!

  2. oogit August 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    You’re a woman after my own heart wish more would move mountains for the critters and bugs of this world :)

    • Snailquake August 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      Perhaps it’s just perception, but it seems to me that our numbers are increasing.

  3. Brianda Domecq August 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Fascinating, Teatime, thoroughly enjoyed the struggles with the ants and wish you luck with Mab’s colony. b

  4. justpatmedamnit August 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Phew, so glad i read the rest of this post and not just the first bit that appears in my reader- i thought you were literally hoovering up ants into your mouth! Which i suppose if they aren’t stingy ones wouldn’t be too bad, but i imagine they’d be hard to remove and lots of accidental swallowing would be inevitable. I admire your dedication to their survival!

    • Snailquake August 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

      My wicked streak made me write it like that, purely for the entertainment and confusion of those who read no further.

  5. macrocritters August 13, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    I too was a little concerned when I read that you were “hoovering up as many as possible with my mouth, and releasing them outside…”! LOL!! Great story–thanks!


  6. Bella Remy Photography August 14, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    The fact that you even know this much about ants is quite startling. And sucking them up? You are far braver, and perhaps nuttier than I. Congrats on caring so much for one of the smallest creatures in the world.

    • Snailquake August 14, 2012 at 7:34 am #

      If you think of each colony as a single organism (which is how it behaves), then you could say that it’s one of the largest creatures. There’s a colony that stretches right across Europe, so I’ve read.

  7. why am I here in a handbasket? August 14, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    I would have opted for a can of raid.

    • Snailquake August 14, 2012 at 7:44 am #

      I’m quite surprised I haven’t had more comments like this. Maybe people are being tactful…

  8. aaronz92 August 14, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I think it’s nice that you didn’t kill the ants in your bathroom :) Pretty cool idea with that capturing device thing.. not sure I would be using my mouth for that job!!

    • Snailquake August 15, 2012 at 10:35 am #

      Which part of your body *would* you use? ;-)

  9. LaVagabonde August 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Hi! I want to let you know that I’ve nominated you for a Reader Appreciation Award – I’m usually not one to do these “pass it on” things, so I’ll understand if you don’t want to accept it. If not, feel free to delete this comment. :)

    • Snailquake August 15, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Thank you very much! When I started out here, I was not a fan of these awards, as they reminded me of those forwarding things you see on Facebook. I thought encouraging them would encourage people to spam each other. I’ve since learned that members of WordPress are a lot more civilized than that, and the awards genuinely help to spread the word about blogs we enjoy. Now I am flattered to receive them.

      One thing that has made me feel awkward in the past is that the very specific subject matter of my blog makes it hard to fit one of these questionnaires into an entry. The other day, I saw that a blogger had dealt with this by creating a page for showcasing her awards. I thought this was a marvellous idea. I’m going to do that too.

      Congratulations on the well-deserved award you received yourself!

  10. John Champneys August 14, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    An interesting durrellesque post which combines narrative with science.
    Your comment about wondering why they were so keen on nest building in the bathroom reminds me of an incident in India with the humidifying chamber on my NIPPY (Night-time breathing machine)

    Every morning Rumi cleaned it scrupulously with vinegar and water, and by evening a new ant-colony was underway. All of them had specific routes via the outlet and inlet tubes. They are I know very clean in their habits, well able to pick fungal spores off their eggs and such. The humidity in there must have been perfect for them.

    • Snailquake August 15, 2012 at 10:51 am #

      It’s always flattering to be compared to Gerry Durrell! In fact, it was through his books that I learned about pooters.

      I gather from other tropical-climate friends that ants in hot countries do gather wherever there is moisture. You speak of your NIPPY predicament in the past tense – did you finally manage to deter the ants?

      • John Champneys August 16, 2012 at 9:14 am #

        The only was to raise it, provide wooden props or similar underneath then pour in water. However while I cursed the ants at times I regarded the mostly as helpers. Usually their presence meant somebody or other hadn’t cleaned properly, and I rode in with my scolding whip, thanks the ants for pointing out human laxity.
        Ants are never lax.

        Your blog title has a good title.
        Rich in double-entendre, if you catch my meaning,

        • Snailquake August 16, 2012 at 10:50 am #

          We look upon then as cleaner-uppers too.

          • andavane August 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

            Yet they multiply faster than the broomstick-splinters in “The Magician’s Nephew” (One of the better Disney films which I feel it unlikely you would have seen)

            • Snailquake August 18, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

              Why on Earth would you think I hadn’t seen Fantasia? It’s very famous, after all.

              Funnily enough, “The Magician’s Nephew” was what I called the story when chatting with Exeat about it recently. It took me a day or two to realise I’d meant to say “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

              • andavane August 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

                Now why did i have the perception that only late ‘forties/fifties babes had seen it? I thought you were far too young.
                Funny though, that last time I searched, I felt there was some sort of restriction on the film. There was a strangeness about it which set it apart from other disneyoid stuff. I couldn’t get the video anywhere to show the kids in India, and it was never shown on the telly, at least not in my neck of the woods.

  11. bottledworder August 15, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    I was fascinated by this post. I am unfamiliar with taking care of ants although I’ve lived with many in my apartments in the tropics in various parts of the world. I loved the pictures too.

    • Snailquake August 15, 2012 at 10:52 am #

      Ah, so you are a world traveller! Excellent.

  12. dewimorgan August 15, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    I had been pasting my livejournal posts into and it had been coming up fairly consistent (sorted alphabetically):

    Anne Rice (romance and porn, hah!)
    Arthur Clarke
    Arthur Clarke
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Cory Doctorow
    Dan Brown (a pedagogical post about magstripes)
    David Foster Wallace
    David Foster Wallace
    David Foster Wallace
    Edgar Allan Poe (atheism)
    H. P. Lovecraft (solipsism)
    H. P. Lovecraft (tropes)
    HG Wells
    James Joyce
    James Joyce
    Mark Twain
    Ray Bradbury

    So apparently I mostly write like Cory, which is kinda nice.

    Then I thought “I bet it only has like a dozen authors in. I bet Snailrind comes out as a Cory, too! I know, I’ll do the first page of her posts on her journal”. Here are the results, newest posts at the top.

    Anne Rice
    James Joyce
    Cory Doctorow
    Chuck Palahniuk
    P. G. Wodehouse
    Jack London
    Mark Twain
    George Orwell
    James Joyce
    James Joyce
    William Shakespeare
    Arthur Conan Doyle
    James Fenimore Cooper
    Arthur Clarke
    Lewis Carroll
    J. R. R. Tolkien
    Chuck Palahniuk
    George Orwell
    James Joyce
    J. R. R. Tolkien
    H. P. Lovecraft
    Rudyard Kipling
    Mario Puzo
    Jack London
    Neil Gaiman
    Lewis Carroll
    Isaac Asimov
    James Fenimore Cooper
    Jonathan Swift
    Rudyard Kipling
    Neil Gaiman
    H. P. Lovecraft
    David Foster Wallace
    Arthur Conan Doyle
    Cory Doctorow
    Rudyard Kipling
    James Joyce
    Ray Bradbury
    Chuck Palahniuk
    J. R. R. Tolkien
    James Joyce
    Rudyard Kipling
    Margaret Atwood
    George Orwell
    Robert Louis Stevenson
    Lewis Carroll
    George Orwell
    James Joyce
    H. P. Lovecraft
    Cory Doctorow
    Stephen King
    Margaret Atwood
    Dan Brown (SORRY! :p)

    I decided at that point to stop, since, at your allegedly Dan-Brown-esque “Never Send a Taxi to Brigadoon”, I’d clearly hit the high point of your blogging career.

    Plus, I’d figured out by then that your front page didn’t have an end.

    But yeah – looks like it thinks you have wider range of word choice and style than I do, to the point where it’s very confused, but it does see a definite hint of James Joyce (7), as well as: Kipling and Orwell (4 each); Chuck Palahniuk, Cory Doctorow, Lewis Carroll, Lovecraft, and Tolkien (3 each); and maybe Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman (2 each).

    OK, going back to work now.

    • Snailquake August 16, 2012 at 9:01 am #

      This comment of yours is clear evidence that I’m not the only person in the family who faffs around for hours with inconsequential little things. I say ants, you say algorithms… Tomayto, tomahto. (I hope you got your work done – I didn’t.)

      Speaking of algorithms, I’m very curious to know how IWL works. Just how offended do I have to be about Anne Rice and Dan Brown? How flattered about Gaiman, Kipling, Wodehouse, Joyce? How disappointed about the lack of Durrell and Brite? And just how baffled and mystified by Shakespeare? I mean… Shakespeare?

      Not one pentameter was writ, and I
      Spake nary an Elizabethan word.
      No sonnets, not a single lovelorn sigh:
      Thither entry waxed upon a nerd –
      A nerd with purpose thus: to ring each bird.

      I mean, seriously.

      Still, I am quite amused by the fact that when you start rambling, you come across like Poe and Lovecraft.

      Thank you for letting me know that my front page never ends! I had thought this was just an annoyance seen by me, not by my readers too, as my settings are for 3 entries per page. It started doing it 2 or 3 months ago. I had a look over my settings again last night and found a new one: an infinity-scrolling setting. I unticked its box and had a good, long swear about WordPress overriding my settings without telling me. I wonder how many page-views I’ve lost thanks to that thing.

      • DewiMorgan August 17, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

        I kinda like the infinity-scroll, myself. If I hit space until I reach the end of a page, it makes sense for it to load the next page’s worth of stuff, and carry on reading by continue hitting the space bar, instead of having to reach for the mouse, then hunt for wherever the retarded template-designer has decided to stick the pagination tools (seriously, check how long does it take you to figure out how to get to page 2?).

        It’s not like it loads the whole lot in one go or anything bad, so I doubt you lose any views. Or do people actually leave blogs once they find they infinity-scroll?

        What I don’t like is the lack of edit for comments: once I’d posted it and realised how huge my comment was, I couldn’t go back and collapse the lists into single paragraphs, nor delete the comment and start over.

        But yes, it was total procrastination :P

        I was also wrong, it’s not .org, it’s – and is open source. With a quick scan of the code, apparently using both word choice (from a corpus of 111,000ish words, where each word is weighted by how likely each author would be to use it) and “readability” (most wordprocessors give you this, but dunno if they all use the same algorithm).

        I don’t know their relative weights, nor how readability is calculated: I didn’t look at the code much.

        So, other than as “readability”, nothing about how the words are put together (ie anything we’d normally consider “writing style”) is considered.

        Since the list of authors you gave is larger and more varied than mine, covering most of their corpus, this suggests to me that your vocabulary is broader, which is sort of as expected :P

        It’s corpus covers only these authors:
        Agatha Christie, Anne Rice, Arthur Clarke, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Chuck Palahniuk, Cory Doctorow, Dan Brown, Daniel Defoe, David Foster Wallace, Douglas Adams, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Harry Harrison, Ian Fleming, Isaac Asimov, J. D. Salinger, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Kurt Vonnegut, L. Frank Baum, Leo Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Mitchell, Mario Puzo, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Neil Gaiman, Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vladimir Nabokov, William Gibson, William Shakespeare.
        (hah, a collapsed list is much more manageable!)

        • Snailquake August 17, 2012 at 10:48 pm #

          Ah! Thanks for looking at the code for me. The readability thing is not far off style: I think word processors all us a pretty similar algorithm, as they’re all based on complexity of sentences and numbers of clauses.

          It sounds like a simple and basic piece of code, which provides a close enough approximation to make it fun.

  13. epicduda August 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    In the zoo near where we live there is a whole ant colony and there is a huge tube in the tropical house where they live so you can view the ants. They are leaf cutter ants.

    PS: By the time you’ve read this I will be writing my Reader’s Appreciation award.

    • Snailquake August 17, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      You’ve just described my perfect house.

  14. The Smile Scavenger August 20, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    Wow. Not sure I’d suffer with the taste of ant acid in my mouth… I’ve just realized you’re a much better person than me. I’d probably sweep them into a dust pan and drop them outside in various states of injury. =/

  15. The Smile Scavenger August 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Nominated you for an award! :D

    • Snailquake February 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

      Thank you so much! What a lovely thing to come back to.

  16. macrocritters August 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on macrocritters and commented:
    Hi everyone, I’d like to introduce another great blog. Tea Time at the Zoo is a wonderful quirky blog written by an absolute animal lover. This post about ants is my favourite (so far)—it gave me a big smile when I read it. It isn’t about macro photography, but it is certainly about macro-critters! I have added a link to the site under the heading Other Great Nature Blogs. Please check it out when you get the chance. Cheers, EC

    • Snailquake February 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      I’m sorry I missed this earlier. Thank you very much for doing this – how delightful! You might like to know I’ve got myself onto a scholarship programme for this summer – to spend 8 weeks studying macrocritters. Hurrah!

  17. The Smile Scavenger October 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    Where’d you go? :(

    • Snailquake February 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

      Sorry about that! Life got very much in the way there for a while…

      • The Smile Scavenger February 20, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

        Not a problem. I was just worried about you! I’m glad to hear from you. :)

        • Snailquake February 22, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

          Aw, thanks! Always good to get a warm welcome.

  18. onesweetiepea October 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    Hello. I have nominated you for the Sunshine Award. Feel free to accept or decline. No pressure, no worries.

    • Snailquake February 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      Hey, thank you very much indeed! I’ve been away from my blog for far too long…

  19. Anonymous February 7, 2013 at 12:09 am #


    • Snailquake February 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      “Pitcher”? What?

      • dewimorgan February 18, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

        I Googled it too :P
        AlI could think, was maybe they were asking for a pitcher of ewer jugs.

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  1. Reader appreciation award « Ben Williams' World - August 17, 2012

    […] Snailquake‘s blog is just the kind of thing I like. It’s about animals and you will also know that I like animals. (Again, the magic About page of mine). Her blog has the kind of zaniness that I like, such as using words not normally used in the topic being written about, like Mexican chili in a post about ants! Here is the article! […]

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