Tag Archives: ants

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.


Queen Betty and the Swarm

1 Aug

The recent spate of hot weather has been warming the flagstones of our patio, inviting the cats to bask on them. The black garden ants whose nests lie in the cracks between the stones have warmed up too, and begun to swarm.

These winged beasties spilling out of the ground are virgin queens and their mates, preparing for the founding of new nests. The swarming lasts for perhaps half an hour, as nest after nest across the patio erupts into flight. They are ungainly fliers, so they climb to the highest point they can before taking off. This upturned dog bed, which the guinea pigs use as a shelter, became an impromptu launch pad.

Bunty and I stood in the middle of the patio, watching them taking to the air in their hundreds, their wings catching the sunlight as they sailed over the garden wall, over the thistledown and away across the field. Many careened into us or got caught in my hair, and we coaxed them onto our fingers, from whose tips they launched themselves again. We couldn’t close the back door for a while, because a parade of ants was marching up the frame to take off from the lintel.

It so happened that this very day, I had finished making a nest from plaster of paris for Betty, a gravid queen I had found wandering in the garden last year. She had over-wintered in a test tube on our mantelpiece, laying and nurturing her eggs until they hatched in April. Now her tiny colony is large enough to be transplanted. I based the design of the tunnels on a cast of a real ants’ nest I had once seen. Here is the nest without its lightproof lid. The smooth area to the right is where the ants can emerge to forage.

I gently tipped my colony onto the entrance of their new nest. Queen Betty entered and chose a chamber, and her workers carried the eggs in after her. I filled the remaining chambers with sand, for the ants to excavate as their colony grows.

Ants are my favourite animal. It makes me sad to think about the panic that people go into when they see Lasius niger, ants like Betty, preparing for their mating flights. They see the swarms and think the nests are getting out of hand and will remain as swarms unless boiling water or bleach is poured into them. Those poor creatures cause such little harm, yet are so reviled.

I visited my grandmother in Wales yesterday, and she remarked, “the last time I was harmed by ants was in the General Strike of 1926.”

I had to laugh.

She had been lifted onto a chapel wall along with some other children, to watch a demonstration and brass band passing by. Some ants had a nest up there. As the ants attacked and the band marched along the road, the children’s cries for help were drowned out by music and cheering crowds.

It was only fair that the ants defend their nest against that sudden disturbance. Wouldn’t you do the same? I don’t think my grandmother holds any grudges. Besides – those were red ants. Not Lasius niger. Not my Betty.