The Wine Country Online

Good Loving in a Season of War

By Jack Burton

He takes the time to kill them now. He had given himself up to it and it has become a familiar habit. The act of killing, some days hundreds, other days one or two, has become his daily norm. He had rationalized the necessity for his actions, but deeply, and in his dreams, the countless lives are beginning to extract a karmic toll.

It had not been this way for the man when he and his wife first moved into the sunny house with the big fir trees in the back. They were very much a product of the sixties, wouldn't-harm-a-flea type of couple. Even though they had noticed a few tiny ants when they had looked the place over, they were new to California and had not been too concerned. It was only after the first season of ants that their live-and-let-live attitude began to change.

Things were different after the invasion of the bathroom (June of 1998), the bedroom challenge of August that same year and the rape of the kitchen in September.

The man's wife was becoming increasingly agitated by the ants. The man would often find her in odd places around the house on her hands and knees with a wad of tissue, cursing and killing the ants.

The man, for his part, was characteristically doing his best to avoid killing the ants. He was staying hopeful and recalling the time when he had nearly been killed himself in a fall from a stovetop while hanging flypaper in a kitchen in 1971. He was recalling how, after having refused his captain's order to spray pesticide in the mess hall, he had agreed to a compromise solution of festooning the place with fly strips. It was only the heroics of the lieutenant breaking his fall that had kept him from becoming another number in a time of grim statistics. The indicent had served to reinforce his evolving concepts of karma and sense of fair play.

The man was staying hopeful and tried to console his wife through October of 1998. He had even killed a few ants himself that season before the rains set in   before the rains came and the ants mysteriously went to their secret places in the woodwork and the into the earth. The man foolishly hoped that the ants had seen the errors of their ways and had left the couple to enjoy their house and each other harmoniously. The man, after all, was ignorant of the habits of these particular little brown ants. He wanted to be able to co-exist, but this was not to be the case.

On a clear, warm day in March of 1999, the man noticed the first ants of what was going to become a season of war. He did not know it then, but the coming months were going to prove to be very trying times.

The ants, for their part, were only doing what ants are supposed to do. They had not asked, in the years of tumult and change following the discovery of gold in California's Sierra foothills, to be brought to the north from their native home in South America.

The ants in question, Linepithema humile1 (the Argentine ant), are just a small part of a larger invasion of non-native species and cultures that continues in the Golden State to this day. We are, after all, undeniably a part of it, our own ancestors having walked, ridden, sailed or flown in from somewhere else.

The ants came unbidden, inadvertent passengers on a flood of northbound cargo. They were unwitting immigrants amongst the coffee beans. The best new science suggests that the ants in question are descendants of a single colony established in Southern California before the year 1891. Recent DNA testing reveals the somewhat startling fact that an Argentine ant from San Diego is nearly identical to the ones at war with the man and his wife 'way up North in Sonoma County. The inference is that a great swath of land is infested with ants of a single overarching and cooperative super-colony descended perhaps from a single queen.

The man was just a tad freaked out.

When he read an account of the latest research into the relentless lifestyle of the little brown ants, he began to join his wife, albeit reluctantly, in the Spring Purges of 1999.

By mid-May the man's wife had unilaterally declared war. She had hardened herself to the point of purchasing a number of those steel, poison-filled "ant stakes." This represented a dramatic escalation of a low-level conflict that had, until then, only seen the use of tissue, boot heel, fingertips, and harsh words. The man, while not preaching appeasement, was urging contemporation. His wife, on the other hand, held a more hawkish fiew of human/formicidean relations.

The aforementioned "ant stakes" were of absolutely no value as a deterrant.

As summer progressed, the sunny house was once again subject to daily visitations. First come the scouts, searching. They are looking for food and water. They don't much care where they go to look for their sweets, and carrion, the odd bits and dribbles, dead moths, and lost crumbs. The little brown ants will eat almost anything, and the man attempted to plead a case for mercy with his wife. He patiently explained the valuable role the ants play in the ecosystem by keeping things tidy.

"But they're in our food," replied his wife. "They're into our clothing and shoes. They're into our bed, for christsake!"

The man was beginning to see how deeply disturbing the impudent little ants were to his beloved wife. There was a bit of a cloud settling over the sunny house in wine country.

The ants began to impact the couple's lives in the sunny house in subtle ways. For example, the man, personally not bothered by the ants, found it difficult to interest his wife in any loving while she remained focused on a trails of ants traversing the north wall of the bedroom, in the place where the ceiling meets the wall.

"Hmm, you sure look sweet this morning," the man would say to his wife, all snug in the bed.

"The ants have been into the kitchen again!" his wife would reply, and leap out of bed for a wad of killer tissue.

"Oh, my God, they're everywhere!" the man would mimic, as he lay in bed following the sounds of the morning's carnage.

It finally got to the point that almost nothing occurred around the sunny house that did not include a prelude sweep of the place for ants. Even the thoughts of ants was getting to be enough to distract the man's wife from the normal pleasures of life.

By the end of summer, the man had finally had it. The little brown ants were going to have to go!

These ants are amazingly single-minded in their relentless bid to assimilate your body and home. A single colony may contain 10,000 female workers. The man, when he finally began to focus on the issue, realized there were many, many colonies around the sunny house. The numbers may seem staggering, but the man now follows a simple strategy based on four main tenets:


  1. Know the enemy: Keep the outside of your home swept and clean so you can observe the activity of the ants.
  2. Interdiction: By constant interruption of their trail systems and sealing the tiny cracks and holes wherever they enter your home.
  3. Daily methodical killing: The man's main weapon is the toe of his boot. He also employs a citrus-based detergent and a citrus-based ant killer to discourage nesting in the places his boot toe won't go.
  4. Compartmentalize thought and action: Stay focused. Know that there is a time and place for all things under heaven, and that the ants require daily attention to keep them from overrunning your space.

The last point is not as easy as the first three, and one night the man had a dream to prove it:

The dream was particularly disturbing. In his dream, the man was picking with his fingernail at a small, hard bump on the back of his neck. He had not noticed the bump before. In the course of his digital curiosity, he managed to pick the offending bump clear of his skin. This left a neat, nearly bloodless hole. A close examination of the excised growth revealed the presence of a single, hard, round, glassy white sphere no larger than a poppy seed.

The man also found a small, biting snail crawling in his hair, the thing had weirdly-pronounced, vibrant dream-green antennae. He crushed it in his hand when it bit him on the thumb.

The man awoke from this dream with the hair up on the back of his neck. He was recalling the sight of some ants he had killed, each clutching a tiny, glassy white egg as they evacuated a recently discovered and disturbed nest by the garbage cans. He was thinking of all the snails casually pitched over the fence, removed from his wife's flowers and herbs and harshly exiled to the overgrown wildness of the neighbor's yard. The man was fretting about the karmic effect this his efficiency in battle was extracting when, in a house recently free of ants, his wife snuggled silkenly in the bed next to him.

In that moment the man forgot all his troubles with the ants. He began to think instead of a song that has always seen him through times of difficulty and trouble:

And to everything, turn, turn, turn.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn.

"Hmm," the man said longingly to his wife, snug in the bed beside him.

"You sure look sweet this morning . . . ."

1Renamed in 1990 from Iridomyrmex humilis, which genus today contains mostly Asian ants.

2Lyrics excerpted from "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season) From Words from the Book of Ecclesiastes" by Pete Seeger © 1962 TRO Essex Music Ltd.