By Ward Degler
We’ve had carpenter ants at our house pretty much since we moved in back in 1981. They’ve always been seasonal – showing up in the middle of winter and disappearing by spring.
They probably came from the pile of firewood we had just outside the door for our fireplace. Even though we’ve since converted the fireplace to gas, the ants stuck around, probably building nests in fallen limbs from our numerous backyard trees.
This year, it was an invasion. The ants were everywhere. I dug out my recipe for non-toxic ant killer, a mixture of borax, sugar and water.
I picked out the place in the house where the ants seemed most numerous and set out a couple bottle caps filled with the mixture. Almost immediately, ants converged on the caps. Dozens of them in long lines marching to and from the caps.
A day later, the floor was littered with dead ants. I made a note to sweep them up later. But, when I returned, broom in hand, the ants were gone. I stood in the middle of the room and watched in amazement as a live ant struggled to pull one of its dead comrades across the floor. The ants were carting away their dead!
A little research told me this is common among insects. Bees, hornets, yellowjackets and others protect their nests from disease by removing the dead members. It seems the colony appoints undertakers for the deceased.
This explained why I saw a number of dead honey bees piled up outside the hive a number of years ago. At the time, I just figured it for natural attrition, although I did wonder why they all seemed to die in the same place.
Another time, I cleaned out a nest of nasty yellowjackets in our house only to discover a bunch of dead ones in one corner of the nest. I had killed the others with bug spray, but these had been dead for some time.
There are 1,000 species of carpenter ants. The most common is the black carpenter ant – big, black and shiny as anthracite. They are the ones we have.
Another odd thing about carpenter ants is they farm aphids, those destructive sap-sucker bugs that destroy roses and other flowers. The aphids excrete a sugary substance called honeydew that the ants eat.
I like learning new things, and this has been refreshing. I have to wonder, of course, where the carpenter ant cemetery is in my house.
And I have to wish that another seasonal invader, stink bugs, would send out a funeral crew to cart away their dead instead of leaving them on tables and other flat surfaces throughout the house.