Winning the War Against Ants

ant bait trap inside 1To anyone who thinks California is perfect: please, I beg you, keep reading. Yesterday was cold and rainy (which one should expect during winter in the San Francisco Bay Area), and while that’s great news for my garden (I scattered more poppy seeds over the weekend!), it also drove the ants indoors. So my morning was spent vacuuming ants and fighting, what seems like, a never ending war.

When we first moved here, all we heard about was the perfect weather, over and over again, like a broken record. That, and the fresh produce – as if no other part of the world can, you know, grow stuff. Honestly, if I see the word fresh on one more California restaurant menu, I’m going to scream. But I digress.

Since hardly anyone ever mentions the negatives of living in California, I thought I’d share one that can drive a person crazy – Argentine ants.  Since their arrival, sometime in the 1890s on ships carrying coffee and sugar from Argentina, these little buggers have infested most of the state (along with much of the Mediterranean coast and the west coast of Japan). Besides making my life, at times, quite miserable, these little invaders destroy beehives, are a pest to citrus growers and are a serious threat to genetic diversity. This invasive species has already decimated the native ant population. As a result, the number of California horned lizards, which feed almost exclusively on native ants, has drastically declined. Equally distressing is the way many people resort to the use of toxic chemicals to fight these unwanted guests, especially when nontoxic alternatives are equally effective, less expensive and readily available.

Bait traps containing arsenic trioxide – sold under the name Grant’s Kills Ants – are shockingly still available for sale over-the-counter, despite the fact that arsenic is a highly toxic known carcinogen. Between January 2003 and July 2007, six children, ranging from eight months to four years of age, were treated at U.S. poison control centers for the accidental ingestion of arsenic trioxide from ant bait and yet these products are still legal. Meanwhile, bait traps containing liquid borate or boric acid – a much less toxic, naturally occurring form of the element boron – are equally effective, inexpensive and available for sale on the very same shelf at the hardware store! Why would anyone choose a bait trap containing arsenic when non-toxic Terro Liquid Ant Baits are equally, if not more effective?

ant bait trap outside 1

And if you want to go one step further and show the world what a DIY badass you are, you can mix up your own low cost boric acid ant bait solution by following these instructions.

And for those who would rather pick up the phone and call a pest control company, few realize that pest control agencies use perimeter spays and spot treatments containing fipronil – a broad spectrum insecticide known to be highly toxic to honeybees, marine and freshwater fish, as well as some birds. Worse yet, researchers describe fipronil as “a relatively new insecticide that has not been in use for long enough to evaluate the risk it may pose to human health.” Fipronil (sold under the name Termidor) is a restricted use insecticide available only to pest management “professionals” and yeah, it’s pricy.

So anyhow, let’s get back to this morning. It rained. And as research has shown, Argentine ants invade homes and apartments throughout California during winter rainstorms and summer droughts. Once they’ve found their way indoors, through any crack or crevice, even by walking along electric conduit and water pipes, scouts begin looking for food. Unfortunately, there was a crumb from one of my homemade oatmeal raisin cookies on the kitchen floor and the little fuckers ants found it. Luckily, we were up early and able to implement our tried-and-true plan of action right away.

First we grabbed our supplies:

Ant Control Supplies 1

a vacuum (the kind with a bag, trust me), liquid ant bait traps containing boric acid or Borax, vinegar, Windex, paper towels and cinnamon. You’ll also need dish soap.

While my husband was vacuuming up the cookie crumbs and invading ants, being careful to follow the line back to the source – this is important – you need to locate their point of entry, I eliminated the ants’ scent trail by cleaning with soapy water, followed by a quick rinse with vinegar. You can also use Windex, it kills the ants and removes their scent trail (I’ve used it on my granite countertops, no problem). Next, place some liquid bait traps with boric acid at the point of entry. In our case, they were crawling out of a tiny gap between the baseboard and the floor. We used three traps.

ant bait trap inside 3

Then we surrounded the bait traps with a wide barrier of cinnamon. Ants hate cinnamon. They won’t walk through it. This keeps the ants from wandering elsewhere; it keeps them contained to just that spot. As you can see, I made sure to put some on top of the baseboard to keep them from walking up the wall.

ant bait trap inside 2Next, we vacuumed up the excess cinnamon to kill the ants in the vacuum bag – the powder suffocates them.  And this is why I warned you not to use a bag-less vacuum.

ant bait trap outside 2 Finally, we went outside and looked for ant activity in the yard and around the house. We placed more ant bait traps wherever the ants were active. Once we were back in the house, we made some coffee and carefully ate some oatmeal cookies. Throughout the day, I kept an eye on things to make sure ants weren’t crossing the cinnamon barrier. Now comes the hard part; the ants swarm to the bait. Things can seem a bit bleak at this point, but it will get better. You simply have to wait for the ants to take the bait back to their nest.

ant bait trap inside 4

Ten hours later, this is what the bait traps look like. There was only one active ant and some dead bodies in the cinnamon. Tomorrow morning I’ll check for activity and if all is well, I’ll dispose of the traps (sealed in a plastic bag), vacuum up the cinnamon, wash the floor with soapy water and rinse with vinegar. Then we’ll seal up the opening with caulk.

To prevent future problems, I highly recommend using air tight storage containers for things like sugar, flour and cookies. Oil bottles and jars of honey should be kept spotlessly clean.

Ant Control Supplies 2 And when in doubt, put it in a zip lock bag.

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