SHORT STORY

Let me tell you about the ants

By Sally Andrew 14 September 2021

Regrowth three weeks after the big fire of March 2015. Image: Andrea Nixon

I live in a mud-brick house with a thatched roof, on a nature reserve in the Klein Karoo. The bliss of living in nature requires entering into some compromises over territory. In nature, there is no such thing as private property, but territory is a big deal. At times there are ferocious battles.

Sally Andrew

Mostly, my partner and I are very happy to compromise with the critters and the growing things. Some may reckon we bend over backward, but since most of this planet’s territory has been decimated and desiccated by humans, we prefer to err on the side of the bunnies and the birds.

But it’s not only a political choice, the truth is, we love being surrounded by nature; we are constantly recharged and delighted by it, so the compromises are a no-brainer.  My man is a wilderness artist, and I am a writer, so we live and love and work here, surrounded by the trees and the bees. 

Some of the small things we concede:

Our karee trees are broken regularly by the horns of eland; our freshly planted spekboom are chomped down to stumps by tortoises; and our wooden spatulas are patterned with mouse nibbles.

I avoid being bitten by bugs if possible (it’s tricky: they think I’m the most delicious dish on the open-air menu), but when I am scratching away at those little red bumps, I am on some level humbled and gratified that I can be at the bottom of the food chain as well as the top of it. Right in that loop of the cycle of nature.

We have a lovely pizza oven that we never use because the bats sleep in it. (Pizza, who needs pizza? Have you seen those bats swoop?) Our metal chimney pipe requires frequent repairs because the baboons use it for pole dancing. (They don’t do it when we’re around, but they leave convincing evidence of who the culprits were.) We cannot open two of the windows in our kitchen, because the swallows have built their nests against the frames. (Who needs fresh air when you can hear baby chicks tweeting, and when fledged, they fly into the bedroom and sing above your heads? Yes, they do.)

Gecko on glass. Image: Sean Brown.
Gecko on shutters. Image: Sean Brown.

We have cold showers when we can’t chase the geckos out of the gas geyser. They are the cutest things that look like tiny prickly dragons. My man once found a flame-grilled one. He is still recovering from that. He is a tough man, who, when fate decreed, didn’t hesitate to slit the throat of an injured kudu; but he is not one to lightly step on an ant. Let me rephrase that: he is not one to step on ants lightly. What I mean to say is he, and I, would prefer not to step on ants.

Let me tell you about the ants.

The colony of ants lives in the walls and foundation of our mud-brick house. They, or their “antcestors”, have probably been living here since before the house was built, over a hundred years ago. Mostly we don’t notice them; they are very small and polite. There’s sometimes a little dried mud in the corner of a room, which we sweep up. Their foraging seems to take place outdoors; I never spot them in the butter or at the sink.

But once a year, over the hot summer months, this all changes. The house becomes ant city. It starts with hundreds of them, patrolling the floors in tiny, tidy lines. They’re not after our food, or us, they’re just getting on with some important summer-ant-busyness. We do our best not to step on them. But inevitably, our concentration slips, and one of them is crushed underfoot. A hundred and twenty ants rush to the site to attend that one ant’s funeral.

We do our best to step around the funerals. But alas, our solar lights are dim, the ants never sleep, and a tragedy occurs. At the peak of one of the ceremonies, and before the body is carried off for a decent burial, I step on the funeral itself. The dead ants release formic acid that calls the other ants to attend their funerals. Each dead ant requires the attendance of another one hundred and twenty ants that congregate in dense black patches on the floor. (120 x 120 = 14,400 at this bigger funeral). Then, at some point, despite our best efforts to cook dinner and leave and enter the house in a hovercraft-like fashion, we step on a bigger funeral. Assuming all the ants die in this mass tragedy (which is an exaggeration as some, of course, will escape) the even bigger funeral would be attended by 120 x 14,400 = lots of ants.

When you step on one of the “even bigger” funerals the smell of formic acid is so strong that it seems the house has been tear-gassed. We have to open all the windows (apart from the two with swallow’s nests) and evacuate the house until it has aired.

When 1,230,004 of the small polite ants have been killed, the ant army sends out the big guns: soldier ants, with huge pincer-like jaws, that hang on like pitbulls. If you twist their bodies off, just leaving their heads on, they can be used as sutures to stitch a cut. I do not do this, however; I just leap in the air in pain, landing on some more ants. 

Although it is bikini weather in the Karoo, to protect my feet from the soldier ants, I put on my Wellington boots.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that within a fairly short time, there is an infinity of ants on our floor. 

Toxic insecticides are out of the question, but I set about researching and testing a host of natural ant-repellants. I drip lavender oil at the ant gateways. They sputter, a few die in the crossing, but nothing changes. I pick bushels of mint from the stream and lay it in their pathways. They walk around it if possible, but if not, they climb over it. I try to make little islands where we can walk without crushing them. They seem to dislike camphor oil, so I coat every third terracotta tile on our floor, and we use these as stepping stones; but the oil evaporates fast in the dry Karoo air. I line squares of newspaper with cinnamon powder; the breeze blows them around and we inhale cinnamon dust.

Field of dry karoo flowers leading up to blurred mountains in the distance Image: Andrea Nixon

The dead ants continue to attract more ants, so we sweep and blow and eventually resort to mopping the mass of tiny black ants’ bodies.

We set up an inflated kiddy pool outside, and I walk back and forth in my bikini and Wellingtons, rinsing the dead ants off my mop and into the water. In the process, I kill lots more ants. I am a mass murderer. I am going to need six lifetimes as a Buddhist nun to balance my karma.

The mopped floor (smelling of a cocktail of aromatherapy oils) stays clear for less than three seconds. The columns of ants return and the march to the infinity of death begins again.

The ants seem to be obsessed with patrolling the floor, and thankfully don’t often venture much higher. So we fetch the scaffolding planks from my man’s building site and lay it on ladders across the floor. Making dinner becomes something of a circus, with occasional see-sawing and flying-lettuce acts. But the new plan seems to reduce the deaths. 

However, after a few days, the ants decide that scaffolding planks make great highways. Then, once they’ve discovered they can climb, they patrol all facets of our house. Walls, pillows, sinks, toothbrushes.

I read Eugene Marais’ Soul of the White Ant, which increases my respect for the ants but also makes it clear that if we want the colony out of our house, we have to remove or kill the queen. There’s no way to remove her without destroying our house. There are ways to kill her. Even “natural” ways that will not get into the food chain. 

Flower Antics. Image: Sean Brown

I enter into telepathic communications with the queen ant. She is aggressive and uncompromising. This is her territory, her house. Maybe we live here too, but so what?

Please, I say, we don’t like killing your ants.

They are replaceable, like cells on a body, she says. She’s producing eggs much faster than the ants die. They are doing what they must do.

I don’t want to kill you, I say. Let’s make a deal.

She is not interested in negotiations; she cuts off the telepathy.

Her silence is very clear: She will do what she must do. I must do what I must do.

She is right. Compromises can only be carried so far.

“That’s it,” I say to my man. “I can’t live with this any longer.”

“The last resort,” he says.

“Yes.”

So we move out.

Every year, for the two hottest months of summer, we go and stay somewhere else. 

When we return, and study the stories of the ground and insect mounds, we realise that the ant army has successfully kept invading legions of termites at bay. Ants do not damage our walls, but the termites could turn our house to dust. DM/ ML

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All Comments 8

  • Lovely story of understanding the value of nature. So often our urban attempts to control nature around us merely bring about the catastrophes of imbalance.

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