Carpenter Ants

3 Mar

nyca-queen_-ventral

New York Carpenter Ant Queen (This picture is magnified.  The actual length is about two thirds this long, the body one third this size.)

The comments of my writers’ group members appear in italics.

Ants.  When I was a little girl one of my reccurring dreams concerned huge black ants that jumped from one lily pad to another.  I was terrified that I would be killed by them.

Forward forty-some years to my newly-bought  Mock Tudor house in Minneapolis.  During the final walk through my mother discovered that the left inside of my bedroom closet was wet.  In Minnesota unlike in New York, lawyers are not usually present at closings.  We had discovered the leak after having signed the contract, so my mother’s discovery came late in the game and there was no lawyer to press the issue.  After some haggling, everyone present agreed on $200.00.  Not surprisingly, the cost to fix the closet turned out to be more than $2,000.

However, we did not find that out right away because we thought it was a small leak and didn’t immediately hire someone to work on it.  I moved in during July of 1990 and we were enjoying typical Minnesota weather with many 90 degree days, so hot that it often made inside work difficult. The focus of my friends and I was the upstairs bedroom where my pregnant roommate, Roberta, was to live.  Initially she lived in my living room and used the sofa bed, so preparing the bedroom walls in the upstairs bedroom and having new carpeting installed became my priorities. Scott, my best friend in Minneapolis, Earl, and Roberta, who were both co-workers like Scott,  began to work on steaming off the old wallpaper, and preparing the walls with primer. It took a long time and come late fall I was still measuring wallpaper and Scott was still hanging it.  My bedroom closet was far from my mind.

The following summer I awoke to a buzz in the walls.  In my first blurry moments I thought one of my neighbors was using a hand saw, but that didn’t account for the fact that the sawing sound was so close to me. I walked to the closet, suspicious now, and opened the  door, confirming that the sound was indeed coming from the left interior wall.  I also saw some ants in the vicinity.  I immediately called some exterminators who came and sprayed.  They pulled apart a small section of the wall.  It was wet and full of tunnels.  There were few ants left.

They  explained that I had carpenter ants.  Typically, carpenter ants are attracted to wet wood for their nests.  There is no way to save the wet wood.  It had to be removed.  After discovering carpenter ants, the goal is to keep them from tunneling into dry wood, which they would also channel through.  At this point, Doug Baird from my Lansing Writers’ Group, reminds me that the ants do not actually eat the wood; they merely make channels through it.  The guys spent time spraying the baseboards and the surrounding area, in hopes that the ants would take the poison back to that nest and any other nests in the area.  They warned me that there were three sizes of ants in a typical nest, but the one to watch for was the queen.  She was quite large and hard to miss. If I saw the queen, I should make sure to kill her because the sight of a queen away from her current home, meant that she was looking for a new place to nest.  But my first goal should be to replace the damaged wood.

I started taking chunks  out of the wall with my hands when I came home at night.  Although wet, it was like handling driftwood because it was hollowed out.  Before I knew it the giant nest was mostly gone but so was most of the closet.  I realized that all I had for insulation was  1930s newspapers (my house was built in 1933).  I made arrangements for a plasterer to come in with his crew to rebuild the closet, with modern insulation,  and to re-plaster part of the wall in the next bedroom.  The initial cause turned out to be a leak in the juncture between a gable and the connecting part of the roof. Because of this problem, I had to have work done on the gutter outside and the piece of roof underneath it.

Alas, that was not to be the end of the story.  A few years later, I discovered a queen carpenter ant flying uncertainly in one of my living room windows.  I grabbed a paper towel and folded her into it.  Sometimes I save spiders and Daddy-long-legs, but the queen was flushed right down the toilet.  She looked just like the above picture, but she was entirely black.  I’d thrown her out, but I knew that meant there was a nest close by.  However, I didn’t immediately find one.

The second nest I discovered was in my first floor bathroom ceiling.  Again, the first sign there was a problem was the sighting of a queen.  I had yet another exterminator come.  This guy was new to the job and made me nervous because he said he hadn’t had much experience handling poison.  For a couple years afterward there was some kind of yellow gook hanging from a corner of the ceiling.  It might actually have been from the ants.  My understanding was that he used dioxin, but Gary Van Houten, also from my Lansing Writers’ Group, who has had a lot of experience with chemicals, told me that dioxin would never have been used–it is much too dangerous. Before I sold the house, I had to have that part of the ceiling reconstructed.  I can definitely testify to the damage carpenter ants do.

One thing that I can testify to is that if you tell a like story to the guys in your writers’ group, they will try to impress you with tales of their derring-do in insect devastation.  In my case, Doug told of his and his brother’s heroism in defeating yellow jackets in their parents’ basement with insect spray.  Gary started off with a rollicking tale of bees and honey in his walls, but ended up  admitting that some critter ate both the bees and the honey.

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