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Ants in the kitchen May 8th, 2016 by

E.O. Wilson (renowned biologist and the world’s expert on ants) says that when he gives a talk to the general public, the question they most often ask him is “What can I do about the ants in my kitchen?”

No topic is too small for discussion when it is close to home, and some people loathe being invaded by ants in the very heart and hearth of home. This is the answer which Professor Wilson gives them, words which he says come straight from his heart:

“Watch your step, be careful of little lives. They especially like honey, tuna and cookie crumbs. So put down bits of those on the floor, and watch closely from the moment the first scout finds the bait and reports back to her colony by laying down an odor trail. As a little column follows her out to the food, you will see social behavior so strange it might be on another planet.

Edward O. Wilson (2014: 94-95)

It’s a charming answer, but probably not quite what people want to hear.  I’ve been reading Wilson’s books on ants for years, and based on that, and personal experience, I have some practical advice for the ant-fearing public.

You can kill quite a lot of ants without doing the colony much harm. Worker ants spend their younger days at tasks inside the colony. At the end of their lives, worker ants become foragers, which is a dangerous job. That is why the ants send their oldsters to forage for food. When you kill ants, you kill the ones whose days are already numbered anyway. And there are many thousands of other ants at home ready to replace the ones you kill.

The best solutions are to separate the ants from their food.

Good housekeeping. Ants patrol constantly, looking for scraps of food. When they find a morsel they recruit others, and that is when you probably first notice them. You can frustrate the ants in your kitchen by sweeping the floor, and by wiping up crumbs and spills. And don’t take food from the kitchen to the rest of the house.

ant moatThe honey moat. Ants can’t cross water. Keep your honey jar sitting in a small dish of water. The ants will not be able to get to the honey. Change the water once in a while, because if honey is dissolved in the water, the ants will go to the edge of the water to drink it.

Glass jars or other airtight plastic containers provide a physical barrier. Keep sugar and other sweet treats in tightly closed jars.

Moving time. Ants follow a trail that leads from the food back to the nest. Once they are off the trail, the ants are hopelessly lost. If you set some food down and the ants get into it, and you want to get them out of your snack, just move the food to a different surface. The ants will leave, and wander around lost. It will take the other ants a while to find the treat again, and before the ants find your snack again, you should be able to eat it. If you are in a hurry you can gently tap the food as you move it around, which will send most of the ants running.

airtight sugarDeep freeze. If ants get into your sugared cereal, and you can’t bear to throw it away, put the whole box into the freezer. The ants will die. The brave at heart will still be able to eat the cereal. You will hardly notice the dead ants, plus they are good for you.

Don’t poison your children. If after all this, you still want the quick fix of instantly wiping out a whole ant column (that line of ants moving from nest to food), don’t reach for that can of insecticide. It is poisonous and it lingers on your kitchen counters. Plain, ordinary medicinal alcohol is absolutely lethal to ants, and safer for humans. Alcohol evaporates without a trace. It’s cheap and you can buy it at the drug store. You can soak a cloth with alcohol or pour it into a spray bottle, and squirt it onto the poor ants.

Even after you have out-smarted the ants in your kitchen, you may still see a few from time to time, tidying up a bread crumb you left behind, or carrying away that dead cockroach that you really don’t want to touch. Wilson says that humans can learn nothing from ants about living in large, modern cities. (After all, we have little in common with ants). Yet Wilson may be overstating his case. We should at least be able to learn to tidy up after ourselves.

Further reading

Hölldobler, Bert, and Edward O. Wilson 1990 The Ants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O. 2014 The Meaning of Human Existence. New York: Liveright Publishing. 208 pp.

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