Those large black ants? The solitary ones you’ve seen in your kitchen this spring, marching alone across the counter from the fridge to the sink?
Those are carpenter ants.
Let me assure you, they’re not called carpenters because they “measure twice and cut once.”
These guys infest anything wooden — say, your First Period house, or your newly installed Home Depot tool shed. They like to hollow out great cavernous “galleries,” and extensive tunnels to get there, in your wooden structure, especially where there’s moisture. Like under your window. Or under your deck, your porch, the eaves of your roof. They don’t eat the moist, chewy wood, like a termite. They just bite off the wood, tiny-little-ant-sized-mouthful by tiny-little-ant-sized-mouthful, and spit it out, and then do it again. And again. Until one day, your house groans lugubriously and caves in on itself.
What carpenter ants do eat is gross: They feed mostly on dead insects. (One favorite snack: sucking the bodily fluids out of a dead bug head.) But they send out scouts to find these tasty morsels, and if the scout’s route happens to take him through your kitchen, you may soon have a caravan of carpenters climbing your coffee pot.
“Hold on a minute,” I said to one the other day.
“What?” the ant shot back, barely pausing between the knife rack and the Cuisinart. “I’m busy.”
“Do you realize this is my house you’re in?”
“Eh, I’m just a scout,” the ant replied with a sneer. “I’m not stealing your precious Lucky Charms.”
“Yeah, but you’re casing the joint for your accomplices!”
The ant sat down grumpily on his bulbous posterior metasoma and crossed two of his legs. “Look. It’s a job. I bring them the information, and what they do with it is their business. I can’t take responsibility for the actions of every ant in the colony. Do you check the politics of your car mechanic?”
He pulled a single strand of tobacco out of his tiny backpack. “Got a light?”
“No smoking. House rule,” I muttered. “My wife would kill you.”
“Your wife would kill me anyway,” the ant sniggered. “Come on, gimme a light. Haven’t you ever heard of the ‘one last cigarette’ tradition?”
I didn’t like the way he kept changing the subject.
“You realize what thin ice you’re skating on, don’t you?” I demanded. “If we see you, we squish you. You’re not a speedy species.”
“Yeah, I put in for rollerblades, but….” He rolled his eyes. “Budget cuts, ya know.”
I snorted. Then I was embarrassed and pulled out a handkerchief and tried to pretend to be blowing my nose.
“Look,” the ant continued, “I’m union. I do what I’m told. The contract we negotiated is very fair, in my opinion. I use biochemical pheromones to mark the shortest path from the nest to the food source. Which in your case is from just under the southwest corner of your screen porch — to that bag of tortilla chips you accidentally tore too far down the side.”
I choked. Then I was embarrassed and tried to pretend it was a simple cough.
“Once we get the foraging trail established,” the ant went on, pausing to yawn a tiny yawn, “my work is done. I move to the next house on my job list.”
He pulled out a tiny iPad and perused the screen.
“Chris and Tammy. Three small kids. Plenty of food sources.”
I summoned my shame and rage in an effort to get back on the offensive.
“But you’re not the only one at risk, cutting through my kitchen like this,” I growled. “We have another house rule, here at the Brendels’: When we kill a carpenter ant, we count. If we get up to seven in a single day, we call the exterminator. Once he comes in, your whole gang goes down.”
The ant shrugged four of his shoulders. “You think we don’t know all this?” He shook his clypeus with a glare of contempt. “We know your house rule. We can hear, ya know. ‘Seven in a day.’” He grunted with derision. “Have you gotten up to seven yet?”
“Of course not, dummy.” He smugly folded his antennae together. “Because we only send out six scouts a day.”
I had no retort for this.
So I squished him with my thumb.
“Honey,” I called to my wife, “phone the bug guys.”