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Wall street may know everything, but not about ants

We have ants.

It all started when we put in a garden-a raised bed of loamy topsoil, nicely fertilized and framed with timbers-where weeds quickly choked off the edible plants and soon held magnificent sway. That same weekend we started a compost pile back behind the utility shed, and somehow we never got out of the composting habit, though the weeds were doing just fine on their own.

We took to keeping a big metal bowl by the kitchen sink where we threw grapefruit rinds, carrot peelings, coffee grounds and the remains of yesterday's Tofu Pups. My wife is very serious about this composting thing, and woe to the visitor who carelessly casts his tea bag into the wrong pail: Ten minutes of pawing through the garbage to retrieve it ensures that he'll never make the mistake a second time.

But we left the scrap bowl out on our counter too long, mostly because somebody had seen a snake back near the utility shed in 1972, so that whenever I tried to approach the compost pile I heard the danger music from "Peter and the Wolf."

Inevitably, then, while we were out last month, the ants came. They came for the rotting vegetables in our compost bowl, and they stayed for the coffeepot scum, for the honey that had dribbled down the side of the jar, for bits of rancid stuff on the range, for everything that makes life worth living, if you're an ant.

Now, my wife is an environmentalist who harbors the quaint belief that we have no business hiring a man to come spray toxins around our kitchen just because of a few million insects, although I must say I can't see that a lifetime of toxins has done me any harm, not counting the tics. So instead, we lay out trails of boric acid, a trick which I had read about in The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper in which all professional ant-controllers learn the latest tools of the trade.

I caulked around the kitchen window, and I spread that boric acid. I even ran a rag over the counter before I spilled a few drops of orange juice as bait. The next morning I rose early, eager to see the results of my counterattack. I expected ant carcasses strewn from toaster to hand soap-from tea kettle to dish drainer. But there they were, disporting themselves caddishly amid comfortable clumps of boric acid, scarfing it up and flipping me off with their tiny antennae.

They had brought their families, invited the neighbors and posted signs showing the way to our land of juice and honey. Maybe it was sulfuric acid we were supposed to use, not boric. I don't know.

By the end of day two, they had reconnoitered the spice cupboard, the pasta bowls, the inside of the icebox and the TV trays. I strained my tea at dinner that night and found two drowned ants. "Poor things!" Kim murmured. "They were just trying to make a living the only way they knew how."

That night, acting on a hunch, I erected a tiny scaffold out of toothpicks so I could traumatize the younger ants by hanging an adult. Unfortunately it proved pretty difficult to get a noose around one, and I wasn't too sure which end was the neck. I wasn't even sure which one was the adult.

Someone had suggested bay leaves, so I also laid a bunch of them along the counter. The ancient Romans used to crown their victorious generals with bay, probably because by the time they returned from those long campaigns in northern Europe the soldiers had ants everywhere-in their duffel bags, in their armor, you name it.

But what worked for the Romans gave cold comfort in our kitchen. I sneaked in at 2 a.m., hoping to surprise them, and there they were hard at work hauling the wonderful, wonderful bay leaves back to their nest. They scrambled with such a will that I knew what I was seeing must have been the second shift: Sometime around 8:00 p.m., they had handed over little maps of my kitchen to the next shift as the first lot shuffled hot and sweaty to their boric acid baths before turning in for the night. The new crew was fast at work, flexing their tiny pectorals and ready to carry ten times their own body weight in bay leaves.

Desperate now, I started cleaning the kitchen counter and cupboards in the middle of the night-using soap and everything. This upset the dogs, who had never seen me do it before and to whom soap means "bath." Their whining woke my wife, who didn't believe me when I said I was just trying to earn a living the only way I knew how.

But it worked.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is a University employee.


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