Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Autumn ant season

Many of my blogging friends who live in more temperate climates are feeling the onset of autumn, and it's lovely to hear of turning leaves, a crispness in the air, and anticipation of warm and cozy meals inside a fall-decorated home.

But here in Southern California, October is often hotter and drier than the summer months. Yesterday evening we arrived home to a sweltering house, and the heat lingered all night long. This morning, at 7:00 a.m. the kitchen was still hot, and the sun blazed on the hills across the canyon. The thermometer in the carport read 78 degrees.

As we go into October, Californians know it means heat, brushfires, and - ants.

I've written before about the fact that living in Topanga means co-existing with critters. But it's not just rural parts of L.A. that have critter problems. Our friend Roger recently wrote about his troubles with ants in the city.

Coincidentally, we just spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at Roger's home, and returned to discover an infestation of ants in our kitchen - a million-fold caravan stretching the length of the room. It started at our kitchen window, and then travelled twenty feet across the room to ascend the kitchen trash-bin and target some delicacy within.

Mind you - our kitchen window is a floor above ground-level, so to get in the window in the first place they had to climb up the side of the house!

These are Argentine Ants, native to South America, but humans have introduced them to all the continents of the world. They are tiny, smaller than a quarter inch, yet extraordinarily successful creatures.

They are attracted to protein, like dead bugs, or whatever's in your kitchen garbage can. They also like water. A scout ant will leave scent signals to guide the other ants to the food source. You can kill an ant, but unless you wipe out the scent trail, other ants will keep coming.

Some people swear that a quick spritz of Formula 409 eliminates the pheromones they leave to mark their trail. Others use an orange-peel based natural cleanser. It's said that powdery substances irritate or even injure the little ants' bodies - Some people advocate using talc, like baby powder. Another natural solution is cinnamon - sprinkle ground cinnamon on them.

You can lay boric acid bait for them - they take it back to the nest and it dessicates them and their fellow ants.

But talk to anyone in Los Angeles about ants, and sooner or later you're going to have someone pull you aside, and in a conspiratorial voice, tell you to try Chinese Chalk.

Chinese Chalk is insecticide in chalk form. You draw a barrier around something you want to protect from ants, or you draw a line through an ant trail to disrupt it. In five minutes, the ants that touch it are dead.

It's illegal to market Chinese Chalk in the US. It is untested and doesn't conform to US packaging standards for insecticides and toxins. The package contains no list of ingredients, and no consumer warnings.

My very own Brother One, who has lived in China for over 20 years, visited us once, and I asked him to translate the Chinese text on the box. It said "Best Insecticide" - the same thing as the English text - no list of ingredients, no warnings that it might be toxic to humans. It's also possible that the box itself may contain lead-based ink - so eating the box is as ill-advised as eating the chalk itself.

Wikipedia says that Chinese insecticidal chalk contains two toxins, deltamethrin and cypramethrin.

Both of these toxins kill by attacking the nervous system. They are among the most common insecticides, and member of a groups of insecticides known as synthetic pyrethroids - Pyrethrin is a natural insecticide derived from the common flowering plant pyrethrum, which is related to chrysanthemum. Although pyrethrins are supposed to be safe for mammals, they are extremely toxic to fish and bees.

Synthetic pyrethroids are based on pyrethrin, but are chemically enhanced, making them stronger and more deadly.

Still want to get some Chinese Chalk? Go down to Chinatown. Make it part of a fun trip - Hit Empress Pavilion for dim sum, or Phillipes for french dip sandwiches (get the lamb with bleu cheese - my favorite!) Walk up Broadway, and cast an eye on the sidewalk displays at the gift shops. Depending on the County's enforcement efforts, you may see a display of Chinese Chalk out front. Or it may be near the cashier. Or you may need to ask.

You can always find it if you go into the crowded merchandise markets that branch off Broadway, where vendors of toys, underwear, fake designer handbags and electronics have their stalls. Here the chalk is more visiblly displayed, the crowds and chaos making it harder for officials to spot.

Buy at least a half-dozen boxes - they cost about a dollar each. Quality standards for Chinese Chalk seem on par with other products from that nation - Some chalk works and some chalk doesn't seem to do anything.

Everyone in Los Angeles hates Argentine ants, and everyone has an opinion about Chinese Chalk. Some people say its dangerously toxic. Others assert that the amount of toxin is so low it's really the talcy chalk that's doing the job.

Others - and I think I'm in this camp - say, well, it works better than anything else, so I'll just make sure not to use it around food and wash my hands after using.

Roger offers one up-side to these armies of tiny, voracious creatures that most people probably don't think of.

They eat dead rats. Hey! there's always good in something!

What do you do about ants?


JCK said...

We've been pretty lucky so far, but they definitely come out after a rain. I use white vinegar in a spray bottle. A little stinky, but effective.

Kathy Rogers said...

When we lived in Stepford with a canyon behind us, we had a jillion billion of them all the time. So we got an exterminator to come and spray around the outside of the house every three months.

Which worked great.

Until they nested under the house.

There are conga lines of them outside the Faux Town house, but they've stayed outside so far...

Fascinating about the chinese chalk. I'd heard just regular chalk before, but never heard of that stuff. Cool. Can you draw little chalk outlines around the dead ants?

Tootsie Farklepants said...

I forgot all about the ants and Chinese chalk once you mentioned Phillipes! I could go for a beef dip. Yes it is breakfast time.

Cheryl said...

We get them once a year, without fail. In our second story condo.

I use Grant's Ant stakes--usually works.

Anonymous said...

We get the same ants up here in the Bay Area, and they've attacked my building this week! The exterminator was called in today, and he used a glue-like liquid in a hand-held injector, and did the same thing - left dots of it across their trails. They seemed to take to the stuff right away. He's doing the whole perimeter of the building the same way as I type this. He said it's essentially the same stuff that's in ant traps or stakes, mixed with different "flavors" depending on what the ants are eating, which he says generally varies by season. In the spring they want proteins, so they go for the grease and the pet food (and the dead rats). In the fall they want carbohydrates like sugar, and water.