Schandelmeier: Creatures great and small - very small

John Schandelmeier

I raised chickens when I was a kid. One of my favorite activities was to take the chickens over to a pile of old boards, or a flat rock and flip it over quick. Colonies of little red ants lived under the boards and rocks and they would scurry off quickly carrying their eggs and larvae to safety. Ants are not a match for fast chickens, and it became tough to find decent ant nests around our yard. That was my entertainment in the '60s. More fun than Xbox! I'm not sure what type of ants we had in our yard, but research indicates that there are at least 19 species in Alaska.

Most ants cause no trouble for us. For eight months of the year they are in hibernation. Most ants can withstand freezing and some have antifreeze in their hemolymph. They become active again when it warms. Generally, the ant species found in gardens and outdoors around tree stumps are a good thing for your plants. Many species of ants eat aphids and other insects that may be harmful to gardens. There are no biting ants in our state that I am aware of, but I made a call to an Anchorage exterminator to double check. They confirmed that to their knowledge, that was correct. The little red critters already crawling around this spring are spider mites. Good news -- ants eat them!

Carpenter ants are the only real nuisance ants in Alaska. They look and act somewhat like termites, though they are not quite as aggressive to your woodwork. Termites eat the wood in which they nest, while carpenter ants simply bore into the wood to make their nest, leaving telltale piles of sawdust at the entrances. There are no termites in our state, but plenty of carpenter ants, seemingly more in recent years.

Carpenter ants rarely cause major damage to a house, unless the foundations or walls already have underlying problems. They do not normally nest in good solid wood. However, it is probably a bit disconcerting to see a line of three-quarter-inch-long ants crossing the kitchen floor.

There are several ways to get rid of carpenter ants. Most exterminators use a chemical cocktail of some type. The most common chemical used is fipronil, which is also used to rid dogs of fleas and ticks. It has some side effects, which are considered to be minor by the EPA. It does build up in the system and can cause thyroid issues in dogs. Fipronil is also toxic to honeybees and if it gets in the water, it is lethal to fish. However, it does break down quickly in water.

The other type of common chemical uses to eliminate ants is diazinon. Though diazinon has been restricted from residential use for 10 years, it is still available. It can cause some major side effects when improperly applied. Diazinon is still used for commercial agriculture.

Probably the best and safest way to remove carpenter ants is with diatomaceous earth, a naturally occurring substance that is the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae. It works by dehydrating insects that have an exoskeleton. It is tougher to use because it must be put in the ants pathways so they get the powder on their bodies. If you can dump some on the ants (a small syringe works well) and let them run off, they will take it back to the nest and this will likely get most of them.

There is no surefire way to get rid of them all, because the queens may be living elsewhere, creating more ants for you to deal with. The queen can also fly, so even if you wipe out the colony on your premises, there is no guarantee that your house will remain ant-free.

Attracting a few sparrows may help. Sparrows, juncos, flickers and quite a few other bird species eat ants. Of course, some of the winged ant patrol will also get your strawberries. Back when I was a kid, I raised chickens...

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier