Ants

By Ellis J. Biderson
Web Exclusive

boy and father looking at bugsIn the middle of a dinner, my daughter suddenly glanced to the floor on her right, excused herself from the table, and got the large, clear plastic jug that once held baking soda from its familiar place under the sink. We call it the bug jar. After removing the index card that is kept in the container, Lisa placed the open top at an angle to the floor near the screen door and, with a slow, practiced motion, used the card to gently encourage a cricket to hop into the jug. With the card held over the top to prevent the cricket from leaping out, she opened the door, held the jar low over the ground, and, removing the card, let the bug bound away. Lisa smiled, and we—her proud mother and father—did the same.

This is not a unique occurrence, but how we solved a household problem simply and practically, and—most important—passed respect for life on to the next generation. A lesson ingrained in me primarily by my mother, this is at least as important as “Don’t slouch” and “Listen when someone is talking to you.”

As far back as we can remember, life has been considered valuable in our home, beyond simply being accepted. Barbara, my wife, and I have never lectured about our view, but have used what child-rearing experts have said for centuries is the easiest and most effective means to encourage offspring to accept what parents believe: by our actions, showing respect for living creatures. Therefore, to solve the problem of these wee invaders, we have carefully put insects back outdoors when they have wandered into our homes—spiders, ants, crickets, assorted types of beetles, bees, moths, and various flying and crawling life. For one ant (or just a few) and any other non-jumping insect, it is often sufficient to hold the card close to the creature, patiently waiting until he (or she—only an entomologist would know for sure) walks onto it, then gingerly picking up and moving it outside. Sometimes, a single ant or tiny spider even gets a free ride back home on one of our hands, an incomprehensible journey on a giant. Years ago, Lisa said, “I understand: I wouldn’t want to live in a hole in the ground or in a tree. Why would they want to live here?”

It is not that we have a lot of bugs in the house, just an occasional incursion, usually only from April to early September, particularly when the weather is dry—long lines of ants seeking food and water, crickets looking for dark corners to repeat their chirrups, and a variety of other very small creatures that belong more outdoors than in any part of our home.

One weekend afternoon, when Lisa was about ten years old, we found an inch-wide column of ants beginning to enter the kitchen, attracted to the breadcrumbs from lunch that had fallen in an almost invisible (to us) heap on the kitchen floor. Then, as today, we strongly preferred not to use insecticides, because these insects are innocent creatures and are generally not harmful, being nothing more than a minor nuisance, and excessive use of chemical products around the house is not desirable from environmental and safety points of view. I dealt with the uninvited ant guests by purchasing a small, inexpensive bottle of citronella oil from a health food store and smoothing a few drops of it on the outside lower edges of doors. It has dramatically decreased the influx of ants and crickets. Sometimes, when the battalions of ants have approached the deterrent, we have watched them make a mass U-turn. Repeating this once a week or two in the warm seasons is all that is required.

Since then, I have learned that there are other bug repellents, including ground pepper, Tabasco or other hot sauce (particularly containing chili powder, which snails also avoid), and garlic powder. We have heard about (but not tried) other materials that may work—cedar and cloves, for example.

To be careful, they should all be immediately and completely washed from the fingers to avoid ingestion, contact with eyes, and getting them on pets. Of course, anyone who uses even a natural insect deterrent should avoid doing so if you have an allergy to it or have an allergic reaction, such as a rash or shortness of breath. Pennyroyal in particular (which is effective as a repellent for flies), as well as the general insect deterrents cinnamon and sassafras, should never be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Observing these insects has also brought us pleasure—spiders spinning webs, ants and others digging nests and carrying food, crickets chirping more rapidly with an increase in temperature, and all surviving in a perceived world that is as small relative to us as ours is to the solar system, and likely no more completely fathomable to them than the universe is to us.

This has not been just in regard to insects. A few years ago, a sparrow flew down our chimney (in summer, fortunately, when there were no logs blazing), somehow getting past the closed flue, and the three of us formed an instant team, one closing our indoor-only cats, Hannah and Molly, in the bedroom, so they wouldn’t chase the bird or try to escape, and two of us walking slowly towards the scared bird with our arms out, until it flew away from us and out the opened front door. We did not hear the sparrow taking a deep breath and exhaling, but it must have heard us doing that.

As Lisa has grown older, we have talked more about our feelings. We all agree that our own lives are valuable, and do not see that other lives are less so, both to us and—particularly—to the fathers and mothers and daughters of ants and crickets and birds. With no reason to harm or kill them, why not help them live as long as they can? This is obvious for apparently beneficial, benign creatures, but even predatory ones have not, in our view, made free choices to be that way, and are therefore innocent in their own right.

And, too, Barbara and I are certain that this simple way to express and affirm our view of life has taught Lisa its great significance, that not everything in the world is alive, that we are so very fortunate. We are sorry, though, that the larger issues are not easier to deal with, but we are trying, with our minds and our hearts. For example, Lisa has asked, after a rainstorm, why the worms on the sidewalk had to die. It is good that we can talk about it, but I wish we had an answer.

Susan W. Specht is a single parent to twins Anna and Nicholas, now 7, as well as a potter and writer. She lives in Seattle, Washington .