Another buckwheat being chopped down
I started writing this article a few weeks ago as my war against ants started. Luckily, as all things in life change, or rather evolve, so did my thoughts and understanding of my ant problem. Being a true optimist, I did all I could to find opportunities in my problems.
Ants, ants, ants. I talk non-stop about ants. They even invade my dreams!
I have recently planted an exciting and promising variety of foods that seemed to never emerge and I wondered whether they were shy or if I did anything wrong. So, like most old school gardeners would advise you to, I visited my garden at night.
To my horror, armies of ants (giant reds and robust blacks mostly) were chopping the growing jungle I intended to grow. I sat, almost desperate in front of the long lines of soldiers heading home with chunks of my seedlings and newly planted seeds. As my tribute to Margaret Mead, I now officially declare "Never doubt that a small group of committed ants can destroy an entire harvest."
When war is pledged against you, you better defend yourself. So I did. I re-read my favorite quotes from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, spent (too much) time Googling ant problems and marched to the battle field.
The challenge is that the Internet is filled with wonderful ideas, tips and bits of wisdom on how to get rid of ants…. Tips that do not necessarily apply to individual cases. That’s precisely what I love about permaculture — it deals with articulations and dynamics rather than specific recipes. You know, the "it depends" type of answers you often come up with. Well, my little story will definitely illustrate this point.
I therefore browsed through various forums, blogs and how-to sites, and put all this wisdom into practice. After a few weeks of experimentation, mistakes and failures, I can now assure you that either the magic recipes have never been tested before or that my case is so isolated that none of them worked. Here is a list of war strategies I adopted and their results.
As recommended, I attacked their nests with baking soda and vinegar (the chemical reactions apparently kills them). Mission failed. You only get a few casualties as the tunnels are so intricately carved that they won’t let the organic poison penetrate.
I mixed the aggregate of other ants’ nests into theirs so they would move away (or so swears the old lady who sells us sweet bread). Mission failed once again.
I laid cow dung over their nests (like I saw done in Western Africa) hoping they would colonize them and then throw it to my chooks for a protein boost. I probably forgot a major aspect: it wasn’t against ants but termites. Mission failed again!
My local friends even sneaked chemical poison to help my desperate case (they affirm it is only harmful to ants)…. Mission failed and this so-called secret help resulted in an angry farmer, aka me, and more vengeance from the little buggers. Remember, ant colonies are massive and spread way farther than one would think, so pouring a bit of poison over one hole pushed them to spread more and exit from other places.
I sprinkled a bunch of wood ash all over the beds (which didn’t seem to bother them at all) and sprayed a soapy mixture of garlic and chillies (nothing changed and I suspect it actually made my plants more palatable for those spice-loving Mexican beasts). Mission failed once again.
I also poured loads of coffee grinds all over the soil with mild results (caffeine is said to be a great natural insect repellent), blocked the entrance of their nests with rocks to buy me time and manually fought them off my plants. And so the story goes. I kept wasting time, energy and soldiers.
At this point, Bill Mollison would probably tell me that I don’t have an ant problem but a shortage of Myrmecophagidae…. Dear Bill, Mexico won’t let me sneak any anteaters into the country and I can’t even find them on E-bay.
Lacking the ants’ most well-known predator in my tool box, I sent invites to other minor predators — I did all I could to welcome lizards, toads, praying mantises, birds, and spiders. I designed my garden to be as inviting to them as possible. It is now filled with piles of rocks, perches, and inverted clay pots.
I also placed my chook tractor right over their nests to see what happened. Despite moderate results and a good protein binge for my chooks, the ants quickly dug other tunnels and exited my trap.
I must admit this war dilemma caused many a headache, and perhaps a bit of desperation too, but above all it boosted my creativity and my sense of observation, so it’s not all so bad in the end. Plus, it was my original intention in living far from everything that brought me to our ant territory. I chose to live with Nature, to work with her and to build a little world that made a lot of sense to me. Killing ants was definitely not part of my original vision.
Ant piles – a yield we didn’t think of
The only option left was to rethink my reality, permaculturally that is. Despite the few occasional bites and their compulsive leaf-cutting and seed-robbing habits, ants are wonderful allies. If you find the mother nest, you will be blessed with a mound of great compost-like soil as well as tiny gravels that will improve soil drainage. Now that’s a great bonus. They also offer long hours of entertainment; watching them fight other colonies, communicate or carry bulky items is like entering a Nat Geo documentary for a bit. As for their destructive temper, I guess all they want is food. If food it is they want, food they shall have!
Mango peels to keep my ants pacified
I now have opted for a more conscious approach and instead of making them my enemies, I have declared them worthy of my adoration. Everyday, I spread a bit of our food (fruit peels and sugary stuff like raisins for instance) close to their nest or on their way to my garden as my offering. I do it almost ritually just because it’s fun.
I also accepted that a part of my harvest will be shared with them and therefore planted twice as much. They love my new seedlings so much that they left my other crops untouched.
Unlike many, I also welcome all types of weeds, as not only do they assist my other plants but they are a succulent decoy for ants to munch on (and for us!). It is the same with some of the mulch I use. I call them my ant rawhide. Munch on them suckers!
Overall, I call it a multilateral success as peace reigns over our little oasis once again, and they seem to have lost interest in ‘my’ share of the garden.
Just a last reminder for all of us looking for (and giving) online tips and recipes: Each recipe is time-, place- and culture-specific. What works or worked for you might not work for others and vice versa. It’s all about adjustment, creativity and adaptation!
My only recommendation for dealing with ‘my’ ants: Feed them well and have others feed on them… or feed on them yourself, as they are excellent treats (first boiled, then fried with lime, garlic, onions and chillies).
P.S.: As I finish typing this article, there is now an invasion of grasshoppers that I am about to ‘fight’…. I guess I will keep you updated in my next article.
Another citadel to keep pacified