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Here's how to keep ants out of yourplants—and pantry!
Question. Hi Mike: Ants are just aboutruining my lawn and garden with their mounds of sand. I canbarely dig a hole for a new plant without digging into a nest. Sofar, I have been using boiling water, but this could take me forever -and I'm not that young! Is there anything else you can suggest?Thanks for your help.
---Judyin Central New Jersey
I have ants on my kitchen counter; there is no food on the counter andall of the food is in containers or sealed. They seem to be coming inunder the window above the sink. Please let me know of any way to getthem under control.
----Wanda in Delta, Pennsylvania (right on the Mason-Dixon line)
Mike: My mother's Central California backyard is filled with antsunderneath the soil. Is there a home remedy she can make instead ofusing store bought chemicals?
---Desperate in Lompoc, CA
Hi Mike: I love your show; it's full of neat ideas and facts! An oldman once told me that Tansy leaves, placed on windowsills and underdoors, would repel ants. He gave me some, and it worked like a charm! Ithink he said it's a moth repellant too!
---Jan in Haverford, PA
Answer. Yes, all God's Chillin' gotant problems—because all God's Chillin' got ants! Some disagreeableresearchers give the nod to termites, but most sources say that antsare the most abundant species on the planet, with an estimatedquadrillion—that's the number one followed by 16 zeroes—crawling aroundat any one time, half of them in your kitchen.
There is good reason to believe that the flowering herb tansy doesrepel them. Tansy (proper name Tanacetum vulgare) is a member of thefamed Pyrethum family, first cousin to one of the original botanicalinsecticides—the "Dalmatian Pellitory" or Pryethum Daisy (Tanacetumcinerariifolium; aka Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium; aka Pryethumcinerariifolium) whose dried and powdered flower heads have been usedto kill insects for centuries. Tansy's ability to ward off ants (andflies) is well-noted in the literature, and researchers have used tansyextracts to deter nasty Coloradopotato beetles.
The plant itself is also one of the finest natural attractors ofbeneficial insects, includingladybugs, microscopicpredatory wasps, lacewings,and one of my favorite named pest insect eaters—the insidious flowerbug. But it is also a large invasive perennial that needs to becontained; take it for granted and you will be growing nothing BUTtansy!
But if you do keep it under control, one tansy plant will produce ahuge number of highly aromatic leaves for you. A lot more than theoften-touted ant-repelling bay laurel, and from a plant that's a loteasier to care for. Other members of the tansy family, like feverfew(Tanacetum parthenium; aka Chrysanthemum parthemium) and the camphorplant (Tanacetum balsamita; aka Chrysanthemum balsamita) might alsowork well.
Our good friends at the BIRC in Berkeley California, specialists innon-toxic pest control (www.birc.org), have a number of neat tricks forgetting rid of ants. If a line of them is invading your kitchen, wipethem up with a soapy sponge from the furthest one out, following themback to where they're entering—the soap removes the chemical trailthey've laid down for other ants to follow. Then seal the crack wherethey came in. If it's an area that can't be sealed, spray some boricacid dust—often available as 'roach powder'—into the area. The boricacid will kill some ants directly by drying them out, and others whenthey later groom themselves. And if you get lucky, some will make itback to the nest alive, where the boric acid may be able to wipe outthe colony.
Outdoors, flooding often works to rid an area of ants, but boilingwater isn't necessary; just keep flooding their mounds on a regularbasis and they should eventually move to the outskirts of the property.
But the best solution is to put out baitedTraps that contain a low dose of boric acid. The ants take the baitback to the nest, where the slow acting poison—very toxic to someinsects, almost non-toxic to us mammals—can kill the entirecolony. Here's a detailed description of a pet-safe, ant-deadlytrap design from the BIRC:
1. Mix together: 3 cups water; 1 cup sugar; and fourteaspoons of boric acid. DO NOT USE MORE BORIC ACID THAN THIS! A higherdose would kill the ants immediately; and you need them to live longenough to get the bait back to the main colony. If you see a lotof dead ants around your traps, you used too much!
2. Get six jars with tight fitting screw-cap lids;punch some holes in the lids with a Phillips head screwdriver. Looselypack the jars about half full with cotton balls or batting, thensaturate the cotton with your boric acid sugar water.
3. Screw the lids on tight and draw 'skull andcrossbones' on the jar, just to be safe.
4. Leave the jars out where you see ants (d'uh!).Most importantly, do NOT kill any ants from here on in—you have to letthem travel to and from the jars safely so they can take the bait backto the colony.
5. Not all ants are sugar-suckers; some speciesprefer protein. If your ants aren't attracted to the sugary bait, makea new batch using cat or dog food. If you have carpenter ants, use wet,rotting wood. Experiment with the boric acid levels until you get thedose right.
Oh, and if the ants aren't doing any damage, consider just leaving themalone. Ants in the house can be VERY beneficial, preying on flealarvae, silverfish and clothes moths. Outdoors, they fight a muchmore important foe—termites, their natural enemies. A yard full ofanthills is a very effective barrier to termite invasion. (Talk about'turf wars'!)
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2005Mike McGrath