Chop Shop

We were getting ready to close up shop for the day when Cynthia called me to where she was standing next to the new garden in the back yard. “Close your eyes and listen,” she instructed. I played along and heard some kind of munching. Kind of sounded like someone eating potato chips. Upon opening my eyes, I saw one of our new plants being rapidly decimated by leaf cutter ants. They can strip a plant in a matter of minutes.

I guess the human counterpart is an efficient-but-illegal chop shop that cuts apart stolen cars and sells the parts. I had to rush to get the camera before they finished and moved on to their next conquest! I wonder if ants specialize just as we humans do. I’m sure they do; trailblazers and mappers (Lewis & Clark, National Geographic), cutters (chop shop, florists, loggers), transporters (UPS, truckers), in-nest leaf-piece organizers (Martha Stewart), messengers (bicycle messengers), resource protection (Blackwater). Who did I miss?

Here’s a short video. It’s not as smooth as I would have liked, but as I was taking the video I also had to swat the ants off of me. I almost lost a leg! Armando is working in the background making the little stone wall around the garden. Turn up your speakers so you can hear the munching. Soon after, Armando and I followed the trail of ants through two jungleized, overgrown neighboring house lots and found their Mother Ship at the side of the muddy road that goes around the back of our block. I’d seen an ant hill there a year or two ago and was amazed at how large it had grown. Real urban sprawl.

With the significant amount of wilderness that surrounds us, there is no way that we can eradicate this tropical menace. Greater minds have tried I am sure. The ant colonies are like the Whac-A-Mole arcade game. If we go nuclear on one hill, it is only a matter of days before another colony will pop up somewhere else.

But still, the ant megalopolis that we found was operating a big business in our residential neighborhood. The damage done by this one colony was enormous; ant paths radiated out from the mound to many other yards in the area.

I talked with Tomas, one of our neighbors. He was feeling the effect of the ants big time, as his family grows exotic plants for sale. The ants had cleaned the leaves off of many of his young hibiscus plants. But he has seven children in school and there just isn’t a penny to put toward ant suppression. And many of our other weekend-only neighbors aren’t around much given that we are in the height of the rainy season. It was up to me.

I am aware of the Integrated Pest Management concept of not just using toxic poisons to control pests, but to adjust the environment so that the pests don’t have as much reason to be there. So as much as possible, we will choose plants that the ants don’t like, and cultivate the garden with this in mind. But the ants like just about everything it seems (they wiped out most of the exotics in our new garden, plus the yucca that Armando planted on the other side of our road and our newly transplanted hibiscus).

Cynthia and I are using an Integrated Pest Management security plan at our rental house. We have a good fence, lights at night, security bars, video cameras, steroidal locks, Jabo, and a few other security measures. Thieves see us and the lazy ones move on.

The leaf cutters ants, along with aphids, root eating grubs, and any number of other garden perils is one big reason we have decided to grow hydroponically, and hydroponics will be an important element in our Integrated Pest Management approach. I know there will be hurdles there too, but we are just looking to keep our plant failures to a minimum in a smaller space that we can control. Control. Dream on, Fred.

I decided to go nuclear. Armando said to get about five gallons of gasoline, dump it in the holes, and make it go “Kaboom!” But I don’t have much hair or eyebrows any more and I’d like to keep what I have. So I went to Melo, the farm and garden supply store in town. I explained my problem. Fumigation was the answer. Their specialist sold me a few packages of powder and a pump that would send the powder deep into the tunnels.

Here’s a video of the ant mound. Notice that the ants have stripped the trees bare around the mound, and check the size of the hill and the six-inch-wide superhighways leading to the mound.

We think the humans took this round. We’ll keep you posted. That’s all for now.

6 thoughts on “Chop Shop

  1. HI Fred,
    Another cure is to use a bottle of propane on the ant nest. Propane come out of the tank freezing cold and is a heavy gas so it works its way to the bottom of the ant hill. Works great on bee nest that are in the ground. Be careful not to smoke too near anytime soon. Good luck. Tom

  2. Isn’t it funny how time changes perspective? When we first came to Panama last year there was some “wild” space in behind the hotel we were staying at. We took a walk the first night and there was a trail of leaf cutters walking through the woods. How industrious they were thought I! Now that we actually live here it is a constant battle to keep any kind of ant at bay. We went to our local vets office and purchased the same product that you are using and as long as we keep an eye on the mounds it seems to be working well. Like you though, we are surrounded by untended empty lots and agricultural land so we can never totally let our guard down. I found the whole propane proposal interesting though…

    • And don’t stand still, either. The other day I was standing in our driveway talking with a friend and all of a sudden I said, “Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch!” Those teeny tiny little ants had crawled up my leg and were making me sing. For their diminutive size, they sure pack a punch when they bite! Thanks for your comment.

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