March of the ants

From water jugs to air-tight containers, ants take up residence in the unlikeliest of places

June 30, 2017 05:09 pm | Updated 05:09 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Multitasking is eating dosas with the right hand, picking ants off the bowl of oats with the left and mulling over the inexplicable food choices of ants. Why would ants wish to eat oats flavoured mildly with salt, unless, of course, they had cholesterol? Or nuts, unless they had calcium deficiency? My dining table has of late become home to ants and very health-conscious ones at that. Not the odd morsel that falls from the plate or a serving spoon for them; they snigger and move away in a disciplined line towards something more substantial and filled to the brim with good health – the jar of pistas.

Secure in the knowledge that the pista container was air-tight, I believed the ants would be thwarted in their wholesome ambitions and never bothered with a thorough check. One day my husband opened it and thrust his hand in only to give a sharp yelp of pain. The hand that had gone searching for nuts came out double quick, crawling over with greedy ants eager to get a taste of this exciting new food.

Clearly, the jar was not ant-tight and swarmed with the tiny creatures, stuffed to the gills with delicious pistas, a gift from friends who had brought it from Dubai – best quality, they had said. Now we have only our friends’ and the ants’ word for it. The tiny creatures had done a commendable job; the pistas had vanished leaving empty shells as evidence, and even those were crumbling to powder, that’s how thoroughly the ants had worked their jaws.

They want their nutrients, their vitamins, and get them from peanuts, steamed bananas, cut mangoes and pineapples. They don’t mind getting into the rice for the additional benefit of carbs and also enjoy some beans, carrots, cabbage and potatoes on the side. But they draw the line at bitter gourd. Some of them are erudite, getting between the pages of books that find their way to the table.

And water is a must – they have been tutored about the importance of keeping themselves hydrated though their methods of achieving it are suicidal. I find them swimming in clumps in all the water jugs and containers, perishing without protest when I release the clusters into the sink.

I tried various safe methods of getting rid of them, the simplest being to wipe the table clean with a wet cloth and washing the ants off, sending them down the drain. Don’t judge me, ant-lovers out there; you would do the same if you had to contend with armies of them at every meal. Anyway, it is a quiet, more humane annihilation than that handed to mosquitoes that are electrocuted with much fanfare. But the ants returned in larger numbers.

‘The ants have taken up residence here but where are the rains?’ my husband asked, taking a pot-shot at my contention that the unexpected presence of ants indicated the coming of rain. True, that’s what my mother had told me and I have found it to work too. Whenever I saw ants — black, red or khaki — marching in a neat line, bearing their eggs, I would play rain prophet and declare it would soon pour. If I noticed them scuttling down a hole in large groups, I’d predict the coming of a thunder storm before the weather forecasters even got their act together.

But this time all my theories were blown away like the rain clouds. The ants remained, the clouds disappeared, taking the rains with them, leaving us lamenting a weak monsoon, yet again.

‘The ants are taking the cue from unpredictable weather patterns and changing their behavioural patterns too,’ I explained, rather unconvincingly. He looked very sceptical.

A few days back it began to rain heavily. I felt vindicated. ‘That’s why the ants took up residence on the dining table,’ I exulted. ‘To indicate a late monsoon.’

‘One shower does not make a monsoon,’ responded my husband, the eternal pessimist when it comes to topics like climate change and environmental problems. But it didn’t stop with one shower. It’s been raining heavily for four days now.

‘I think we can regard this as monsoon rains,’ I said, confidence growing with each day of rain. ‘The ants continue to live on the table and now cockroaches have also come out of hiding. All we need is centipedes and the monsoon scene will be complete.’

‘At least centipedes won’t get into pista jars,’ my husband said, still smarting from that memory.

( A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academician and author of the Butterfingers series.

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