One hot night last summer, I flicked on the light in the upstairs bathroom and discovered two black ants frolicking on the vanity. These ants were huge, roughly the size of golf carts, so I killed them. (Yes, I did. I smashed them dead with a Kleenex. It was a terrifying experience, and when I was done the bathroom looked like something out of Saving Private Ryan.)
The next night there were three black ants in the bathroom. They were large and creepy-looking, with jaws the size of cell phones. I called my husband, Bob, to come look. "I'm pretty sure," I told him, "that these are carpenter ants."
"How can you tell, darling?" he asked.
"They're wearing tool belts and carrying six-packs of beer."
We contacted a pest-control company the next day. Soon an exterminator, Gregor Samsa, was sitting in our living room. "Been in this business 30 years," he said, one eye twitching uncontrollably. "I love it. Gets me out and about." This man's skin was the color of green Gak; he wheezed with every breath. As he talked, I mentally reviewed the basics of CPR, feeling that the training I'd had years before was about to come in handy.
After inspecting our house, Mr. Samsa informed us that it was infested with Camponotus modoc, a species of carpenter ant. "They'll tunnel through every piece of wood you've got," he said. "I recommend we spray with an insecticide."
"Is it toxic?" I asked.
He brayed like a donkey. "Is there a hole in the ozone layer?"
"Well, we'd prefer an organic approach to the problem," I sniffed. "Something that won't damage our home's feng shui or nature's delicate handiwork. Perhaps we could try burning incense or eliminating dairy products from our diet."
"You can do that," he said. "And in two years you'll have more sawdust under your feet than Jumbo the elephant.
"Look," he said, "before you make up your minds, read this." He handed us a copy of Extension Bulletin 0818, published by Washington State University. Then he left.
Bob read aloud from the bulletin. "There is no known effective biological control for carpenter ants.'"
"Humbug," I said. "There must be some recourse."
"It also says carpenter ants are most active after sunset."
That night, when the children were asleep, Bob announced he'd made a discovery. "I've found where the ants are getting in," he said.
I followed him out to our backyard, where he pointed a flashlight beam at the top of the fence. Like Neve Campbell in Scream (and Scream 2), I looked with horror at the scene before me: An endless line of ants was moving rapidly along the fence, across the gate, and then up a downspout right into our house. It was as if, in some hideous and nightmarish way, light rail had finally come to Seattle, and its sole purpose was to transport ants into our living room.
"Jeepers!" I said. "They must be tunneling through everything: the walls, the floors, the goldfish." Suddenly seized by a terrifying prospect, I gripped Bob's arm. "While we're out here rubbernecking, they're probably upstairs at this very moment, tunneling through the children!"
I sat up all night with a shotgun and a can of Raid. The next morning we called the exterminator.
"I'm sorry," the receptionist said, "Mr. Samsa has turned into a giant dung beetle and is unable to come to the phone. Would you like to speak with his assistant, Jiminy Cricket?"
I spoke with him all right. I told him they could come and dip the entire house in their noxious chemicals. Frankly, I was ready to drink the stuff. They sprayed three times over a 10-week period—at a total cost of $354—and by summer's end every last carpenter ant was dead and gone. Which was plenty organic enough for me.
Jane Lotter is a Seattle writer who prefers etymology to entomology.