December 27, 2016
We all awoke early one morning, meeting in the kitchen for the usual round of coffee and whatever breakfast items we could find. Breakfast almost always included bananas and something—because there is no shortage of bananas in Costa Rica. They grow along side the road—everywhere, and you can help yourself if the monkeys and the toucans don’t get to them first. I like bananas but enough, already. I drank my instant Nescafe with chem-creamer and ate a handful of a non-gmo-vegan variety of cereal we found at Mama Toucans, the local health food store in Dominical.
It was going to be a busy day. We were only a few days from New Years and we had found a property we liked. We were about to make an offer. I was staying at the house that day to work and the rest were taking off within the hour to see more property before making a final decision about purchase.
Josh, who was not usually up as early as the rest of us, appeared from his ground floor bedroom complaining of ants. Everywhere. It was then we all took a look around. There were black ants everywhere. They had formed neat black lines that ran up the high ceilings, around every baseboard, and crossed every wall. They were inside in every room of the 3 story, 4 bedroom house. They were outside, crossing the wrap-around deck in neat organized lines. They were up the sides of the house, onto the roof, on the bamboo deck chairs and on every railing. There was no place they weren’t. They had no interest in the food on the kitchen counter or the dirty dishes left in the sink or the crumbs of food on the floor yet they had formed lines that crossed and circled every wall in the kitchen, crossing the edge of the ceiling and back down into the living space.
We all stood in shock. They had appeared from nowhere and within minutes. The group was about to leave for property viewing appointments and left me there shrugging their shoulders in some sort of apology for leaving me with this mess of ants to deal with. After the group left, I took my cell phone and coffee down to the ground floor. The ground floor was an open area with white tile. It was not uncommon in Costa Rica. Houses are build up—off the ground. The bottom area housed a spare bedroom (often for an on-premise caretaker), a full bathroom, laundry room, a raised deck for sunset gazing, and various storage areas as well as a large open area to pull in a car. The two-story house was built on top of that bottom level and was entered by way of a narrow spiral staircase. Narrow and spiral tended to deter the various wildlife (mostly monkeys, anteaters, pigs…) from going up to the second level.
I moved out onto the driveway trying to avoid stepping on any ants in my flip flops. If you bothered them, they bit. It was painful but short lived. They were clearly not interested in humans or human food. I called the owner several times but he wasn’t answering so, I stood there, staring at the house and thinking. How would anyone get rid of that many ants—millions of them. My experience with US-based ants is that you keep food put away, floors clean and keep them at bay with assorted pesticides in spray or stake form. But the visitation that day would require far more than a few pesticide stakes, which I didn’t have anyway and, such a tactic, would not have been endorsed by my nature-protecting companions. So I stood for a while.
Then I decided I would try to find the source so I circled the base of the house. They were coming from all directions but I did see that they were swarming on the four used-up wasp nests that had fallen to the floor of the second floor deck and a few other dead or dying bugs including some sort of giant–grasshopper. So, I got out the hose. Fortunately, it was a very long hose. I used my thumb to increase the water pressure and walked around the base of the house blowing ants in every direction. I blew the dead grasshopper off into the rain forest and soaked the wasp nests, which, quite literally, turned to mush and disappeared, scattering ants in all directions. Within an hour the tiled ground floor was clean. Even the monkey poo had been washed away leaving a gleaming smooth expanse of white tile—in complete opposition to every other color around me. For a moment I was saddened my it—I had Americanized the floor—removing all the colors of nature that included every color except shiny pure white.
Then the vision returned—there were still a million ants on the upper two levels of the house and I couldn’t take the hose to that. Only partially pleased that I had exterminated a million ants but more importantly, disrupted the pattern of their organized assault, I went back upstairs to the main house to plan my move on the upper deck ants. I had been downstairs with the hose less than an hour. I crossed the deck and spotted a good number of ants on the bamboo deck chairs but there seemed to be fewer of them. The ants around the outside perimeter of the deck and house had all but disappeared. The ants on the outside walls were gone. I walked around the deck–3-sides of the house and the ants were gone. I opened the sliding screen door careful not to brush the sides and get any biting ants on me—but they were gone. I looked up at the two-story kitchen walls and ceiling. They were gone. I walked the house—into every room where only an hour ago they had crossed every surface. For a moment I questioned whether I had seen them at all. They were all gone.
I got another cup of coffee and went outside to sit on the deck overlooking the valley of rain forest in front of the house. In the distance a few birds still called. A toucan was in the banana tree across the driveway tossing banana chucks and probably a few insects into its long beak. A half dozen Capuchin monkeys chased each other around their favorite palm tree chattering like kittens. The sun was out as usual. The temperature was perfect. I wasn’t hot or cold or sweaty. And the ants were gone.
If it sounds like I got rid of the ants with a bit of human ingenuity—well, it turned out I didn’t. I found out later in the day those ants are one of the 200 species of army ants known as cleaner ants. Technically they are a type of army ant known as Eciton burchellii ants, and the Ticos call them chutiya ants. Unlike other ant species, army ants are nomadic and considered a ‘keystone species’ in many Neotropical rainforests, meaning that it plays a critical role in the rainforest ecosystem. They travel from one location to the next cleaning up insects. Some are particularly partial to wasp nests. They come, clean and go. This can take anywhere between a half an hour to several hours, but it is claimed that they always leave before nightfall. Locals accept them—well, have learned to live with them.
“If the cleaners come, just go out for a while. They will be gone when you get back.”
It was another lesson from Costa Rica that I kept learning: patience. Just wait and it will all change again. Accept. Find peace with your life and the lives of all living creatures.