Monday, July 03, 2017

freddie mercury on wing

The queens are invading.

The possibilities with that sentence are endless. But this is merely another nature report from the patio of the house with no name.

Yesterday I was trimming the vines when a large insect buzzed past my head. I knew immediately what it was -- one of our nasty red wasps that pack a sting as strong as any scorpion. The color was right -- red. The size was right -- yuge, as any Queens resident would say.

But the shape wasn't quite right. If it was a wasp, it had been dining out far too often.

I am wary of the red wasps. They hang around the house often. And, even though I am not allergic to their sting, my brother is. So, I do my humanitarian best to ensure they either move on -- or die a Dow-inspired death.

When my visitor landed on the ground, I could tell it was not a wasp. It was an ant. In this case, a queen ant who had flown from the nest where she was born to start her own colony.

And it was not just any ant queen. It was a leaf cutter ant queen. My nightmare had followed me from my days of living on the laguna in Villa Obregon. I was to find six other queens on the patio yesterday and today.

In my five years of living with the destruction of leaf cutter ants, I learned to admire them. If they had not destroyed so many of my garden plants, I could have stood in awe at their efficiency and tenacity. What I learned, instead, were a couple of lessons.

Leaf cutters, like all ants (and maybe all social insects) are not really individual creatures.  At least, not in the way we think of individuality. They are one large amorphous organism, with the queen at the center of the beast.

Think of the human circulatory system. The blood cells could not exist without the rest of the body. And that is how it is with ants. If you have ever seen leaf cutter ants trailing out from their nest to bring back freshly-cut foliage, the circulatory analogy comes to life. They are like blood cells traveling in a line bringing back life to the colony.

The second thing I learned is about that foliage. Leaf cutters are very picky at what they cut. And their choice appears to be seasonal with the needs of the nest. Some weeks, it would be my prized hyacinths. And then it would be the leaves on the flamboyant tree.

That may be due to the fact that the colony does not eat the cut foilage. Leaf cutters are farmers. The leaves form a base culture to raise a fungus that is fed to the young. If you want to see what the fungus looks like, I wrote about it several years ago in them.

The third lesson I learned is that once the leaf cutters move in, the best you can do is set up a futile defense line. They will always prevail.

I tried the usual poisons when the ants were brazen enough to tunnel into my yard. I would kill off an entryway only to have another open up the next night. I gave up on that approach when I learned leaf cutters can have colonies so complex that they cover a square mile.

And, even if I could stop up all the holes, leaf cutters are travelers. I once found a wide line of them streaming into my garden. I tracked it back to its origins -- in a neighbor's field almost 200 yards from my house.

There is very little in my current patio for leaf cutters to eat. I have never seen them eat the latex-filled leaves of my vines.

Even so, I did my best to send off all of the current invasion of queens to live with Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots -- or wherever decapitated queens are warehoused.

If leaf cutters are going to attack my landscaping, it will have to be an outside job.

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