Leiningen versus the ants, and the three-inch flying cockroaches, and the fleas

by Rebecca Lehmann on May 12, 2011

A "palmetto bug," a.k.a. three-inch, flying cockroach, native to north Florida

I used to be a vegetarian. For ten years, I consumed neither beast, nor fish, nor fowl. I didn’t eat meat for moral reasons; I thought it was wrong to kill animals for food. But, like many idealists, I eventually caved.

Six years later, vegetarianism fully eschewed, this Midwestern girl finds herself living in the wilds of Tallahassee, which, like virtually all of Florida, is essentially a partially drained swamp. Before I moved to the hot swamplands, I was also against using insecticides to kill common household pest-insects like ants or wasps. My fiancé and I moved into a house in a nice hippie neighborhood in Tallahassee with a similarly minded landlord who, unlike many southerners, does not spray her yard and house on a m onthly basis with insecticides.

Tallahassee is full of bugs. In winter, a lot of them go away. It doesn’t freeze here, but it gets cold enough to drive the fire ants underground, and the three-inch flying cockroaches (or “palmetto bugs,” as the gentile locals call them) into, well, I’m not exactly sure where the three-inch flying cockroaches go in winter, but they’re not in my house, so I don’t really care.

We’d been living here for a year when I discovered that I had a lethal allergy to fire ants, an invasive species native to Brazil that is wreaking havoc on much of the southeastern US. Fire ants dig big tunnels underground, which means that if you poison one mound, another pops up three to four feet away in a matter of days. I learned this when, fed up with the fire ants after two trips to the ER in full anaphylaxis, I tried to use poison to kill all the mounds in our yard. It didn’t work. Southerners recommend pouring dry grits down the mounds (makes the ants explode) or gasoline (maybe gives ants chemical burns?), but neither of these methods are supposed to work well. Ultimately, the southern states lack the anteaters, native to Brazil, which keep this particular species of fire ant in check there. And so I’m left sprinkling white poisoned powder over my yard like toxic fake snow, leaving the angry red mounds looking like white-headed boils about to burst.

The three-inch flying cockroaches, which do naturally live outside in the live oaks, and will, I’ve found, go away if they get inside your house and you just ignore them, are not, as I thought they would be when I moved here, the most pesky bugs in Florida. For me in particular, the fire ants are number one, but the sugar ants rank number two. Sugar ants are small ants that come inside one’s house in late spring, when the temperatures start hitting 90 on a regular basis. They are insidious. They get into everything. We’ve had to throw away boxes upon boxes of cereals and crackers, bags upon bags of brown sugar, white sugar, powdered sugar, granola, and other sweetened dry goods.

They even get into cat food, which they did this morning, a small cavalcade marching into and out of the cats’ food dish, forming a moving cloud around one stray piece of kibble like six-legged electrons. I’d just gotten back from the veterinarian, where I was getting one of my cats examined for dermatitis and hair-loss due to an allergy to flea saliva, when I discovered them. My fiancé, who works at a natural food co-op, thinks you can mask the smell of the pheromone trails these ants leave with white vinegar, thus solving your ant problem. If you mask their trail-scent, the logic goes, they will no longer be able to find their way back to your organic choco-granola, or large-grain, fair trade sugar.

I however, have become a firm believer in the power of a certain readily available spray-can insect killer, commonly used for roaches. And so, each spring, as I will do later today after buying my local department store out of ant bait and roach-spray, I track lines of ants mercilessly, spraying roach spray gleefully, maniacally, without mercy or thought to the harmful effects it probably has on my own neurology (future children of mine: I’m sorry you were born with neurological defects, but hopefully by the time you are born I will no longer be living in a humid swamp and you will really have no idea how bad these ants are).

In short, I know that I have become Leiningen, who, after all, just wanted to kill a large army of flesh-eating ants and save his plantation, his workers, and himself. What a reasonable desire. What a reasonable man. I am deep in obsession.

Look, readers, the real point is, people were not meant to live in swamps.

Jeff McMahon May 13, 2011 at 12:11 am

This must be why we left the swamp we evolved in.

Shaindel Beers May 13, 2011 at 3:11 am

This won’t be my most intellectual response, but a friend of a friend once said, “I wouldn’t stick Florida up my a$$ if I had room for four other states.” That about covers it.

Rebecca Lehmann May 13, 2011 at 8:37 am

Ha! Shaindel, your friend must be a bona fide genius.

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