Pharaoh ants

Noticed some pharaoh ants, Monomorium pharaonis, crawling on me (and my desk) lately. Just a couple. I followed them across the desk with a magnifying glass. They are incredibly small (maybe a sixteenth of an inch long) and a nearly transparent yellowish-brown, with a darker abdomen. Unlike the colonies of the ubiquitous Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) that extend along nearly the entire coast of California, pharaoh ant colonies typically number a few hundred tiny individuals and just a couple queens, and basically you have to try hard to notice them. I have no idea how long they’ve been on or in or around my desk.

Of course I looked them up. I love ants and have a small library on myrmecology–the study of ants–among my other compendia of useless knowledge. This time I went tooling across Google to see what I could find and I found this incredibly fascinating article from a few years ago in Pacific Standard: Bedbugs Have Evolved to Live With Mankind. It’s about bed bugs–did you know there were originally bat bugs?–and not ants, but it mentions their natural enemies. And apparently their number one enemy is, of all things, these tiny little pharaoh ants. Pharaoh ant queens have a thing for bed bugs, and their subjects hunt the annoying little bloodsucking beasts down mercilessly. No matter how thin a hiding place the beg bugs cram themselves into, the tiny pharaoh ants can get in there and drag them out. They are so effective at this that a pharaoh ant infestation can quickly annihilate a population of bed bugs. Which is what they did for centuries for us. Until, that is, we began keeping cleaner households, and then spraying them with insecticide. Unfortunately for human beings, bed bugs are resistant to almost any bug spray. Pharaoh ants are not. As indoor pharaoh ant populations faded with the chemical assault–helped along by the rise of voracious and hugely numerous Argentine ants–beg bug populations rebounded. Nature is funny that way.

So I think I’ll let my pharaoh ants hang around. They’re almost impossible to see and just a minor annoyance at best. And who knows what critters might be hiding in or behind or under my desk, even–cringe–bed bugs. They are everywhere the bedbug experts tell us. You never know how bed bugs can get into your home, your bedroom, your office, and will never know where they came from. There seems to be no way of stopping them. But a colony of incredibly tiny ants might just do the trick. Nothing is biting me. Not in the house anyway. Maybe it because of these tiny ants. Outside I am at the mercy of nature. But inside, I am protected by the pharaohs.

“Monomorium pharaonis worker with single sugar crystal”–a beautiful photograph by Julian Szulc off of Wikipedia.

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