thoughts on storing food

October 13, 2006

I am not normally too closely involved in the details of the household food storage arrangements, but having been left on my own for a few days I have been made aware that the number one priority in this part of the world is to secure any non-refrigerated food, and in fact any non-refrigerated parts of the house against the depredations of other members of the Animal Kingdom. The main culrpits, as far as food is concerned, are the ants. We have more species of ants here than post-Saddam fatalities in Iraq. Some would fit on a pin head; others are the size of small ponies.There are apparently so many ants in the world that their combined weight is greater than that of all humans. What I discovered is that keeping food safe rests on one rock-solid biological principle: ants cannot swim. Put a stretch of water, even just an inch or two, between you and an ant and you are safe. I had often wondered why every market here sold things shaped like small rice bowls. I assumed they were for incense or some other material needed in making offerings to the spirits. In fact they are used to put at the base of any item of furniture, such as food cupboards, you wish to protect from ants. Ants approach them, lured by the smell of fried fish in the cupboard but on encountering the obstacle it’s like ‘hey guys, what’s this stuff?’ ‘ugh, it’s wet’ ‘don’t let’s mess with this, guys’ and they beat an ignominious retreat. All you need is to remember to top the little bowls up every few days, otherwise the ants, seeing that the area is no longer flooded, will be in in their millions. People who, unlike us, are extravagant enough to have a dining table put them under the legs of that, too. Knowing simple things like this would have saved the disaster that befell a recent visitor from Europe who left some chocolate in her suitcase. On opening it, she found her underclothes swarming with Oecophylla smaragdina, a feisty little creature with a particularly disagreeable bite. She was dumbfounded. ‘But I locked the suitcase’, she said ‘how could the ants know there was chocolate inside?’

img_4952.jpg ant on the hunt for chocolate
Ants not only have powers of perception that would make Uri Geller jealous, they also have no idea when their attentions are unwelcome. The worst is when you either unknowingly stand in the way of one of their columns of soldiers or, non-existent heaven forbid, unintentionally put your foot in their nest. The most abundant are some ginger-coloured fellows commonly called fire ants. I wasn’t sure why, as I had never seen any of them actually lighting a fire, until I leaned against a tree where they had nested. The Thais try to get their own back by eating ants’ eggs but this just seems to encourage them to lay even more eggs. According to one source “An ant brain has about 250 000 brain cells. A human brain has 10,000 million so a colony of 40,000 ants has collectively the same size brain as a human. An ant’s brain may have the same processing power as a Macintosh II computer.” There are probably ant physicists busily calculating surface tension, buoyancy and displacement ratios as we speak.

4 Responses to “thoughts on storing food”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    Fine picture of an ant – I love it.

    I think there are more ants in more places than people realize. For example, London’s pavements are traditionally formed of slabs laid upon sand. This mad arrangement seems specially designed to trip people up and necessitate realignment of whole streets’ pavements every couple of years. Another reason for it is that it provides a perfect environment for ants who burrow in the sand and make nests. You don’t normally notice the ants except once a year for a few days in the flying ant season. Then pavements are covered with winged ants, which also drop into your hair and clothes. Two days and they’ve gone.

    Once ants find a way into your house it is virtually impossible to keep them out by physical means. My technique (being a pinko-liberal-vegetarian-ant-hugging-animal-lover) is to usher the ants out and then spray the area with insecticide. They are clever enough not to venture onto this. One spray treatment per year seems to do the trick. I realize the problem may be more acute in warmer climates where there are tougher species of ants.

    The alternative might be to keep a pet anteater or two.


  2. I’d glad to know about the non-swimming nature of ants. It will be helpful when we go to Florida each spring. At our home we have ants in the yard, but thanks to quarterly insecticide spraying by professionals, they don’t come in the house. In Florida, ants are everywhere, and there’s a species of teeny-tiny ones that will find any food item within seconds of its being brought into our condominium. We’ve resorted to storing all food in the microwave because it seals tightly enough that they can’t get through. This year I’ll see if there’s some way to create a water barrier.

    When my son was 2, he stepped on a fire ant nest in Florida. We didn’t know what was wrong at first — he was standing in the grass crying for no apparent reason. Then we got closer and saw all the ants on his feet — he felt the stinging but didn’t know what it was, and so didn’t know that he needed to move. He still has scars on his feet from their bites, which blistered and took about two weeks to heal. I had my own run-in with fire ants a couple of years ago on our spring trip; we were at an outdoor art fair, and I was admiring someone’s work, when suddenly I felt the oddest burning sensation all over my foot. I looked down, and there were at least 100 ants on me — it was horrifying (and very painful!). Again, the blistering and the long healing time. They’re extremely nasty creatures.

  3. SilverTiger Says:

    They no doubt say the same about us.

    British ants are fortunately not as well armed. I have heard of people being stung though it has never happened to me so I don’t know how unpleasant it is. Not very, as far as I know.

  4. tomeemayeepa Says:

    “Fine picture of an ant”- thank you, that was in my early ant period- I’ve now moved on to more challenging subjects and am currently concentrating on slugs.
    I guess the anteater would be an ecologically-sensitive solution, but can you get them on ebay?
    I’m sure those Florida ants are every bit a match for the ones we have here. There’s one particularly sneaky one that hides under leaves and delivers a sting that’s instantaneous and worse than a hornet or scorpion. A few years ago we had a dog who would often roll about in agony, then climb all over me pleading for help- I would search through all the crannies in his fur and finally come across the source of his pain- one tiny ant.


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