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Matmail:

What happens to a colony of ants when the queen dies? Do they have a succession list, an election, do they end it all or what? I had a few thousand visitors, and nothing worked until I made ant bait using several parts Karo syrup and some boric acid. They cleaned up the first set of bait, but partway through the second feeding about 99 percent of them disappeared. The nursery man says you have to have patience and keep feeding them until they feed it to the queen and she dies. It occurred to me, then what?

-- Frank, Serra Mesa

By the time this hits print, your little friends will probably be back, carrying off the Oreos. Most likely, the ants caught on to your sticky plot and just laid low for a while. Since they're sweet-eaters, I'm sure you're hosting the Argentine ants -- highly mobile, intrepid hunters, servants of many mistresses.

Day-to-day life at the old ant homestead is pretty revolting. The scout ants trudge around looking for food, water, whatever's on the to-do list. When they find food, they trudge back to the casa, recruit more workers, snag the eats, carry them back, chew them up, then regurgitate the mess for the larvae. The larvae chew the food some more, then regurgitate it to feed the queen and the rest of the colony. In some kind of design engineering glitch, adult ants can't chew their food small enough to swallow, so they recruit the larvae to do it for them. With this food-sharing habit, you see why slow-acting poison like a smidge of boric acid is so effective. The Jim Jones Kool-Aid approach to ant control.

But it sounds like you maybe overdid it a little. When a food detail goes out and doesn't come back, or they do make it back but they croak on the doorstep, the rest of the ants know something's up and abandon that particular trail until the incident is lost in their bitty memories. And, of course, the poison isn't passed on. But it's likely the rest of them will eventually find their way back to your kitchen. So the idea is to use a tiny amount of boric acid in a sugar solution over a long period of time to make sure everybody in the colony gets his share. This is particularly important with Argentine ants, since they have several queens. If one dies, nobody much notices. Only the queens repopulate a colony, so you have to get all of them. By that time, you've probably gotten everybody else too. You may get lucky if the Argentines decide they want a damper, more crumb-filled neighborhood. They can move the whole colony when life gets tough.

But if you don't, Argentines will straggle around and find another colony to join, carrying their blender-buddies with them so they can eat. No larvae? Everybody starves to death. Other species with colonies serving only a single queen die out if she bites it, with no one to repopulate the place.

Ant Science Breakthrough! Nobel Committee Alerted! Populace Stunned! Starr Issues Subpoena!

The enigma that is antdom recently gave up one more secret, throwing us into general disarray here at Anty Alice's World-o-Bugs. Consider this urgent e-mail from Roberto G., in a secret bunker on the Formicidae front lines.

You wrote about Argentine ants and proposed that these little guys have some sort of a commensalistic relationship with larvae, without which queens could not be fed. My distinguished colleagues and I in the ecology lab have been manipulating experimental lab colonies completely dependent on sugar water and scrambled eggs for the past two years. Just recently we discovered that queens will even feed on the sugar water and eggs themselves in desperate situations. I have collected approximately 50 nests and 200,000 ants from all over their introduced range and found no larvae.

Personally, the most amazing thing to me is that ants eat scrambled eggs. Do they demand ketchup, Roberto? Wheat toast and a latte? As usual, you heard it here first.

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