Pushing the key into the lock after a weekend in Atlantic City, Judy Marshall had the typical passing worries. Is my cat alright?
Did I turn the thermostat down?
Is the house OK?
But when she pushed the door open, she found a whole different problem than anything she expected.
"Ants had taken over the place," she says.
Giant trails of the pesky insects had found the food dish for her cat, Sugar, and they set up an ant-sized equivalent of the J.R. Allen Expressway out of her home.
"I don't know how Sugar ate — if Sugar ate," she says. "I felt awful."
Her problems are echoed by lots of folks in the Chattahoochee Valley right now.
"Ants this year have been horrible," says Jerry Wilks, with Wilks Pest & Termite Control. "It may have been this bad in previous years, but it doesn't seem like it."
About six out of 10 calls his crews field right now are about ants gone amok.
"I had a lady call me two weeks ago who'd been out of town for a week," he says. "She had a two-inch trail of ants around the top of every room of her house except for two."
He found the source: "There were three lollipops in her daughter's room. That bag was just covered with ants," he says. "The ants have a built-in radar for the candy."
Heat causes problems
The scorching sun, which has been pushing thermometers up into triple digits is partly to blame.
"The heat has caused the problem," Wilks says. "It's driving them inside, in search of someplace cool and in search of water."
Other pest control experts agree, saying the area has created a perfect storm for them.
Coupled with the heat, the root of the problem likely is in the same thing that keeps you from properly wetting the roots of your plants.
"It's due to the drought conditions," said Fairburn, Ga.-based pest control expert Mark Wyrosdick. "All living organisms need three things to survive: food, water and harborage."
When ants can't find water outside, they'll try in — and that's when they can conveniently find all three under your roof. Inside, the ants are not your friends.
But even knowing what type of ant is crawling into your turf, inside or out, can be tough.
There are 96 documented species of ants in Georgia, from wood-boring carpenter ants to welt-inducing fire ants. About 24 can be readily found in the Columbus area, says Bob Wages, who works for Wilks.
Some of them feed on protein — like dead insects — and others seek sugar — like the cereal in your pantry. So where you find them can help ID them.
But identifying them is further complicated by proper names and colloquialisms.
"Most of the things that folks are finding right now are the Argentine ants," says Wyrosdick.
But they're also called black ants, or sugar ants. And sometimes red ants. And they're very similar to pavement ants, and the aptly named crazy ants (which don't march in lines but wander haphazardly).
Keep them out
Take care that the chemicals you spray or spread in your yard will actually work against the ants you've got, caution the experts.
As a general rule, Wages won't douse a lawn in pesticide to kill the insects. "If they're outside, leave them outside. Leave them alone," he says.
But there are exceptions, he says, strolling to a shed, where low-lying branches have become bridges to damp, matted leaves on the roof where ants have nested (harborage and water, remember?). The solution: Cut back the branches and clean off the leaves.
Indeed, there are simple things you can do to parry the ants' attacks.
"Number 1, move the mulch back away from the house," says Wyrosdick. "Trim the bushes and shrubs away from the house. This will cut down on one of the avenues they're using to get into the home."
Caulking cracks around windows and doors also helps — and has the added benefit of keeping utility bills down by keeping cool air in.
And when is it time to call in the pros?
"When you find something inside your house that you don't want," says Wages.