The ants are coming. Beneath your sink. Around your drain. Under your carpet. Inside your light socket.
Your light socket?
"We opened up a socket to do something with the plug, and there were ants all over the place," said Karen Befumo, recounting the moment when she realized just how badly her Manassas home was infested. "They had nested in there. There were like five queens in there."
Despite last week's rains, the drought is still with us. And it's having its expected consequences: brown grass, empty pools, withered farm crops. But in Northern Virginia it is also causing the unforeseen and unsavory side effect of forcing thirsty ants into homes in their quest for moisture.
Ants, summertime insects that usually live outdoors, seem to be beating a path to the moist comfort of the human habitat. The usual places where ants get water--from early morning dew, soil, puddles and plants--are shrinking.
"Because of the drought, they're just pouring into these people's homes by the thousands," said Heather Yarnall, who manages the Woodbridge branch of Home Paramount, a pest control company. "When people call in now, they say, 'I just had a service a couple of weeks ago, but . . .' And I go, 'You're seeing ants, right?' "
Right. Ants everywhere--in the usual and not-so-usual places. Crazy ants, acrobat ants, odorous house ants, carpenter ants.
Prince William County exterminators say the ants are swarming any place they can find water, which can mean the outsides of pipes, under air conditioners, in food, and in the mulch and wood chips that home landscapers lay alongside houses. And exterminators say they are seeing the problem throughout Northern Virginia.
The ant migration is particularly noticeable because other insects are affected differently by the drought. When termites need water, they burrow deeper into the ground, making them less visible and harder to track. Area cockroaches regularly nest inside homes anyway, so they don't exhibit the same en masse movement indoors.
While the ant invasion is a shock for longtime residents, it's also giving newcomers a dubious welcome. Liz Hernandez, a Manassas area real estate agent, said that suddenly this summer, when she rents a home to a new tenant, they "call me up and first thing they say is, 'Liz, I have all these ants.' " Hernandez has heard complaints from properties in at least four different subdivisions she handles.
"I've been doing real estate for 13 years," Hernandez said. "Ants have never been a big issue around here at all."
Get ready for a change. Billy Swartz, who works on special projects for Manassas's Public Works Department, has lived in the same house in Gainesville since 1963. This year, he is having an ant problem the magnitude of which he has never seen.
His kitchen cabinets are suddenly host to a horde of ants. Open the cabinet door, and there they are--swarming on the shelves, on food boxes, on dishware. Some members of his family, he said, have taken to shrieking.
"Normally it seemed like just a spray and a Raid would have gotten rid of them, but this year they've been tough," Swartz said. "There might even be a time when you open a box of cereal and you find as many ants as you do cereal."
After about a week of spraying harriedly at the pests, Swartz gave up and "had to call in the cavalry"--exterminators. He's not the only one.
The entry of ants into homes has meant a boon for pest control companies. The companies have extended the hours their exterminators work and often find themselves returning to the same house numerous times to treat a tough infestation.
Perma Treat of Fredericksburg is getting about twice the number of ant calls this summer as usual, said Vice President Jack Broome. And Home Paramount is offering house visits as early as 6:30 a.m. and as late at 7 p.m., Yarnall said.
Some suggest that the problem is even more widespread than Northern Virginia.
"Probably 90 percent of our job work this summer with insects has really been ant work," said Richard D. Kramer, director of technical services for American Pest Management, which services the Washington metropolitan area, particularly Maryland. Usually ant-related complaints might make up half the company's summertime call volume, he said.
Although exterminators are cashing in, many people are not happy about the recent turn of events.
"A lady called and she had triplets, young triplets, and there were ants in her nursery," said Bob Connor, of Bob's Termite and Pest Services, based in Prince William. "When you've got young toddlers like that, the young mother gets very concerned."
That was true for Befumo, who found that her regular bait traps no longer worked this summer as they had in the past. With at least three different kinds of ants overrunning her house, Befumo started finding them in her kitchen appliances.
"Every time you run your dishwasher, you're killing hundreds of ants," she said.
She saw them swarming in her dog's food.
The dog "played with them."
So, at last, Befumo called an exterminator. After the exterminator put bait inside and outside the house, and Befumo replaced the rotting wood trim around her house with fresh wood and the mulch outside with stones, at last--whew--the ants trailed off.
Exterminators speculate on a number of weather-related reasons for the ants' indoor migration. Besides seeking moisture, the ants might also have multiplied because a recent spate of mild winters hasn't killed them off as colder weather would have. And, suggested Harold Harlan, the staff etymologist with the National Pest Control Association, ants might be surviving more readily because they are feeding on dead plants and bugs that have been killed by the drought.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Several exterminators said liquid baits are working better than solid ones, because ants are so thirsty.
We'll "use baits that are of a solid nature, and the ants will just march right by them and go over to the sink and start drinking," Kramer said.
And the same drought that's causing ants to seek water in crawl spaces and on drain pipes is also prompting unusual behavior in other pests. In the Prince William area, exterminators say, there has been an increase in springtails, wingless pale insects that thrive on moist mulch and fungus. The insects have come inside as the outdoors have dried up. Mice also are finding refuge indoors, as Manassas homeowner Befumo can attest. She said that usually she wouldn't see mice until the fall but that now she's putting mousetraps under her sink.
Although ants might not be as dirty as roaches and mice, or as destructive as termites, besieged homeowners are showing themselves to be none too tolerant of the tiny pests.
They call up and say, " 'We don't want to wait 24 hours. We want you here an hour ago,' " Connor said.
"They want somebody there immediately," said Cindy Robinson, a co-owner of AAA Pest Pros of Lake Ridge. "Sometimes that just isn't possible."
So Robinson tries to reassure homeowners on the phone. "They're coming in foraging for water," she says. "They're not going to carry your children away."
CAPTION: Cheryl Mason, far left, watches as exterminator Paul Guandique squirts poison around exterior crevices at her Woodbridge home where ants might congregate. The ants will carry the sweet poison, above, back to their nests for a fatal feast.
CAPTION: Exterminator Paul Guandique, of Home Paramount, squirts poison into kitchen crevices. The drought has driven thirsty ants into homes in search of moisture.