Ants, moths, myths, rare brain disease

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Regarding invasive ants, it’s been almost six years since I last saw a fire ant mound on my property. About the same time the fire ants disappeared, I noticed a conspicuous abundance of Argentine ants, another alien species.

I have since learned that the Argentines can eliminate many other ants, including native species and fire ants. I’ve seen no reports that the Argentines pose a serious threat to the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and reptiles, as do fire ants. However, unlike fire ants, Argentines have a tendency to invade the interiors of residences.

Their “scouts” search kitchens and other places where unsecured packages of food or food particles may occur. If successful in their searches the scouts will report to their colonies’ headquarters and shortly afterward swarms of workers will appear.

I’ve had some problems with the ants and have discovered a way to eliminate or drastically reduce the infestations. I purchased a package of Raid Ant Baits and placed the plastic containers with the baits inside on the countertops where I saw the ants, and a few hours later the ants disappeared.

The product is effective and, in my opinion, considerably safer to use than poisonous sprays or dusts. I personally refrain from applying any of the latter two in or around my house except for boric acid to control roaches. Boric acid is harmful only to roaches and silverfish.

Recently I wrote that the only colorful saturnid moth that seems to be relatively common in these parts is the luna moth and that I had not seen the once common polyphemus moth in several years.

Dr. Peter Van Zant, a moth specialist in Birmingham, reports having seen only four in the past three or four years, despite his using a black light insect attraction device.

About a week ago, a polyphemus lit on the door to my deck. I suspect this one happened to escape being eaten, as a pupa suspended in its cocoon from a tree limb, by a predatory gray squirrel, possibly the fortunate result of my having removed 12 of the tree rats from my property.

Two attractive yellow imperial moths showed up recently. Unlike polys, they pupate underground and are not likely to be found by squirrels. Another, smaller saturnid, a pink and yellow rosy maple moth, recently appeared, the first I’ve seen in several years.

A notably scarce saturnid is the regal or royal walnut moth. Its larva reaches a length of six inches and is adorned with elongate horns. Although harmless, its formidable appearance has earned it the name, “hickory horned devil.”

I have always been fascinated by myths and old wives’ tales pertaining to animals of various kinds. Every Southerner knows that Mockingbirds sing at night. But how many believe that a Mockingbird singing down the chimney is a harbinger of death of a family member? A few old timers in rural Appalachia reportedly do.

Some coon hunters in rural Tennessee, where I spent much of my youth, believed that the crushed shells of cicadas, when mixed with their dogs’ food, would, when they treed a coon, cause them to ‘stick to the tree’ rather than leaving before the hunters arrived.

Powder made from crushed rattlesnake rattles, called rattlesnake dust, was in parts of the South believed to cause blindness but if fed to a woman in labor would ease the pain of childbirth.

In parts of Louisiana, powder made from dried rattlesnake skins mixed with graveyard dirt and a few more ingredients is called Goofer Dust, which can supposedly be used as a conjure to jinx or cause trouble to enemies or even kill them.

Rattlesnakes are believed by some to emit ‘electro charming beams’ from their eyes, which disable prey items or perceived enemies, including humans.

Nearly every adult has heard about hoop snakes, snakes that supposedly have venomous stingers at their tail tips and will coil up and and roll like hoops in pursuit of humans and upon catching them will sting them to death. I’m constantly amazed by how many people believe that coachwhip snakes will  chase a person, trip him, and whip the victim to death. Rat snakes, and in some places copperheads, are called rattlesnake pilots and are thought to lead rattlers to places suitable for hibernation.

Not many, but a few, believe that the exhaled breath of hognose snakes, aka spreadnatters, is poisonous, and some believe that house cats should never be allowed in a room with a sleeping infant. According to folklore, a cat will stand on top of the infant, place its face over the infant’s, exhale repeatedly when the infant inhales, thereby resulting in suffocation, all because the cat is resentful of the infant’s presence in the household.

Finally, and this is not a myth, there is a rare disease caused by a brain-eating amoeba that lives in the warm waters of lakes, rivers and poorly maintained swimming pools. The amoeba enters the nostrils of swimmers and makes its way to the brain via the olfactory nerves.

The damage caused by the amoeba’s feeding almost always results in fatality.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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