Tips to keep ants out of your nest this fall

Meet Mike on Sunday, Oct. 18. He will appear at noon and 2 p.m. at the Fredericksburg Fall Home & Craft Show at the Expo & Conference Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Find more details here:

Escape to an orchid adventure this weekend

Chilly nights, cold mornings, unhappy tomato plants and earlier sunsets are all teaming up to remind us that — whether we like it or not — winter is on the way.

But you can turn back the clock and get tropical this weekend at the National Capital Orchid Society’s 68th annual show and sale at Behnke’s Nursery in Beltsville, Maryland. The event features lectures on orchid growing, professional demonstrations, the largest juried show of rare and beautifully breathtaking beauties on the East Coast and a wide variety of orchids for sale.

Admission is free. Show hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday — a great way to spend the Columbus Day holiday.

You’ll find all the details at

Does wet weather equal ant invasion?

David in Alexandria writes: “My wife believes that the wet weather we’ve gotten recently explains the ants that have taken refuge in our home. I ordered a spray from Gardens Alive (it’s on the way), but I need to know how to get rid of them for good.”

Sorry David — ants are an ancient, highly successful species that has been estimated to make up close to one quarter of our planet’s total animal population (by weight!). Nothing will “get rid of them for good.” (Us, maybe, but not the ants.)

Now, saturated soil can drive ant colonies indoors, but more likely it’s their annual invasion in response to the cooling down of our weather. This time of year generally sees all sorts of creatures — mice as well as ants — heading indoors; and a wise homeowner will set traps in advance of the problem becoming visible.

Bait the ants to kill the queen

David in Alexandria wants “to know how to get rid of the ants for good,” which will never happen as ants outnumber us by factors that are close to cosmic. And attacking ants directly is never even a short-term answer as the ants you see are just a tiny percentage of a large colony hidden nearby — a colony that can replace workers faster than you can kill them.

The classic and safest way to completely get rid of your current houseguests (and any re-infestations) is with boric acid traps. Attracted by a sweet bait, the worker ants carry the low-dose, slow-acting boric acid back to their nest, where it’s fed to the all-important queen, who will die after about a week.

And when the lady of the house is out of the picture, the colony quickly collapses.

Boric acid details, and a new alternative

That chill in the air means ant colonies could set up shop inside our homes. If you find these nasty nuisances crawling around, put out ant traps baited with a very low dose of boric acid — which is pretty much harmless to people and pets, but deadly to ants.

But it’s not deadly right away, which is good because you need the workers to survive long enough to carry the bait back to the nest where it will be fed to the all-important queen. It takes about a week to work, so you have to be patient. You also have to deliberately leave visible ants alone; even if it drives you crazy to do so. (If you keep squishing the workers, that queen is just going to keep adding to the population.)

Look for traps whose active ingredient is listed as borate, boric acid, sodium tetra borate or some other form of the element Boron. (Atomic No. 5!) Take a pass on traps if the active ingredient is a complex list of letters and numbers; these truly-poisonous traps don’t work any better than boric acid and are a danger to children and pets.

Note: The natural product mail-order firm Gardens Alive has recently replaced the boric acid in their Bull’s-Eye ant traps with spinosad, a naturally occurring, soil-dwelling bacteria that’s toxic to many insects but harmless to humans. The percentage of spinosad they’re using in the sweet bait (much less than 1/10 of a percent) is too low to kill the worker ants right away, but — like boric acid — builds up slowly to deliver a fatal dose to the queen in about a week.

Oh no! It’s time to buy ice melt already?

“Prepared Paula” in Indian Head, Maryland is looking ahead. She writes: “Can you please tell me which ice melt is safe to use on concrete and around pets? I know some will damage concrete and many are lethal to pets.”

Good timing, Paula. The best way to avoid being stuck with the worst option — highly corrosive rock salt — is to have an alternative ice-melt in the house before the first icy event.

My personal favorite is calcium chloride; just a small amount melts ice very effectively. It’s safe for use on concrete walkways, relatively gentle to lawns and other plants and has never caused my pets a bit of distress.

But if you want to be super cautious in that regard, pick up a bag of play sand or all-purpose sand. Sand provides firm footing on icy walkways without chemicals and is actually good for the soil when it’s swept off the walk. It’s the least expensive option as well. (Just take your shoes off in the mud room or have a boot scraper handy to avoid sandy floors.)

Note: So-called “pet safe” products containing urea are now illegal to use in Maryland and Virginia, as are other forms of fertilizer. The new lawn care laws enacted in those states over the past two years to try and protect the Chesapeake Bay from agricultural runoff prohibit the use of any fertilizer to melt ice — and urea is a high-Nitrogen chemical fertilizer.

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