Of Ants and Energy

Our house has a little ant problem and this year, and we need to do something about it. Sure, I could call the Orkin guy, but I wonder what exactly they would do to make them go away. I have no religious convictions preventing me from killing ants. But I do wonder.

So what does this have to do with energy, you may ask? Well, I am glad you asked. The answer involves sustainability.

If we look at how we use the resources of the earth as people, it becomes pretty obvious that we’re “using up” the earth. This is very evident in cases like fossil fuels, but also other resources like water and arable land. Those who study sustainability find ways to leave our surroundings unspoiled, or even slightly enriched, rather than “using it up”.

For example, sustainable buildings may have grass-covered roofs. These roofs insulate, sequester CO2, purify and retain rain water so that it doesn’t just wash away the pollutants on the pavement into our larger water supply, reduce the use of resources like the tar or other highly manufactured materials, and the list goes on. Beyond that, grass-covered roofs look nice. They support life, even the lives of ants.

Sustainability considers the full life-cycle of the things we use and how we use them, and is not just about buildings. William McDonough is probably the most well-known sustainability expert and was one of the authors of Cradle to Cradle (a really accessible and delightful book – I recommend you read it). And if you do, read it while in the tub — it’s ok if the pages get wet, as it is printed on a very fine plastic instead of paper, a kind that is completely recyclable (unlike paper, which loses its quality each time it is recycled). But, the book has nothing to do with ants.

So, I started reading about ants. There are tens of thousands of different species. Most are harmless. Most live outside. They get busy in Spring. They have daily patterns. Carpenter ants don’t eat wood. A colony can have from tens of thousands to millions of ants. Ants “herd” other bugs like aphids because they produce a sort of nectar that the ants eat (how cool is that?).

And yes, you can get people to come and charge you and arm and a leg (or perhaps six legs?) to put all sorts of baits, traps, chemicals, and pesticides around your house. Or you can blast a suspected colony with Raid, spreading some more fine petrochemicals in our ground. But neither usually works, especially the latter, which might actually cause the formation of multiple new colonies (as I now know).

One more fact: ants tend to get into your house through cracks and gaps. The best solution, then is to find where they’re getting in and caulk.

Ah, see how it’s all coming together? If ants can get in from outside, so can the cold winter (and hot summer) air. I followed the ants for a few day and figured out how they got in — there were a few rather significant cracks. So, I used the ants to find the leaks I should have caulked last fall.

The ants are still happy and doing their thing … except now, outside. Our house will be warmer next winter and cooler this summer. No trucks loaded with chemicals came by our house. One quarter of a tube of caulk was used. I learned to love the ant.

Thinking about how it all fits together very frequently results in simple, elegant efficiencies. Think.


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WattzOn Labs is always innovating ways to engage people to save water and energy. It showcases the WattzOn products under the WattzOn Labs private-label. We don’t market these products, but use this small-scale direct-to-consumer experience to constantly evolve and learn. Then we apply the findings to the rich, private-label products used by all our customers at WattzOn.