The Pitjantjatjara word for ants is minga. Around here — the dictionary calls it Ayers Rock slang — the same word is used for tourists. Particularly when tourists climb the Rock, a practice Aboriginal people object to, the local people refer to them as minga.
Last night, I left the outside light on when we went to visit our friend. At this time of the year, it’s a challenge walking from the car to the house in the dark. Even with your boots on the snakes make you nervous. C hates leaving the light on outside for the insects it attracts, but decided to join me at the last minute and didn’t bring her torch. So we left the light on.
Driving home, we saw dense swarms of insects circling the street lights on the main street. “It looks like a school of tiny fish or plankton,” I said. The pulsing mass extended all the way to the ground from the tall brightly lit pole. “It looks like a snowstorm,” said C. Every 50 metres or so, another column of multitudinous specks towered in the surrounding desert darkness. Passing a smaller light outside a housing block we saw that the teeming insects were ubiquitous. As we approached home, I was filled with dread, “It had to be tonight that I left the outside light on.”
The minga had come. It rained the night before, leaving a pleasant humidity in the air and cheering up the little plants in my garden. The full moon after the rain is mating season for the ants and though the moon was not full last night, electric lights had stimulated thousands, maybe millions, of confused ants to sprout their wings and seek mates in the moist, warm air.
Pulling up, we saw that there was a pile of flying ants several inches thick writhing on the ground at the front door. The cloud of them up to the light was thick, dark and frenetic. “I don’t know how I can go in there,” said C, steeling herself. After years of working as a diving instructor, her first impulse was to be the brave leader in such situations. “Why does it have to be you?” I said. “Let me do it, please. I’ll get inside, turn out the light and you can wait a few minutes before you come in.” She had no problem taking people out before sunrise to swim with hammerhead sharks, my wife, but she doesn’t like insects.
As soon as I got out of the car the flying ants were in my face. I was glad of my boots as my feet shovelled into the pile of ants in front of the door. A large centipede — they can bite from both ends, people say — crawled by, enjoying the feast of tiny brown ants. The ant bodies came over the tops of my covered feet but I was preoccupied with keeping the insects out of my eyes, ears and mouth. They climbed all over me, thickly covering my clothes and any exposed skin, getting into my hair and under the neck of my shirt while I tried to make the bent key work. It took twelve long seconds. I tried to shake the ants off me as I came in but to my dismay, there were hundreds still on me as I closed the door quickly and shut off the outside light. Then I had to replace the towel under the door carefully – ever since a snake slithered into our house a few weeks ago, we stuff a towel there to close the gap above the floor.
I brushed the ants off as well as I could though their tiny white wings were caught impossibly in my hair. They formed piles on the floor, circling around looking for the moon or their electric hallucination of it. I triggered an upwelling by switching on a light in the kitchen. I found the can of insecticide and sprayed the poison around through the kitchen and living area until I felt concerned about being able to breathe. C burst in the door, shutting it behind her as quickly as she could. She picked up the can and started spraying some more. “I’ve already sprayed there. Give them a moment to die,” I said. C sprayed up the hallway. Before long there was a layer of dead and dying insects all over the tiled floor. I was so relieved that the insecticide was working. C picked up the broom and started sweeping. I poured myself a drink of water to soothe my irritated throat.
By the time I’d had half a glass of water, C had made piles of insect bodies every few metres across the floor. Most were dead. “I’ve still got them in my hair,” I said. I could feel them crawling on my scalp. C stopped sweeping and helped me pull ants out of my hair and off my neck. More of the ants had been killed by the spray and had dropped on the floor. She started sweeping again. In a quick survey around the living room floor I found another large centipede, about 12 centimetres long, thankfully dying from the spray. I sprayed it a bit more. It contained a lot of liquid when I broke it under my boot. C had a centipede bite last week when we were out taking photographs of the lightning around the Rock. It took 6 hours and a double dose of sedating medication to give her respite from the scorching pain. Ten days later, she still has the creature’s fang marks on her leg and it occasionally hurts. The poison is still there. Here we were now, fighting back with poison.
I picked up the dust pan and brush and started sweeping up the piles of dead ants. I guess we had a bucket or two full in the end. “Imagine if you’re the nurse on call and you have to go out tonight,” C mused. “Imagine if the patient’s being thoughtful and leaves their outside light on for you.” “Even going into the clinic would be really hard,” I said, thinking of the double doors, with a half-inch gap underneath them, from our clinic’s ambulance bay. For the millionth time we paid a mental tribute of love to our nurses. Later, as we sat at the table and had a drink together, C leaned over and pulled winged bodies out of my hair. “Don’t move, let me get them,” she said sternly. She pulled half a dozen ants out. “There are too many,” I said. “I’ll have to wash my hair.”
While I was in the shower, C put plastic tape around the front door, temporarily closing the gap that lets in light and air around the door on three sides. I knotted the garbage bag full of ant bodies in case any were half-alive and in case they attracted, even in their poisoned state, centipedes or scorpions.
We fell into bed, exhausted but clean, at about 2am.
This morning I woke tired and was disappointed to see another layer of ants on the floor when I stepped out into the hall. On my walk to work, the wife of last night’s on-call nurse pulled over to tell me that the nurse had taken a sick patient into the clinic in the small hours of the morning. He was assailed by the insects and had swept the clinic of ants several times, finding and removing six centipedes in the dark hours of the night. She’d just been there herself to clean again and had taken out another three centipedes. They were all quite big, mature. They must live around here all the time, coming out when their burrows are flooded in the visiting monsoon rain. I kept my boots on at work all day, instead of slipping in my cleaner city shoes as I normally would. We did find a couple more centipedes but no scorpions, for which I’m grateful.
“I saw a solid big scorpion, a shiny black one, this big,” one of my patients told me, holding her thumb and forefinger about 10 cm apart. “There was a magpie standing over it and you shoulda seen what it did. The magpie used its beak to snap off the scorpion’s tail, then snapped off its nippers and ate it!” “Clever those magpies,” I said. I told C the story at lunchtime. “Just like a prawn,” she smiled.
C spent the day sweeping inside and out, several times over. She used the pressure cleaner to wash the doorsteps.
“They kept coming,” she said. “It was disgusting.” Having seen the small mountain of writhing brown ant bodies and fluttering wings first thing in the morning, I understood.
She had tried to think differently. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, look at the abundance of life.’ And, I tried to imagine all these fluttering wings as fairy wings. But it didn’t work.” I laughed.
“I sprayed around the bottom of the house with the insecticide,” she continued. “I don’t mind killing these things because this is not natural. The people who lived here before wouldn’t have had this problem because they didn’t have electric lights on all night. If you had a fire the ants would just fly into it, I guess. And besides, mating season would be just once a year. But now they see the electric lights after it rains and come out and breed in massive numbers. It’s unbalanced.”
In their own way, the minga have informed us that things are not working as they should. We felt like intruders in their nest. Street lights have disrupted their life cycle and so, just for one night, they disrupted our life.