At first, the Westside homeowner saw just a couple of ants. That turned into a trail from a cat food dish, then a seemingly unstoppable swarm.
Santa Barbara Mayor Pro Tempore Cathy Murillo was at a loss last month, unsure how to impede the endless march of common black ants and less familiar ones about an eighth of an inch long.
After posting about the infestation on Facebook, Murillo learned others were dealing with similar bombardments — worse, even, since friends were finding ants in their refrigerators or beds.
Some offered home-remedy suggestions, including sprinkling cinnamon along baseboards.
In the end, Murillo decided to feed one of her three cats on the back porch, which seemed to solve the matter — for now.
“I knew somewhere under my house they had their home base,” she told Noozhawk. “They’re obviously coming for the crumbs. I think it is drought-related. It’s never been a problem.”
Like so many others, Murillo found ants in her kitchen and bathroom, where they are migrating in search of water during the drought this summer.
The smaller bugs at the root of invasions are Argentine ants, a species native to South America that has nearly overrun local ant populations.
Argentine colonies usually have more than one queen and work together — instead of fighting each other out of the area — creating what busy pest control companies dub “mega” or “super” colonies that are particularly difficult to eradicate.
Lenz Pest Control stopped taking new customers three months ago because of the influx in calls, and won’t be able to again until at least November, according to Dale Shreve, longtime supervisor for the Santa Barbara company.
The nearly 30-year-old business is on average turning away four or five calls per day, completing 1,200 sprays for ants each month from Carpinteria to Goleta.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Shreve said. “This is the worst year I’ve ever seen. Summer is a huge time for ants anyway. The drought has put the nail in the coffin. People aren’t watering their yards very much. The only real water they’re finding seems to be inside the kitchens and bathrooms in people’s houses.”
Infestations are happening just about everywhere, although Shreve noted more calls coming from Montecito and Mountain Drive areas from residents seeing thousands or millions of them.
Lenz Pest Control sprays products locals can’t buy in stores and can keep a house ant-free for at least six to eight months, Shreve said.
Ant calls typically make up 50 percent of summer work for Hydrex Pest Control, with spiders taking the rest, said supervisor Joe DiPoalo.
This summer, ant calls are easily 80 percent, he said. The invasion has led to broken sales records and volume records for Hydrex’s Santa Barbara branch.
DiPoalo said Hydrex technicians get to customers on the same or next day, using chemicals in an exterior treatment that will stay on the feet of ants, which will bring poison back to super nests.
“Typically it’s not a one-time slam dunk,” he said of treatments. “It’s the worst I’ve seen in eight years. Hot weather gets everything moving, ants, termites and everything else.”
Drought is driving more wildlife into urban areas, said Jan Glick, director of Santa Barbara County Animal Services.
Coyotes, a main predator of cats, have ventured into town in search of water, she said, as well as bobcats, mountain lions, even bears.
Glick recommended families keep an eye on pets and not leave food out overnight. While the solution may have worked for Murillo with the ants, Glick said it just draws more creatures.
“We really need some rain,” she said.
Pest control companies don’t see ants leaving anytime soon, and even rain might not help.
Precipitation usually forces ants back inside, seeking shelter from their soaked underground homes.
“I think it’s going to get worse and worse,” Shreve said. “They’re not going anywhere.”