Little friends underfoot - creating and preserving invertebrate habitat in your home

          One of the long-accepted axioms of home ownership is that bugs simply do not belong in them. Every hardware store and home center has shelves full of lethal chemical weapons designed to annihilate anything that suffers the twin misfortunes of being born very small and wanting a nice place to live. It’s deeply engrained in our culture, an attitude learned almost as soon as we learn to walk. Somehow it just seems so natural to stomp on little things. 
         Thoughtful homeowners are starting to question this industry-encouraged campaign of extermination that we wage on our tiny fellow creatures. Some are even asking the question, “Why can’t people and bugs learn to coexist? Isn’t there room for everyone?”
         Centipedes, spiders, ants, termites, cockroaches, beetles, silverfish, houseflies, mites - there’s a world full of fascinating insects anxious to share  your home; a world packed with drama, with armies on the march, skillful predators and elusive prey, grazing herds, solitary dreamers, lightning fast runners and ace dive bombers - even loyal friends.
         Consider the cockroach. Traditionally despised, squashed and poisoned at every opportunity, they are in fact easy-going and quite intelligent, with their own distinctive personalities, and not at all difficult to train. Because of their long history of conflict with humans, they tend to scatter when the light comes on, but once you show them that your intentions are friendly and that you have some tasty food to share they’ll actually come out from their hiding places when you call them. They’re happy in any warm, dark place, and they genuinely seem to like people’s company. With very little encouragement they will give back as much as they take. 
         Another favorite in our home are spiders. No special preparations are needed to attract them, although they appreciate a bit of a draft, and of course a steady supply of food. We leave our screens open in the warm months to attract tasty tidbits inside. Then, if our little arachnids become too abundant, we just close the screens.
         There are ways to share your home with little creatures without feeling overrun. As with any animal, you need to be very clear about setting limits and boundaries. The who and what of mealtimes has to be firmly established. For instance, unless their appetites are properly channeled, termites and carpenter ants can cause quite a bit of inconvenience for owners of wood houses. One successful strategy for enjoying the company of these captivating social insects without losing your house entirely is to construct a floor level viewing chamber full of standard 2 x 4s, but lined on all sides with heavy gauge sheet metal and capped with thick plate glass for easy viewing. Set the plate glass in a tightly fitting steel channel welded to the sheet metal with an arc welder (welders can be rented, if you don’t have one on hand). Install a water source to keep the wood moist - a must for carpenter ants (although termites aren’t so fussy). I use lengths of 1/2” rigid PVC tubing with a 1/32” hole drilled into it about every foot, capped at one end, with a shutoff and a connection to the house water supply at the other end. Once a day I’ll briefly open the shutoff - just enough to dampen the wood. If you get the moisture just right, you’ll get some gorgeous fungi as an added bonus. You can also hook up a timer and servomechanism to the shutoff, so that the whole operation could be done automatically - consult a commercial greenhouse supplier for parts. A small, tightly sealed hatch is also a good idea for termites, so you can feed them fresh lumber when the original supply is gone.
         Mr. G. H. of Abilene, Texas writes me about an interesting ant training experiment he’s been working on for the last five years. Every evening before bed he spreads refined sugar over his stomach, being careful to leave a thin trail of it from his bed to a known ant colony behind his baseboard. At first the ants were shy, but now when Mr. G. H. comes into his bedroom the workers rush out excitedly, aware that their snack is on it’s way. They have lost any fear of climbing up on him, and a bold few will even pluck small crumbs from his beard. The colony has grown quite large, and early this summer sent out a flight of queens inside the house - a sure sign of trust.
         As we say in our house: Think before you thwack.