By Deborah Van Hoewyk
When we bought a house in Santa Cruz, bugs were not uppermost in our consciousness—both the front and back yards were completely tiled, the pool sparkled, the plants sat neatly in their pots. When the property manager proudly told us it had been fumigated, our Spanish was so bad we said “Muchas gracias.” We never heard the words “las termitas.”
The Formosan is the juggernaut of subterranean termites. It most probably left southern China by freighter, arriving in Hawaii in the 1950s and Houston in the 1960s. It quickly made its way eastward around the Gulf of Mexico, with serious infestations in Louisiana and Florida. Technically speaking, the subterranean termites in this area could be a “kissing cousin,” Coptotermes gestroi, which is only slightly less destructive.
You will know you have them when you see mud tubes tracking across your tile or stucco. These are “foraging tubes,” which the termites build to stay safe and humidified while they’re searching for stuff to chomp on; the Formosan species reputedly eats the stucco en route to the good stuff. Since subterranean termites like to eat wood from the inside out, you might also discover them when your pots and pans land on the floor because the wooden shelf support gave way.
Getting rid of these termites is difficult. There are no adequate off-the-shelf remedies and the only place you can reach is wherever the mud tube enters the room. If you want to get rid of them chemically, you need to hire the fumigador. Experimental research indicates that you can kill some of them and limit the chomping with oil of vetiver, a grass closely related to sorghum but with aromatic properties similar to lemon grass and citronella—however, this research hasn’t yet produced a retail product. We keep them at bay with two strategies: a squirt bottle of some mysterious super-strength insecticide, and we keep replacing vulnerable wood. Our kitchen shelves are now made of ¾” sheetrock, and some winter soon will be replaced with concrete. We have interior doors made of guanacastle, which is too hard to chew, and door jambs of macuil, another hardwood.
One of the nicest things about Mexico is the bugambilia, so it was heartbreaking to arrive in November and discover all we had left was a ratty-looking mess with a few green leaves left on it. “Hormigas,” according to Alfonso Ordiz Soriano, our gardener. Ants? Those little tiny ones? THEY ate all the bracts off the bugambilia? Yes, indeed. They are Atta Mexicana, the leafcutter ants. Leafcutters are “economically important”—i.e., they have significant negative economic consequences because they can defoliate crops, grasses, and ornamentals in the blink of an eye. Napalm on six legs, with the ability to cut from 12-17% of annual leaf production in whatever tickles their palet!
Despite their name, leafcutters like the flowers just as much as the leaves, because they don’t EAT what they cut, they keep passing it on down the line to smaller ants—who chew it up, spit it out, and pat the pulp down into a substrate that produces a fungus. They eat the fungus, and they need a lot of substrate!
To discover whether ants are eating your bugambilia, first look around it during the day to see if little clippings of bracts and leaves are littering the ground. Yes? Then you go out at night and shine a flashlight into the branches. You will see an apparently endless parade of ants with magenta or green flags atop a branch, marching home with their harvest. On the bottom side of the branch, you will see the workers marching in the other direction, off to get more flags.
A white powder (probably boric acid) scattered where the ants would have to walk through it was the first strategy, and it worked. Briefly. Finally the fumigador had to come. (This fumigator was a friend of Alfonso’s with experience in fumigating plants.) If you have a bad case of leafcutters, expect to fumigate every couple of months.
Mexican cockroaches? As seasoned New Yorkers, finding one cockroach at a time does not constitute a crisis, even though they’re about ten times larger than the NYC version. Just slide a stiff card under the cockroach and put it out in the street. The iguana will take care of it for you.
On the other hand, a lot of cockroaches calls for something stronger, and you have a medium-to-good chance that boric acid will actually work. The Expat Forum for Puerto Vallarta recommends mixing 3 tablespoons of boric acid, 1 tablespoon of flour, and ½ tablespoon of sugar into a paste. Spread the paste out on waxed paper to dry, and then break off dime-sized pieces and scatter them in the dark paths cockroaches follow in the back of your cupboards. Of course, there’s always the fumigador.