Ants, slugs, and bankers: snippets from the British news

Ants: Flying ants swarmed the Wimbledon tennis tournament on July 5. It’s called Flying Ant Day—the day the young queens, followed by swarms of over-amped males, leave the nest to mate, say wheeee, and start new colonies.

And pester tennis players at Wimbledon, which adds a certain spice to it all. If you’re (a) an ant and (b) into that.

The British press thinks this is a natural phenomenon, but it’s actually one of the ways Americans celebrate Independence Day, and it takes a lot of planning to nudge nature this delicately. For years we’ve been trying to get swarms of flying ants to disrupt British tennis, but it depends on Wimbledon getting warm at just the right time, so most years it doesn’t work. Warm weather’s hard to predict in Britain, and even harder to control.

This year we were only a day late–we were aiming, of course, for July 4. Still, that’s not bad, considering the variables involved.

You’d think that 241 years after we declared independence we’d be over it enough to stop playing pranks on Britain, but some things are hard to give up.

Semi-relevant photo: our pansies, which the slugs and snails just love

A week or two after they disrupted Wimbledon, ants went airborne in the Westcountry and our local paper reported that seagulls were getting drunk on them. The ants contain formic acid, which “disrupts the birds’ cognitive ability.” They’ve been reported flying into cars and buildings. (“Hello, emergency services? I just saw a seagull flying recklessly, and I think it was drunk. Could send someone to investigate?”)

(Sorry–I don’t write British dialogue well and normally I don’t try. I’m sure I should probably work a please in there somewhere.)

Anyway, one expert says they’re under the influence. Another says the problem was the heat. And the ants? “They are a good source of nourishment.”

I don’t normally go expert-shopping, but since almost everything I know about flying ants–actually, considerably more than I know about flying ants–is already contained in the few paragraphs you either just read or skipped over (thought no one would notice, didn’t you?), the best I can do is relay both opinions. So if you plan on eating many flying ants, you’re on your own, because I’m not sure which expert to trust.

Slugs: Naturalist and BBC presenter Chris Packham has asked gardeners to end their war on slugs. And although he doesn’t mention them, presumably on snails, which are nothing but slugs who live in fancy houses and—the world being what it is—get better press and less grief than their lower-rent relatives.

I understand Packham’s argument: Hedgehogs eat slugs. Slow worms eat slugs. So—apparently—do song thrushes.

So what? Well, Britain without hedgehogs would be like Britain without castles, except that castles don’t eat slugs so what use are they, really, in this age of nuclear weapons? Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are cute—and they eat slugs. Which is a circular argument. We need the slugs to preserve the hedgehogs and we like the hedgehogs because they eat the slugs. But we do get a bit of Olde English charm in the middle of the circle, so it’s all okay.

And slow worms? They’re not as central as castles and hedgehogs, but they are part of the British countryside. And even though they look like snakes, they’re not—they’re legless lizards.

What’s the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? No idea, but shouldn’t we keep them around anyway, what with them being part of the British countryside and all? Besides, Britain doesn’t have many snakes. We need slow worms to remind us how few snakes we have.

Okay, I’m bullshitting here, looking for something that sounds like an explanation. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the British are fond of slow worms. I’m sure they have a reason, but it’s not like this stuff is entirely rational.

As for the song thrush, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one but Wild Thing has and says their song is sublime. She was an avid birdwatcher before she lost part of her sight. She’s a somewhat less avid bird listener, not because she doesn’t love their songs but because she doesn’t have a gift for memorizing them.

So there we are. If you want humans to protect something in nature, you have to convince them it’s cute, cuddly, essential to the nation’s self-image, or a good singer. And if it isn’t? You find a way to link it to the cute, cuddly, etc. Which is how you go about protecting the slugs of this world, even though they’re slimy and slithery, eat our flowers and lettuces, and can burrow a full three feet into the earth. We need to protect them because our hedgehogs need them. Our castles need them.

So, if you kill slugs and you’re attacking Wind in the Willows and—oh, I don’t know, Winnie the Pooh (admittedly, those were stuffed animals, but that’s okay, they were very British and very cute) or whatever other stories formed our vision of the British countryside.

I agree with Packham about the need for slugs, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I’m a vegetarian, so you could be forgiven for imagining me as one of those gentle, do-no-harm people who go skipping through fields of wildflowers while taking care not to trample the bugs.

Bullshit. On most summer nights, I go out and slaughter slugs. And their upmarket cousins the snails. When I skipped a few nights recently, they ate so much of my lettuce bed that one head looked like umbrella ribs after the fabric had been ripped away.

So I’m not sure where to go with this. Buy supermarket lettuce? That only outsources the slaughter. Even our most innocent food comes at a cost. But as long as some other category of creature’s paying that cost, we do, as a species, have a tendency to ignore it.

My compromise, at the moment, is to pretend I don’t see the slugs and snails in most of the garden, focusing my slaughter on the veggies and a few flowers where they do the most damage. We have a hedgehog in the neighborhood, and every so often I wonder if it considers the slugs I’ve cut in half edible or if it needs them to be alive and slithering and in pain.

It’s a lovely world we live in. In spite of which, the hedgehog, when we saw it, really was cute. It made me want to go read Wind in the Willows, even though I never liked it and never finished it and it doesn’t (as far as I know) have a hedgehog in it.

Bankers: The tenth anniversary of the last financial crash is coming up and Mark Carney, the governor of the bank of England, wants us to know that the financial system is safer, fairer, and simpler.

Safer, fairer, and simpler than what? Presumably than it was before the crash, but the article I read didn’t actually name the point of comparison, so for all I know he’s comparing it to a WWF wrestling match. (No, I’m not sure what WWF stands for. It’s not the World Wildlife Fund. Let’s go with World Wrestling Foolishness. Or something else with an F. Foam, maybe. Filosophy. Farce. Fixative. Facial Tics. Let it go, people. We’re talking about banking. This is a digression.)

“We have fixed the issues that caused the last crisis,” Carney said. “They were fundamental and deep-seated, which is why it was such a major job.”

Before his reassurance, I was wondering when the next crash would come. And now? I figure it’s coming that much sooner. When they tell you it’s all okay, that’s when you need to worry.

In an earlier article, which presumably we’ve all forgotten by now, Carney said the U.K.’s borrowing binge was worrying him. And the day after he announced that everything was all fine, the morning paper said the Bank of England was worried that credit cards, personal loans, and car loans “could rebound on the banking system.”

I’ve been noticing articles about how shaky the economy is ever since.

So keep one hand on your wallet, folks. The banking system is stronger, softer, and safer than ever.

Or was that fairer, not softer? There’s a toilet paper ad I keep getting it mixed up with.

Gardening in Cornwall: What We Do When Autumn Comes

J. is a serious gardener, and she grows the best tomatoes I’ve eaten since I moved to the U.K. I don’t know how she kills slugs and snails on her patch in the spring, but I know she does, because if you’re going to grow anything around here, you have to. Otherwise they mow down every plant you stick in the earth. They move through like a scene from Slug Apocalypse, leaving nothing behind.

Irrelevant Photo: The North Cornwall Coast

Irrelevant Photo: The North Cornwall Coast

A couple of us were at J.’s house and we went outside to admire the garden. It was that beautiful time of the evening when the sky’s a tissue-paper blue and you can almost convince yourself that the world is at peace, even though, yeah, of course you know better. Even though it was late in the year, she still had some flowers in bloom.

On the edge of a flower bed was a slug. The big, creepy kind, easily the length of my ring finger.

J. flicked it away—and I’d have to say she did it gently—with the toe of her shoe.

“That’s why I don’t come out at this time of day,” she said.

So it’s not just me. Everyone who gardens knows they’re out there. And at least for part of the year, we don’t look. If we did, as surely as if we’d sworn an oath, we’d have to kill them. And really, you can’t dedicate your life to eliminating an entire species, even if it’s only from a small patch of ground you call your own.

Gardening and Snail-i-cide in Cornwall

One of my first posts was about slugs. I wrote it early in the growing season, when none of the new plants stand a chance unless I carry out mass slug-i-cide. And snail-i-cide. It’s disgusting, it’s disturbing, and it works, up to a point.

But the plants that don’t get eaten get bigger, and sooner or later I convince myself that I can skip an evening’s slaughter. Maybe because it’s raining. Maybe because it isn’t. There’s always a reason, and it doesn’t have to be a sensible one. Then, before I notice what’s happening, several days have rolled past, and then the weeks do the same thing, and eventually I decide that I don’t have to kill them anymore. The plants are established.

Irrelevant Photo: Late Summer Wildflowers

Irrelevant Photo: Wildflowers

Oh, happy summer. I declare a truce with the slugs and snails. This isn’t negotiated, it’s a one-sided thing. They still eat everything in sight, but now I look the other way when I see them.

Then summer passes, and right now it’s fall. Or autumn, if you’re of the British persuasion. A few days ago, I lifted the lid on the kitchen garbage can and found a snail glued to the underside. How did it get there? I suspect I found it when I was washing a batch of spinach I’d cut and I tossed it in as a sort of compromise: I won’t carry it sweetly back out to the garden to munch its way through more spinach, but I’m not killing it, am I?

The reason I say “I suspect” is that I’ve rearranged my memory so that I’m no longer absolutely the kind of person who’d do that. I probably am, but I have a small escape hatch. The snail might have moved in on its own: come in the back door, crossed the living room rug, crawled up the side of the garbage can, lifted the lid, crawled in. You know; it could happen if, I don’t know, the laws of physics changed or something. I’m just not sure.

I plucked it off the top and put it inside the bin again. Why? No idea. I don’t understand the workings of my mind any better than you, dear reader, are likely to. The next time I looked, it had climbed to the top of the liner and I left it there. Because by now it had become individualized. It wasn’t just some snail, it was almost a pet. And I’d tossed the poor thing in a near-empty, and dry, garbage can, with nothing edible and nothing moist.

Stop that, I told myself.

I didn’t listen. Instead I asked myself whether it was crueler to carry it to the pavement and crush it or to leave it where it was. This was, in spite of its absurdity, a serious ethical question, and a complicated one, which (like so many serious and complicated ethical questions) I haven’t answered to my own satisfaction. That’s another way of saying that I left it where it was but became conscious of every bit of edible junk I tossed in, and every smidgen of moisture. I made a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, which involved a lot of oatmeal landing on the floor. My recipes are like that: Take one handful of rolled oats and toss over your left shoulder. So I swept the oatmeal up and threw it in with the snail. Ditto the bits of dog treats I cut in half because the dog is small and the treats are big and she’d be chewing for half an hour if I didn’t cut them up.

Mmm. Snail food.

So here I am, the bane of slugs and snails, feeding a pet snail.

Eventually the garbage can will fill up and I’ll take the bag out, slug and all, and toss it in the trash. I know this. But like a mother who can’t bear to tell her daughter the goldfish died, I’ll tell myself it’ll be fine. It’s just going on a trip, darling, to a new home.


Summer evenings here in Cornwall are long and beautiful, and when night falls you’ll find me outside with a flashlight and a pair of scissors, slaughtering slugs.

I can’t begin to tell you how romantic it is living in the countryside. Like something out of a Victorian novel. I snip the poor horrors in half, because otherwise they’ll eat my lettuce, my bean plants, my flowers, and just about anything else we grow. They glue their suckery undersides to leaves, flowers, twigs, and their dead co-religionists (dead slugs are a good source of protein, I guess, and the live ones aren’t sentimental), and they ingest every bit of that except the twigs, which they’ll need as ladders the next night to reach another meal.

A slug. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs.

A slug. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs.

The first person who told me she snipped slugs in half was M. The name doesn’t tell you much, even if you live in the village, because every third person here is named M., but this particular M. is an expert gardener and a lovely and gentle human being, so it was hard to picture her doing that. I shuddered and said, “Ewww,” like a ten-year-old.

But that was before I started gardening.

You have to understand: The slugs here are the size of double-decker buses. Britain was once heavily forested, and people will tell you the trees were chopped down to make way for agriculture and to build ships and all that, but don’t you believe it. It was the slugs. Back in the golden age they ate the trees and now they’re reduced to attacking my lettuce.

Our first spring here, I started trays of plants from seed and the first time I set them out overnight the slugs came through like a line of combine harvesters, leaving nothing but the trays and the soil and the little plastic tags noting what no longer grew in them.

I’m not a stranger to slugs. We had them in Minnesota, but they were small, well-behaved slugs who nibbled but were too polite to gobble. Maybe it was the winters that kept them in check and maybe it Minnesota Nice—that cultural thing that makes Minnesotans say “that’s different” when what they mean is “if I see you do that one more time I’m buying a gun.” The slugs here? I’ve already told you: They’re not just carnivorous, they’re cannibalistic. What more do you need to know?

I should tell you at this point that I’m a vegetarian and that I don’t run around slaughtering things for fun. But I’ve come to understand that it takes industrial-scale slaughter to get in single leaf of lettuce to the plate. And if you’re growing your own, it’s up to you to do the slaughtering.

Some of my gardener friends sprinkle slug pellets or set slug traps, and I’ve tried both. They helped but not enough. And some pellets go on to kill the birds and hedgehogs that eat the dead slugs. Others are marked organic and safe for wildlife, but even so gardeners who use them tend to whisper about it. I don’t know how the pellets kill, but I doubt the slug has a lot of fun in the process. Slug traps tend to use beer, and you could argue that they at least die drunk, so maybe they don’t care.

The only method I haven’t tried is gathering them up and dropping them in salt water, where they fizz and die—or so I’m told. It sounds like a horrible death.

Oddly enough, I do care about that. I’m a vegetarian. I have this habit of imagining myself into other creatures’ places. So if I’m going to slaughter something, I want to kill it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Even if it happens to turn my stomach. So come nightfall you’ll find me crawling around in the dark with my flashlight and my scissors.

The snails are just as bad, by the way, but you can’t snip them. I put them on a rock and stomp them. Just like the heroine of a Victorian novel.