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A Couple Makes Way for Half a Million Insects

DAE AND ERIKA ZEH-BAIRD couldn't be happier: Their back yard is crawling with ants. Late last May, after applying to various environmental agencies, filling out forms, and waiting nine months for official approval, the couple was allowed to invite 500,000 Formica Polyctena wood ants to come live with them. ``We try not to step on them,'' says Dae, explaining why he and Erika now crunch through the underbrush - a steady stream of ants has usurped the right-of-way on the property's former footpaths. The ants have made themselves right at home. Near the back fence they are building a nest mound that is already over a foot high.

From a distance, the mound looks like a large, rounded pile of dried pine needles. On closer examination, its surface is a mass of movement: Ants disappear and emerge from numerous holes - dashing off to collect food, lugging pine needles to build the mound higher. It's easy to become engrossed in all the activity. The Zeh-Bairds are amazed at how much the ants have done in the few months since they arrived.

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``It was a lot of work bringing the ants in here,'' says Dae, recalling how he and four helpers lugged 20 canisters, each filled with about 25,000 ants, to the nest site. They learned of the ant relocation program from the North Rhine Westfalian state chapter of the German Ant Protection Society, of which they are members.

One benefit of ant ownership is a much livelier back yard, says Dae: ``We've had a noticeable increase in song birds here since the ants came.'' The birds are attracted by the insects brought into the woods as a result of the ants' activity (see main story).

The ants neither sting nor bite, says Erika, making Polyctena-watching a painless and pleasant activity. Only one ant tested the limits of the couple's hospitality by paying a house call. The others were easily dissuaded by lavender blossoms placed near doorways.

Some of the ants decided that if not the grass, then certainly the woods were greener in a next-door neighbor's yard. A group crawled under the fence and started building a new mound.

``We offered to take them back,'' said Dae, ``but he said they could stay. He's gotten to like them.''

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