Growl! Mmmm. Me Like Carpenter Ants… Bears along the PCT in Mt. Lassen National Park

Peggy was lucky to be on the scene when a large sow tore apart a log searching for carpenter ants in Mt. Lassen National Park. Claws firmly sunk into the rotting log, she used her weight to rip help open the dead tree. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I began seeing a lot of bear sign as I hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail through Mt. Lassen National Park. There were the usual large piles of poop and trees had the tell-tale claw marks of bears chatting with other bears. The trees also provided bears with a great back rub. The effort helps remove winter coats and I’m pretty sure feels as good as it does to us when we get out back rubbed or scratched. It also provides the opportunity to leave a scent mark behind, a sort of personal wilderness want ad. “Large male seeks one night stand with attractive female. Don’t expect me to stick around and help raise the kids. In fact, I might eat them.” Doesn’t seem like the ideal qualities you would want in a mate, but it seems to work.

I also found a number of rotting logs torn apart along the trail. Black bears have a real taste for carpenter ants. “Sweet meat,” like my students of long ago in West Africa used to say about termites. And maybe carpenter ants are sweet. While they are known for tunneling through wood with all the enthusiasm of a chainsaw, they don’t actually eat the wood. They are dairy farmers. They raise and milk aphids for the sugary honey-dew they secrete by stroking them with their antennae.  “Come on sweetie, give it up.” Naturally they eat other things, like dead insects. They will surround the bug, suck out its juices and then return to their nest with full tummies to share. I read that they sometimes carry the head with them. (I can see them marching in and placing it at the feet of the queen. I wonder if they have a trophy room.) Like other ants, they inevitably find the shortest path back to their nest and mark the path with pheromones which other ants can follow. Big bugs can attract lots of ants, which means more pheromones, which means more ants. It can become quite the mob scene.

Carpenter ants build amazing labyrinths in dead trees. (Or possibly your house.) If I had to build a maze, I think I would hire these guys to plan it out.
They don’t eat the wood, however. They carefully dump it outside as the ant on the right is doing. More ants can be seen in the crevice to the left and right of the ant. (My nephew Jay Dallen took this photo on his iPhone when we were hiking from Etna Summit to Castle Crags.)
I found this log torn apart by a bear as I hiked down the PCT through Mt. Lassen National Park. Off to the right you can see a pile of sawdust that the ants have deposited. Normally a pile of sawdust like this would suggest that somebody has been working with a saw. 
Here’s another log I found along the trail that had been opened up by a bear. These guys go after a log like a six-year-old goes after a Christmas present.

But back to the bears. I dearly wanted to see a bear tearing into a carpenter ant nest.  I didn’t even see a bear. Peggy who was driving around the park and checking out hiking trails while I was making my way along the PCT, had much more luck. She not only saw a mom and her cubs, she saw them ripping into a carpenter ant nest and took photos. When the bear and her cubs finished their meal, and started walking toward her, she made a rapid retreat to our small RV! Smart woman.

When mom had finished tearing open the log, she was joined by her two cubs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
One of the cubs snacked on a few ants while mom patiently watched. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
They then let mom have her fill. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
It even appeared that they were standing guard. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
They finished their feast and then started walking toward where Peggy was taking photographs. She decided it was time to get back in the van! (Quick photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

When it comes to food, a black bear is an Omnivore’s omnivore, an opportunistic eater that consumes everything from insects to plants to carrion to any fresh meat it catches— although the latter rarely includes humans. As one of my trekking friends used to say, “If bears wanted to eat people, they’d move into towns where there are lots of people to eat.”  Bears, like other members of the animal kingdom, have learned that puny humans are nasty animals with a penchant for killing; they are best to be avoided. They have developed a taste for human food, however. Trash cans are a frequent target. We know. Our property in Southern Oregon backs up to a million acres of national forest. There are lots bears. Once, one attacked my heavy Weber grill that lives on our back porch and turned it over.  As it came crashing down, my daughter, who was sleeping in the bedroom next to the porch, screamed, “Curtis!” It’s an appeal for help I’d heard before. Bears are also fond of backpacker’s food.

They would occasionally drop by our camp for a bite when I was leading hundred-mile backpack trips up and down the Sierra’s in the 70s, 80s and 90s, especially when I was anywhere in the vicinity of Yosemite. It wasn’t unusual for a trekker to yell my name on his or her first sighting of a bear up close. I spent a lot of time teaching people how to chase bears out of camp and hang their food in trees so the bears wouldn’t get it. We weren’t always successful.  The food bag is supposed to be at least 12 feet up in the air and 9 feet out from the tree hanging from a limb that is just large enough to hold your food. Otherwise, Mom might send her kids up to crawl out the limb and chew through the rope. One food bag is counterbalanced with another food bag and no ropes are left dangling. Bears are smart and I am convinced that they have a university near Yosemite where they teach their cubs how to outsmart backpackers.

Today, there are bear canisters that are made of heavy duty plastic or carbon that are theoretically bear proof. They are tested by filling them with strong smelling goodies and tossing them into the cage of a hungry bear that has developed a taste for backpacking food. If the canister survives for an hour, it is given the seal of approval. Now days, when you backpack through Yosemite National Park or down the John Muir Trail, you are required to carry one. Just recently, the same policy was adopted for Mt. Lassen National Park. So, I was carrying one.

The good news about canisters is that they work. Bears are broken of the habit of eating backpackers’ food and go back to eating much healthier food, like maggots and ants. Backpackers are given the peace of mind of knowing that they will be able to make breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day. The bad news is that the canisters are heavy and awkward. They add two to four pounds of weight and are hard to fit into a pack along with other essential equipment. While the folks in charge of protecting our wildlands and their inhabitants would like to see backpackers use canisters all the time, it won’t happen until these problems are addressed.

NEXT POST on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail through Mt. Lassen National Park: When the mountain blew its top, there is more to manzanita than scary roots, and a gorgeous lake struts its stuff.

47 comments on “Growl! Mmmm. Me Like Carpenter Ants… Bears along the PCT in Mt. Lassen National Park

  1. We have white ants that can chew through your house in no time, Curt. Lots of people make a living out of becoming ‘white ant inspectors.’ Whenever a house gets sold a white ant inspection is asked for. Some just walk through the house and make quick buck. Others are more conscientious and inspect the house thoroughly.
    In any case, it is a hard job to detect ant activity.
    The bears look awesome. I don’t think I would like to camp outside while bears go through my food parcels. Here one has to watch out for Australian wild dogs to get (dingoes) cheeky.
    Good post, Curt.

    • Pest control is big business here as well, Gerard. Carpenter ants do millions of dollars annually here. Peggy’s sister Jane just had an infestation she had to deal with. Out in nature, they do an important job of helping break down fallen trees.
      Bears can be a bit scary. They are big! The black bears of the Sierra Nevada rarely hurt people, however unless the person does something dumb, like get between a mamma bear and her cub. A cheeky dingo… love the expression. Thanks. –Curt

  2. As I looked at this post, I was reminded how difficult it was to get a clear shot. I did not want to get any closer (!!!) and had to depend on the telephoto lens. Then, of course, the bears were constantly moving. Just when I thought I really needed to get a bit closer, the mama bear looked at me and started coming my way. That ended my discussion with myself about photography and I quickly moved to the RV. Whew! It was a remarkable experience watching her tear apart the log; the sawdust was creating a cloud.

  3. Oooooh lucky Peggy seeing the sow and cubs – from a safe distance! Love your story about the ants.
    When I was cooking in hunting camps in the Yukon wilderness, once one of the hunters got a kill we’d always hang the hind quarter (usually moose or caribou) in a tree away from camp. Every day I’d go out and carve off a chunk to cook up for dinner.
    Saw a bear or two in camp over the years, but just as often I saw the unbelievable damage they could do to a cook cabin that we’d arrive to when we first got to camp in the spring.
    Alison

    • Laughing at you going out to carve a hunk of meat off a moose for dinner, Alison.
      Grizzlies are no joke when it comes to tearing up things! I once saw a grizzly tear apart a hill side in the Canadian Rockies trying to catch a single marmot. It would have been hilarious if we hadn’t been camped so close to the action. The marmot had several escape holes. When the bear was digging into one, it would poke its head out of another one and whistle. The bear would charge over and start digging, only to have the marmot pop up somewhere else. –Curt

      • That must have a moment – watching the marmot trying to save its own life by tricking a bear. Did it win. Grizzlies – one ripped out and hurled from one side of the cabin to the other a full-size propane fridge. In another camp it had ripped through a solid oak door to get in.
        PS – the moose was dead 🙂

      • And how dead was the moose? 🙂 We would go down to the market in Liberia and buy our meat on Saturday morning from a steer that had just been slaughtered. We’d point to the chunk of meat we wanted and they would carve it off for us.
        I wasn’t sure whether the marmot was trying to save its life or thumbing its nose at the bear.
        Your grizzly reminds me of the black bear that tackled our heavy Weber grill and tipped it over. –Curt

  4. Entertaining and informative as ever, Curt, and those bear pics are quite something! I was particularly interested in the idea of bear-proof canisters to help us visit nature without disturbing the natural balance. I’m sure well-managed ecotourism, if that’s a word, is part of the answer to the question of ecological renewal.

    • Thanks Dave. Peggy did a great job with the bear photos. And I am a strong supporter of well-managed ecotourism that introduces people to the beauty and value of the outdoors while protecting nature. –Curt

      • They should do some serious research to show the psychological and spiritual benefits. Government-funded or, failing that, there must be many potential beneficiaries who could be persuaded to stump up some dosh …

  5. Lassen is one park I have not yet visited. I admit, carpenter ants were not on my list of reasons why I wanted to go, but they could be a bonus! I agree with you: what incredible mazes they design.

    I am beyond impressed with the black bear photos. The cubs are too darling. I would have been captivated by the scene, and just as eager to run back to the RV about the time Momma came heading toward the camera!

    • Lassen is definitely worth it, even a drive through. Peggy was excited about her bear. The only thing she was disappointed in was that she didn’t video it tearing apart the log. Thanks, Crystal. –Curt

  6. I was thinking about the meat counter at the Gbarnga market myself, not to mention the bugabugs. I wonder what a grizzly bear would think of a supersized termite mound? The bear photos are wonderful, of course. There’s not much cuter than a bear cub. I surely must have shared this video of bears dancing, but it never grows old.

    Those canisters sound like a great solution to a real problem, apart from the weight. I wonder it a raccoon could get one open? I’ve seen raccoons do thinks I might have thought impossible if I hadn’t witnessed them. I still haven’t forgiven the one that boarded our boat in the middle of the night and stole all the Pepperidge Farm cookies.

    • My thought is that a bear would love a bugabug mound, Linda! Bears dancing! 🙂
      The canister would work unless raccoons have opposable thumbs, or maybe a screw driver. 🙂 But I know how clever they can be. –Curt

      • One of the most famous stories around the Texas coast is of two Parks & Wildlife rangers who came back to their residence on Matagorda Island to find a raccoon sitting in the middle of their kitchen table. It had taken the screen off the window, come in, found the peanut butter jar, taken off the lid, and was happily scooping out peanut butter by the pawsful. Do not challenge a raccoon, even with your canisters.

  7. I have nothing but admiration for Peggy, sticking around to catch that last shot of momma bear charging toward her! Hope she took it with a very long lens!

  8. Wow! Peggy got some fantastic shots of those bears! I didn’t know they like carpenter ants. My backyard would probably be a feast for them. The ants keep drilling their way through my wooden picnic table.

    • Carpenter ants can be nasty when they get too close to home! Maybe you need to import a bear. 🙂 And yes, Peggy caught some great photos. I’m glad she was willing to stick around and take them. –Curt

  9. How close were you? Did you have a long telephoto lens?! I’d be so scared to get that close. Awesome shots though! Bravo for your courage, bears are giant beasts. Looks like a fun time.

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