Everyone keeps asking if the ants actually ate their way through the fiber optic cable and I do not know the answer. What is certain is that they chewed through the outer casing and caused enough damage to knock out TV, phone and Internet service to my house: the Verizon triple no-play.
I also know that it takes about five years for ants to accomplish such a task, because the same thing happened in June 2009.
The box housing the cable splice that brings FiOS into my home is located across the street about five feet up on a utility pole. When the Verizon technician opened the box it was filled with hundreds of ants (I had actually forgotten about the earlier ant episode, but he clearly expected them to be there). And when he shooed away enough of the critters to get a look inside, the red glow of a stripped fiber optic cable was clearly visible.
The technician says the ants are attracted to a jelly-like substance used in the casing.
If you’re thinking that sounds implausible, here’s a paper (.pdf) that documents the problem of ants interacting with telecommunications equipment. Be forewarned that some of the pictures are gross.
That box wasn’t the first place the technician looked to find the source of the problem, due in large part to my faulty memory. Five years from now – when another bunch of ants have had their fill -- I’ll save us both some time.
(Update: Reader J.H. writes: "It's not just the jelly, but the cleaner used to clean the jelly to terminate the fiber, which is a natural orange-based degreaser and hence the ants. Back in the 90s, when we were first trying to deploy fiber, we also ran into a problem where termites were attracted to the heat, and certain times of the year, would drag a damp body across a reset lead. Outside plant has lots of challenges.")
(Update 2: Reader M.K. of Las Vegas offers this advice: “You might want to try using Tree Tanglefoot at some point around the cable below the service box. I use it around the base of a tree in my yard to keep ants out of my hummingbird feeder. It works great. I live in southern Nevada and the product stays sticky and effective even after an entire summer of direct and brutally hot sunshine.” … The box is not on my property, but can’t imagine my neighbor would object.)
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