Creepy Crawlies Everywhere, and Ants and Flies

Photo © 2008 “that_james” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the Museum of Science in Boston, the last time I was there, they had a display of cockroaches, big ones. (Similar to the display pictured here, which is from the London Zoo.) Even though the buggies were behind plastic, I felt an urgent need to get out of there as fast possible.

My phobia of bugs (except for spiders, which don’t bother me much at all, except that I don’t want to get bitten)… My fear of bugs might stem from my childhood. I spent most of my growing years living in an old, yellow house on the side of a hill. A lot of pleasant memories are attached to that house, and a few creepy ones. Each year, for example, we were attacked by a hoard of ants of various sizes. Mostly, we saw the normal, black, carpenter ants, which I learned to live with and to kill on sight. We set down ant traps sometimes, in a never-ending struggle against these tiny invaders.

But we also got other kinds of ants from time to time, too. On one occasion, I pulled a box of cereal out of the cupboard and poured myself a bowl. The cereal was laced with hundreds (or maybe thousands) of tiny, brown-black ants only a millimeter or two long— I don’t know what kind they were, and I never want to see them again. (Fortunately, I can still eat cereal, but I’m religious about wrapping up the bag and closing the box securely when I put it away.)

Jim “Suldog” Sullivan’s tale of The Ant & the Dishwasher reminded me of this and a couple more of my own. And unlike Jim, I do not hate to kill insect. (Shudder.)

One night when our elder daughter C was very young, I walked into the kitchen of our upstairs apartment, probably to get a late-night snack. Unfortunately, instead, I found the kitchen sink absolutely covered with black, carpenter ants. They were marching into the kitchen from a tiny crack around the back door, straight across the wall to the sink, and then returning via another path lower on the wall.

I freaked. And as I often do when I freak, I searched the Internet for a solution. I discovered that these ants can destroy houses if they move in, though they are otherwise harmless to humans, except as pests. And more importantly, I discovered that the best way to get rid of them is probably just to get rid of whatever brought them into the house. They like sweet, fattening snacks, and they need water. Indeed, that evening, we had sliced open a muskmelon, and remains of the rind were still sitting on plates around the sink and resting in the garbage under the sink. And the sink itself was full of still-dirty dishes from dinner. I was sure that this is what drew the mass of ants into our kitchen.

I instituted a new rule (at least for a few days): Each night before bed, the sink was to be cleaned and the garbage taken out. Also, the wall where the ants had entered, I wiped it down with a solution that one web site had recommended, to destroy the ants’ pheromone trails.

And then I waited.

A few scouts. I killed them. Nothing more. I understand that the smell of dead ants encourages other (still living) ants to stay away.

Fast forward a few years. The Little One had been born, and we had moved into the bigger apartment downstairs. And the fruit flies came, en masse. They started to become a nuisance. Again, the Internet came to the rescue. I set up small, simple traps made of sugar-water mixed with a tiny bit of dish soap. The sugar-water draws the flies, because it’s a source of food for them. Usually, they land on top of the water, their tiny little feet acting like a seaplane’s pontoons. They drink their fill and fly off. However, the soap reduces the surface tension of the water, so that instead of floating, they sink, drown, and die die DIE.

But reading about this tiny species of fly, I became convinced we had an infestation somewhere, and unless I could remove the source of the infestation, none of my efforts to eliminate the flies would succeed. Fruit flies breed on sweet, decaying food. They can even make a nest out of a dropped apple core or a spill of ketchup. And at the time, we had two small children, who I’m sure could easily have left somewhere in the house a suitable medium in which they could breed. And that could be anywhere. I didn’t know where to begin looking, and I found nothing.

… until the flies became numerous enough that I could tell where they were most concentrated.

Some time earlier, we had bought the girls a play kitchen sink, with a little plastic faucet and plastic drawers and cabinets. It sat in the kitchen not too far from our grown-up kitchen sink. Both sinks were clean. But the little plastic faucet had come off of the play kitchen sink, because one of the plastic parts had broken off inside the moulded plastic sink body. Yeah, whatever. It’s plastic. It’s a toy. We had simply slid the faucet back into the hole where it belonged, even though it could now slide out again. Good enough for play, right?

Except that some little girl had clearly removed the plastic faucet, inserted leftover sandwich, and replaced the faucet. That hid the deed well enough so that none of us noticed, but not so well that the fruit flies couldn’t figure it out. I noticed that the flies seemed to congregating around the toy sink. Then that they were crawling under and around the faucet. I pulled the faucet out, and— Phewee! I was hit with the stench of flourishing yeast, as well as a barrage of fruit flies, suddenly freed from their hiding place.

Fortunately, that was good news. The plastic sink went outside, along with its passengers. The fruit-fly traps eliminated some of the last remaining stragglers, and the rest died.

But now, whenever I see a fruit fly, I wonder whether it just stowed away on a banana, or whether it’s planning on having babies.

-TimK