Life with the Invertibrates

Box Elder Bug
Courtesy United Exterminating Co.











Black Carpenter Ant head
Photo by Jim Kalisch, courtesy Department of Entomology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln






















Courtesy World Kids Network






Drosophila melanogaster
Courtesy Indian University

22 March 2001

I was out mowing my yard for the first time this spring, and my neighbor Steve came by walking his dog, pop can in hand. "Do you have box elder bugs at your house?" he asked.

Do we have box elder bugs! We have them everywhere, have had for years. They congregate in great numbers on the sunny side of the outside walls, and they find their way into the house -- mostly in Colin's room, where he, who once was terrified of bugs, just shrugs them off. Many find their way to the bathroom, where I guess they get water. They sure like to hang out on the shower curtain. Sometimes they find their way into bed with you. Eeeewwww. I hate that!

They are a mystery, these box elder bugs. They are really rather pretty, once you get used to the idea that they are not cockroaches. I don't know what they eat. In fact, I know almost nothing about their lifecycle, and neither does Steve, as he confessed.

When we first moved into this house, we discovered that we shared it with a number of six-legged cohabitants. We had a pest guy in. "Yep, carpenter ants," he said, rubbing his hands gleefully. He had a plan: he would spray all around our house and into the walls with a powerful poison. Hmmm. And what about our eight-month-old baby, and the one on the way?

We decided we would live in harmony with the ants instead. "After all," said my husband Scott, "it's not like termites. They're just making nests for themselves, not eating up our house."

The terms of harmony were simple as far as I was concerned. Stay out of sight and I won't bother you. Swarm over the porch floor or pop out to drink from the bathtub tap and you are fair game. Stomp.

Of course, we got a little more aggressive when we heard the ants eating our new rafters in the attic. We had finished our attic remodel, and Scott and I were trying out the sleeping arrangements in our new guest space under the eaves. Lying there in the dark we hear this noise, like whispering. What could it be? Well, it was carpenter ants chewing away at the rafters right over our heads.

Our attic includes a little loft for the kids that we call "the pirate den." I went up there with a flashlight and looked back into the rafters through a little hole in the sheetrock. Shiny black beady heads following shiny black little bodies turned hundreds of eyes to look back at me. Aaaugh!

Should we call in the poison purveyors? No, we decided, still not desperate enough for that. Let's try ant baits. To our amazement, they worked. I don't know why, they haven't worked on the ants that live in our porch, who are still going strong. But no more sign of them in the attic.

It hasn't been all ants and box elder bugs. We've had other visitors over the years. Betty, who owned the house for 41 years before we bought it, had never had window screens. Being former midwesterners, we got screens. But somehow, every time the sun shone into the east window in the linen closet, flies would hatch out and buzz inside the window. "Did you ever have trouble with flies?" I asked Betty, one of the times the babies and I visited her apartment before she died.

"Oh, I never minded a few flies," she chuckled. Betty was from the south originally, and you could still hear a little drawl in her voice. "I remember one time, though, I was frying some hamburger on the stove and, oh, those flies just filled the kitchen." Aha! I thought.

But the flies went on hatching out every time the sun shone into the linen closet for about ten years. Well, even now, sixteen years after we bought the house, we'll get a fly or two in there every now and then. But for about ten years, they were thick. What on earth did they live on? Was there a dead mouse in the wall? I never could figure it out.

I suppose everyone has had meal moths at some point. We had them bad for a while, just couldn't seem to get rid of them in the cupboard where we keep our cereal, flour, sugar, cornmeal and pasta. Then I discovered Pantry Pest-Traps. Pheromones call to the moths, and when they go inside the trap to get that wonderful smell, they stick to the sticky insides of the trap. Incredible. That is technology I can live with.

Ladybugs, now, they make a nice infestation. Tell me why ladybugs are so cool, and all other bugs are so funky. Is it just the pretty name? Is it the way they look? I don't know. They will bite if provoked. We had ladybugs in the bathroom. They appear to eat toothpaste. Most are red with black spots but some are black with red spots. Some have just one spot on each wing. I never could kill a ladybug the way I just ruthlessly squash the box elder bugs. When the ladybug invasion was at its height I went to change the bulb in the an overhead light and found about a half a pound of dead ladybugs in the glass shade. Once we collected live ones from the bathroom for a month or so, and put them in a jar in the refrigerator. Then we let them all out to feed on aphids in the garden one night.

The most mysterious population was the Drosophila infestation of Christmas 1999. I've had fruitflies before -- they like the compost I keep next to the sink, and usually if you take it out to the big compost outside that's enough to get rid of them. Sometimes you have to get rid of all the fruit in the house. But I did all that, and still the fruitflies multiplied.

Now, if you like good scotch, you know that fruitflies like it, too. I don't know why this is, but it doesn't matter what kind of fancy place you're in, if you've got a glass of good Scots whisky, neat, sooner or later (unless you dispatch it very quickly, which should be an offense punishable by having to drink bar scotch the rest of your life) there will be a fruitfly hanging around.

(You know, I just read somewhere that the Spanish had the same problem with little flies in their sweet wine a few centuries ago, and that tapas were originally pieces of bread put over the glass to keep the flies out.)

So I tried using scotch to catch the fruitflies. It worked great. "Does it have to be the good stuff?" asked Scott. We did a test, Glenmorangie pitted against Dewars and against cherry brandy. The fruitflies prefered the Glenmorangie to the Dewars by a margin of 32 to 1; there were no takers for the brandy.

We drowned hundreds of fruitflies in scotch. I hope they died happy. But still they came! It was a complete mystery. I had eliminated every single thing I could imagine fruitflies might propagate in.

After a couple of months of the scotch treatment, the population finally leveled off and then disappeared. We stopped having little glasses of amber liquid filled with preserved fruitflies on the kitchen windowsill, and started putting fruit out again. One day last summer I came home from the store with some oranges and set them up on top of the refrigerator. One rolled to the back and fell down behind. Clucking my tongue, I dragged a chair over and climbed up on the counter and looked down behind the fridge. The orange had come to rest on the top of the coils in the back , so I was able to reach down and rescue it. And there I saw it: another pale shape sitting on the coils. I pulled it out. It was hard, and kind of grey. It was a mummified orange. Aha!

Now, if I ever find a mouse skeleton in the linen closet wall, I'll let you know...

©2001 Ellen Vanderslice
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