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Saturday, July 6, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Practical Advice ...

Today I’m going to take a break from my usual attempts to grasp at issues of cosmic significance [mostly unsuccessfully]. I’m going to get down to some nitty gritty, for a change. Today I’m going to talk about fruit flies, and what to do when they infest your home. I’ve been dealing with these nasty little buggers for the past 3 or 4 years now, without much luck in reducing their hordes. In the winter they slack off somewhat, but summer is a halcyon time for the fruit fly nation. Once they take root in your home, you can look forward to constantly seeing them buzzing around you, oblivious to your futile swats (they are amazingly fast and agile fliers). And even if you do get lucky and managed to squash one, there are hundreds or thousands left out there, all working towards the ultimate fruit fly destiny of world domination. (What was especially unsettling was when I would look at the ceiling above my bed just before I turned out the light; it was often speckled with waiting fruit flies, obviously lying in wait as to make a meal out of my own flesh and blood!) I was ready to give in to despair, as I didn’t want to take radical measures like smogging my apartment with some really noxious poison spray, or paying an exterminating service to do that.

But over the past few months I’ve made progress in at least keeping this vermin community under control. It’s almost mid-July and we’re into the hottest part of summer; and yet, I’ve only been seeing a handful of these critters lately (and I haven’t seen the nocturnal ceiling congregation so far this year). So here’s what I can tell you about fruit flies and keeping them in check.

There seem to be web sites dedicated to almost everything these days, and fruit files are no exception. Not surprisingly, the fruit fly site is called www.fruitflies.org. It is a good place to start, in order to get to know your enemy. Fruit files are sexual creatures, as they come in male and female. The females reproduce by laying eggs following insemination. The eggs develop over a few days somewhat like butterflies, going through larva and pupa stages. Once they get their wings, fruit flies can live between 20 and 40 days, the longest during the dog days of August. Females need to be inseminated rather quickly after they take to the air, but once they are, they will keep on laying fertile eggs over the balance of their life. As with every bug, each one can lay lots of eggs, maybe 500 or so. Even if only one-in-five females “finds the right man” and only one-in-five of their eggs hatch, this can still make for an incredible population growth rate.

Another non-shocker: fruit flies try to lay their eggs in fruit, preferably sweet, pulpy and decaying fruit. As the old language pun goes, time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana. So, rule 1, don’t leave any fruit out in the open for long. Keep it in the refrigerator, or if you really want to keep a fruit basket out, make sure your apples or bananas are in a thick zip-lock plastic bag. Next, take your garbage out frequently. The garbage can is fruit-fly paradise, warm and full of rotting organic stuff. Once one sneaks in while you are throwing something out, in a few days you are assured of having clouds of fruit flies greet you whenever you open the lid. If you don’t want to take your garbage out every day (and I don’t; I try to wait about 10 days for each bag), then you need to do something to make the garbage can interior less fruit-fly friendly. I’ve taken to spraying something aromatic into the can once a day. Again, I don’t want to mess with harsh insecticides, so I’ve tried Lysol-type cleaners along with pine oil detergent. Both seem to help.

I’ve also tried various organic non-toxic pesticides, mostly the EcoSmart stuff available at the local supermarkets. Here’s my two cents on that. Their metal spray can products (Ant & Roach Killer and Flying Insect Killer) don’t do much. They smell really nice, being composed of various essential oils like rosemary oil and wintergreen oil. But I’ve sprayed both directly at congregations of fruit flies, and they seem to shrug it off with no ill effects. However, right now I’m using EcoSmart’s “Home Pest Control”, which comes in a plastic spray bottle and has this weird-smelling active ingredient (called 2-Phenethyl Propionate), mixed-in with the nice oils. Although EcoSmart still claims that this is non-toxic, it seems to bother bugs a bit more. They may not drop in their tracks right away, but bugs don’t seem the same after getting hit with this stuff. So I spray the waste pail with the phenethyl mix, and lately I haven’t seen any clouds (or even small puffs) of flies emerging when I throw something out.

So, I’m denying my fruit flies most of their access to fruit (or other warm, nicely rotting food stuffs). End of problem? NO WAY!!! These guys are very adaptable. They can work with most any standing pool of water, as on top of a sink, in a drain, or in a toilet bowl. The eggs and larve may get jostled around in these places over their 2-day hatch cycle, but it only takes a few lucky out of the hundreds that will get laid to keep the party going. So, before going to bed every night, I now get out the spray cleaner or pine detergent and spray or pour some out on these areas. (Various web sites also recommends using ammonia; I may give that a shot too in the near future, even though the Iowa State U. Dept of Entomology says that it won’t help; interestingly, a USDA study suggests that some fruit flies are attracted by ammonia!).

[ALSO — don’t forget your recycling bin!! If you store cans and bottles for recycling indoors, there might be just enough sticky soda or beer or juice at the bottom of a bottle to keep several generations of fruit flies happy!!!]

But what do you do with all the flies already in your house? Again, you can’t swat at them with your hand or a newspaper, as they are too darn small and fast (actually, I sometimes try to swat them or grasp them in mid-air, just for fun; I get maybe 1 in 7 or 8). You may well have a couple of hundred flies around, and perhaps around one-quarter are fertile, egg-laying females, each one looking for a new place to incubate the next generation. So, you can’t just “get used to it”. What to do then?

I finally bought a battery-powered (rechargeable) hand-held vacuum, to suck up these miserable little things whenever I see one. Once you practice and get the right grip and wrist action, you will get pretty good at sucking them up into the dark oblivion of the plastic cone body of your Hoover, Bissell, Eureka or Dirt Devil (I have the latter). At first, it seems like a hopeless task. You seem to clean out the kitchen and bathroom, then a half-hour later there is a new flock out there partying. So you keep on vacuuming, day after day, with little notion that you are making any dent in the problem. (Or I do that, anyway!).

However, those of you who have studied chaos theory mathematics might recall that insect populations are subject to large variations over time, sudden peaks followed later on by sudden crashes. If you keep up the “pressure” on fruit flies, their numbers will eventually take a sudden nose-dive. One day you come home and wonder, where did they all go? Then you have several blessed days without them, maybe a full week. But eventually, you see one or two; at first you are tempted to just let them go. Hey, what’s one or two fruit flies in the vast expanse of your manor (it’s vast relative to the average fruit fly’s point of view, anyway). Well, don’t. In a few days, that one or two becomes 5 or 10, then 50 or 60, on and on. Keep on spraying, and grab the vacuum sucker whenever you see one. Another population wave is coming, and the sooner you start killing them, the sooner their revival will be crushed.

But yes, they never seem to go way , so it can get a bit Sisyphean. I’m hoping that by keeping this discipline going into the fall and winter will thin out their herds to the point where they take a final collapse in the cruel months of January and February. But even if not, the situation is not much worse than dust on the floor; you vacuum it up, the place is clean, then a week later it’s dusty again. I’d much rather spend the time reading a book or going outside, but if you want a (relatively) clean and comfortable house, you’ve got to do some work (unless you are rich enough to pay someone else to do it for you; if so, lucky you!).

Oh, what about that commonly recommended fruit-fly nostrum, the dish or cup of apple cider vinegar with a bit of sugar and dish detergent? I tried that over the past two summers, putting three or four such dishes out in seemingly strategic spots. This method does catch a lot of fruit flies, but it seems to do nothing to control the overall population. It doesn’t take too long to figure out why. If you watch, you will see a lot of fruit flies coming near the vinegar mix but staying a safe distance along the edge. Every so often one gets crazy and jumps in, getting caught by the low surface tension caused by the soap. But most just stay along the edge, content to take in the heady aroma with their friends.

Can you thus see what you are doing? You have set up a “meat market” for horny fruit-flies, making it all the easier for the females to get inseminated during their short window of opportunity. You might kill 50 flies a night, but the increased fertility rate more than makes up for that (and it also may be raising the average IQ of succeeding generations; the stupid ones fall into the vinegar, while the smart ones stay around to breed).

Still, the vinegar gambit might be useful if you have a really bad invasion and want to set up some traps as to knock out a hundred or so at once. You would pour the vinegar and soap into small plastic cups that you place inside a plastic bag (or you could also use a banana peel). Keep the end of the bag supported as to allow the flies to enter and hang out near the cup. Wait a while, let a bunch of them get in, then grab the top of the bag and chuck it out your door (you could also put it in your freezer for a half hour; that will put a chill on the party going on inside). Other interesting suggestions include pouring cider vinegar or a similar mix into the bottom of an empty wine bottle, and waiting for the passing aeronauts to dive in. Once enough are inside, put your thumb on the top and put the bottle on your porch, where the bottled-up fruit flies can take their chances with the great outdoors. I haven’t tried this yet, but it sounds reasonable.

So, that’s what I suggest to help take care of what amounts to another little nuisance in life, one of many. I “rub wings” with a Zen sangha, and some of the true Buddhists there might object to my cavalier attitude about terminating the lives of scads of living fruit flies. Well, I don’t kill living things indiscriminately, however tiny. If I see an ant walking on my path outdoors, I will step over it as to avoid crushing it. But once something comes uninvited into my “nest” . . . well, even then, some critters get clemency, such as small spiders, lady bugs and summer beetles. But once something becomes a nuisance or a potential threat (or just too darn ugly, although I did give a few centipedes a pass just as an exercise in open-mindedness), it has to go — dead or alive. Bugs and animals play by the same rules. If you enter their their nest, even if by accident, they are going to do all they can to get you out, even if that involves some sort of poisonous venom or harmful stinger. I believe that humans have the same rights, i.e. the right to establish some small amount of space where you call the shots as much as possible (I know that one can never kill every living organism in any particular living space, as there will always be microbes and other tiny stuff dwelling wherever conditions favor them).

Over the years, I have kept various spiders, mice, roaches, ants, black flies, food moths, etc. from taking up permanent residence in my humble abode. I’m sorry if these were souls at some very early stage of Buddhist enlightenment, who had to put up with reincarnation a few weeks or months earlier than otherwise because of my insistence upon maintaining a safe and orderly household. I hope that I’m not creating too much bad karma with all of this, such that I myself might come back one day to enjoy a few days buzzing along in the skies, only to suddenly weaken and crash after tripping across a sickeningly sweet cloud of well-aimed bug spray! Talk about a Kafkaesque “metamorphosis”!

[PS, as to the picture, I don’t mind doing a bit of “product placement” for most of the stuff in the shot; but as to Bud Light Lime, forget it. That is one lousy beer, it tastes like it has candy dissolved in it!! NOT very refreshing on a hot summer day when the fruit flies are swarming. Instead, just get a Corona Light and put the required wedge of lime in the bottle.]

[PSS — one more anti-fruit fly tip. Save those plastic bags that you put your fruits and veggies in at the supermarket, and put a plastic container with a lid on top of your garbage can. Put one of the baggies in that container, and whenever you throw out any sort of food item, be it banana peel, apple core, brocolli stems, meat bones, whatever — gather it up in the bag inside the container. When the bag starts getting full, twist it shut and throw it in your main garbage can.  In fact, put a second bag around it!  Then repeat the whole procedure, keep on repeating it. Now your garbage can is “componentized” in plastic, it’s no longer one big pit where all the rotting food provides an irresistible swamp where fruit flies can multiply with glee. It definitely slows them down.

ABOUT ONE YEAR LATER:  The garbage thing seems . . . knock on wood . . . seems to have done the trick!  I haven’t seen any fruit flies in my kitchen for a few weeks now.  So, the garbage can is the heart of a fruit fly invasion.  Get control of your garbage can, keep it from accumulating open piles of rotting foodstuffs, and you can WIN the fruit fly war!!!]

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:25 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I live in a different part of the country where it can get really cold during the winter; perhaps that’s one of the reasons that come winter fruit flies are definitely *gone*! They don’t like even a degree of 72 in the winter around here.

    Then again, there may be a couple of other reasons that up to this point I have not had a problem with fruit flies for several years. (One never knows what may happen in the future.) Perhaps it’s that I just don’t buy enough fruit; then again, I’ve seen fruit flies come with tomatoes (a fruit) and I buy tomatoes often, to say nothing of other types of fruit in season. I think part of my solution is that I have a *strict* rule that *all* fruit goes in the refrigerator immediately upon being brought home; I have simply learned never, ever to leave fruit out. Bananas go in a brown bag immediately and stay there until they are eaten.

    Lastly, I *have* had a serious problem since I’ve moved where I currently live with box elder bugs that seems to infest vast areas of the suburb I have lived in for the past more than decade and a half. (Part of the “good” thing about these creatures is that they do not reproduce inside a dwelling.) However, they can make one miserable if they become numerous enough outside! Those simply *had* to be dealt with; but having had a pet in the house, I did not want to have any interior spraying done by professional exterminators, to say nothing of the effect on the humans. What I *have* done is have exterior spraying done every year religiously by professional exterminators – and voila! It’s been amazing just how quickly and efficiently spraying outside the house can eliminate interior bugs. Even ants to this point have not been a problem. I say this with trepidation as I am one who believes that just as soon as one makes such a “profound” pronouncement, one will immediately be rewarded with just the problem one says has not been a problem; one will be jinxed forever.

    So I will simply say: Up to this point these few steps have worked for me: One: Keeping all fruit tightly locked away, either in the refrigerator or brown bags. Two: Having professional pesticide sprayers do their “thing” on the outside of the house. (Yes, it may cost; but I find it well worth the expense!) Up to this point it’s worked amazingly. No interior problem – either from bugs or the problem with the pesticide — up to this point! MCS

    Comment by Mary — July 7, 2013 @ 10:43 am

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