Thursday, June 6, 2019


Mankind has been at constant war with bugs for eons.

Sometimes I don't think human beings were meant to live in the South.  Without air conditioning and pest control, the South would become largely uninhabitable.  If electricity somehow disappeared overnight, there be a mass migration of people from the South of the United States to the more temperate Northern regions.  At least up there, you could harvest ice in the winter.

Indeed, when I was a kid, very few people lived in the South, compared to the Northeast, which was the industrialized portion of the country.  Air conditioning was still relatively a recent invention and very expensive and only affordable by a few wealthy people.  It didn't become affordable to the everyman until the mid-1960's and 1970's.  At that point, the baby boom generation were all graduating from college and looking for job opportunities, which were lacking in what became the rustbelt the Northeast.  Mass migration took place, and many of these young people moved to the Southwest, the Southeast, Colorado, and California, searching for jobs. And in many of these locales, air conditioning was the only thing that made it possible to survive the hot summers.

But the cold winters of the Northeast have another effect - they tended to keep bug populations in check.  Sub-zero freezing weather tends to kill off insects pretty regularly, although this didn't stop populations of black flies from eating you alive in the Adirondacks or Maine, at least during one month of the year.

In the cold environs of the North, you had a few months respite from the bugs every year when the freezing weather forces them to burrow underground lay eggs for next year.  In the South, bugs are a year-round phenomenon.  And without regular application of chemicals, bugs can overwhelm your house and your life.

No one likes to use chemicals, of course, and many people try to resort to herbal remedies and whatnot to repel insects. Unfortunately, insects in the South are more than just a nuisance. They can literally tear down your house over time.  They can also make you sick or even kill you.

When we built Mark's studio, we were forced to have termite treatment done on the foundation to prevent termites from eating down the building.  We were required to do this in order to get our building permit.  We had the house treated for termites and as part of that treatment, they gave us a 10-year warranty, which requires yearly updates.  In Virginia, the house foundation had been treated with Chlordane, which is now illegal to use.  But apparently it pretty much kills off termites around your house - forever.

We also have the pest control company come every few months to spray around the house. After each spraying we realize how many bugs are living with us, as they literally come crawling out of the woodwork and die in the middle of the living room floor.  This grosses Mark out, and I have to pick them up with a tissue and bury them at sea by flushing them down the toilet.

In the South, they don't call them cockroaches but palmetto bugs which sounds so terribly colorful and Southern.  But they appear to be identical to their Northern cousins, which infest apartment buildings in that region.  We also get sugar ants which are attracted to any kind of spilled food, and sometimes what are called drain flies which will fly out of empty drains and are a darn nuisance to get rid of.

Outdoors, the bugs seem to come in their own seasons. Early in the spring we have mosquitoes followed by the no-see-ums.  The no-see-ums are particularly annoying as you can't see them, as the name implies. You can be outside and everything is fine, but as soon as you step onto the grass, they rise up in an angry horde and sting you all over.  I'm told that their stinging is actually some sort of chemical they excrete, which irritates the skin.  But the no-see-ums are nothing compared to the next menace, which are the deer flies.

Years ago, it seemed the deer flies were less numerous, but then again so were the deer.  As the deer population increased on the island, the number of flies and ticks has increased.  But more about ticks, later. The deer flies initially were very slow and lethargic and it was fun to actually swat them and kill them before they could bite you.  However, if you were standing motionless they would land on you and bite you, and by I "bite you"  I mean they would actually eat a chunk of your flesh and digest it. This would leave a gaping wound in your skin which would fester for weeks.

In recent years, it seems these flies have become more numerous and much less lethargic.  As a result they're getting harder to kill and getting more adept at biting humans. 

But ticks are a real issue, and they seem to proliferate year-round.  If you get off the beaten path, chances are you will end up with ticks, and they will bite into your skin, burying their heads.  You might not notice them for several hours, or even days.  The wound they leave behind usually becomes infected, and can take weeks, if not months to heal.  And of course, they can end up giving you a tick-borne illness, which you might not notice for weeks, or months, if ever.

And of course, there are common houseflies and other insects.  We would come back to our house in New York every spring to find hundreds of dead lady bugs in the top floor bedroom.   Where they came from and why they died there, remains a mystery.  But every year, they came, they saw, and they died.

How do bugs get into your house?   It is hard to keep them out.   No matter how "tight" your house is, any tiny little crack or hole can let insects in.   Many brick houses have "weep holes" in the masonry to let air circulate and water out.   Wasps love to build nests in these and they are a super-highway for other insects.   Roaches (excuse me, Palmetto Bugs) can come into your house in cartons and boxes from the grocery store or wholesale club.   In an apartment, you can kill them all and set off gas canisters - they just move in from next door.

Bath tubs can be a point of entry.   While a built-in bathtub (as opposed to the freestanding kind) may look all sealed up from the outside, from underneath, there are a plethora of holes that allow bugs to sneak in.   We removed some sheetrock from the guest room to install the new HVAC lines and this exposed the back-side of the bath tub from the guest bath.   What a mess in there - fifty years of dust, and bugs.   The drain line for the tub goes into a large hole in the foundation and then out to connect to the main sewer line.   We always saw dead bugs in the guest bath, particularly after the bug spray lady was here.  Now we know why.

I cleaned the area and sprayed it with a lot of bug spray.  Dead soldiers were everywhere the next day.  Ugh.   I plan on installing an access panel (there is already one on the other tub) so the bug people can spray in there regularly.  I will also try to seal the hole in the foundation with some foam or something.

It is tempting to think you can vanquish these bugs with home-made herbal remedies, such as cloves or garlic or other herbs.  Maybe they will help, but a sure way to get rid of sugar ants is ant traps from the dollar tree.   The worker ants find the sugar in the trap (mixed with boric acid) and take it back to the queen.  You can almost see the scene, as it plays out in the ant mound:
Guard Ant:  "Where do you think you're going, buddy?" 
Worker Ant:  "Out of my way, I have a gift for the queen!  Fine sugar and borax!" 
Queen Ant:  "What a lovely gift, and so sweet....... Arrrrrgh!" 
Guard Ant:  "Assassin!  Get him!" 
Worker Ant:  "Hey wait a minute, guys, I was just doing my job!"
Maybe it wasn't quite that way, but after some dollar-tree ant traps were placed around, no more ants.

I am not sure what the point of this is, other than you should factor in the cost of bug control into your home ownership costs.  In the South, a regular contract with a bug control company is probably a necessity - in addition to spot application of sprays and traps that you do yourself.   Termite control is also de rigeur, although some people rely on "traps" and monitoring.  Myself, I am all for the toxic chemicals - kill those little buggers, before they proliferate.

But as we learned from our tree service guy, once you kill off the termites, the carpenter ants take over.   We may view nature as some peaceful bucolic scene, but beneath the surface (often quite literally) there is war going on.  In fact, it seems like one part of nature is trying to kill off another part, in one form or another.   You eat someone else for lunch and someone else in turn eats you.

People aren't much different.