Bug Out

What’s crawling underneath the fantasy of an insect-free home?

WE who live in homes still strive for them to be bug-free, or at least occupied by as few bugs as possible. The proliferation of exterminators and other “pest control” companies like Orkin position bugs as terrible things that could invade your home. Their advertising suggests Orkin as the Superman type, an embodiment of “the father,” a white heterosexual male hero who will come into your home and sweep away any of these “enemies,” aka the bugs. He takes pest control seriously. He wants you to be safe from this threat, the threat being invasive bugs and other vermin. It’s not entirely false advertising, however -- bed bugs are the worst. But the fantasy of a bug-free home is just that.

How did we get here, to a place where we make bugs the enemies rather than realizing that they were here first? We built our homes on the bugs’ natural habitats, so it’s no surprise that they will be with us for all of eternity. Sometimes, the bugs that find their way into our homes are benign. They’ve wandered in because we left a door or window open, and the flying or walking bug passerby located something of the sweet variety, or it was just harmlessly seeking water.

I spot a bug in the bathroom -- small, slightly larger than a fruit fly but not as big as a grain moth. I decide not to kill it, only because I do not want to clean up the body. Every time I see a bug, I tell myself that it’s probably the last one I’ll ever see in my home because I’ve done my due diligence. I am a regular bug murderer.

In 2014, the New York Times ran a story called “The Bugs in Our Homes” that looked further into the reality of just how many bugs we live with, amongst and around. Or could it be that the bugs have no choice but to feed off of us?

The good news is that most of these species are harmless, living with us in harmony or at least unnoticed. Many are even doing our dirty work. Carpet beetle larvae are busy eating dead insects, spilled dog food, even our nail clippings, while dust mites are like tiny vacuum cleaners, eating the dead skin cells on our floors and in our beds.

It’s normal to have insects and a variety of arthropods roaming about our homes, no matter how carefully we clean. Homes aren’t bug-free. Rather, they’re chock full of ‘em. Even if we can’t see a swarm of insects, darting around in an attack-formation, they’re with us. Take the crane fly, for example. It has beautiful, long, spindly legs and large wings, but sometimes it is mistaken for a giant mosquito. As Leslie Mertz writes in Entomology Today, describing it as such:

That inch-long, gangly-legged insect that sneaks into your house and bounces around the walls and ceiling is a crane fly, and despite rumors to the contrary, it is neither a predator of mosquitoes nor a colossal mosquito. And it’s harmless.

The crane fly eats hardly anything at all, and it only lives a few days; most of its brief life is spent as larvae living underwater or in other damp places. It emerges to mate, and then it dies. When found lost in the home, it may as well just be killed by a human. After all, it will be dead soon enough.

Killing a benign crane fly probably isn’t one’s first instinct unless it conjures a terrifying image. Imagine this: Sometime in the middle of the night, you’re sleeping soundly and that crane fly lands on your face. Maybe it peeks into your nose, or wanders into your open mouth. It could happen. Kill now. Kill.

LIKE perfectionism, the bug-free home is a myth. To be perfect is to be without flaws; to have a “perfect” home means to make sure it is free of “invasive species,” invaders of the insect variety, unwelcome guests.

In anthropomorphizing the insect world, we allow ourselves to see bugs as enemies of the home, vermin that want to come in and eat our food, suckle on our water supply, and roam in territory that belongs to us not them. This same language is used in anti-immigration rhetoric, and to describe plant life that crosses borders. The first issue is with untangling this invasive rhetoric from the bugs.

This morning, I noticed three small dots on my ankle, forming a triangle. Spider bites! I’d been bitten sometime during my peaceful slumber. I experienced a split second of panic, where I wondered if I’d actually been discovered by bed bugs. My mind flashed to the worst bed bug stories from New York, like the 2014 bedbug epidemic, entire apartments fumigated and mattresses left for dead in the alleyways. Then I started brushing my teeth and quickly forgot. Over a period of a few days, the red marks faded. At least it wasn’t bed bugs.

Bedbug fears linger. A victim never forgets that first bite. During a hotel infestation in Midtown Manhattan, a physician recalls the bedbug-induced trauma he kept experiencing long after the incident was over: “It turned me into a complete paranoid hotel dweller. I wake up in the night thinking every little itch is a bedbug.”

Is there an agreement we can reach with the bugs, something nonverbal and with good boundaries, that makes it possible for us to live harmoniously? Or will we always feel grossed out by bugs in our homes?

NOT every unwelcome bug is alive. According to Family Lawyer Magazine, one can only find wiretaps and bugs through a thorough, visual inspection. One has to learn how to “eavesdrop” on the bugs, discovering them in their natural habitat, where they were originally installed by other humans, strangers. To do so, one needs specific devices. The magazine explains that bugs are different than wiretaps. Whereas a wiretap is attached to a phone or phone line and records the calls, a bug is a listening device installed in a room, vehicle, or other space. The bug has a microphone, and it’s very small. The bug listens. Usually, the bug is there, just lurking, unsuspected.

The language of bugging and wiretaps feed back into a general surveillance culture, one that is defined by the assumption that not only are we being watched, but we are watching and spying on each other. We are the bugs we wish to destroy, but we are also on the lookout for other bugs. We are wary of them. They are not what they seem to be. We do not want them in our homes. If it gets really bad, we’ll do anything to get them out.

In a worst-case scenario, the bugs get into your home and you won’t be rid of them. They become uncontrollable, swarming, wicked. This means that the bug-free home is about control -- an attempt at having it, of having control, of saying yes, I can keep them out if I want to, I have control over this situation.

If one’s house does get bugged, we wonder: Who would do such a thing? In a Quora thread, Brandon Gregg, a writer in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, suggests that the top three suspects for who would bug a house include spouse, enemy, or cops, making it seem that somehow the three are related even though that probably shouldn’t be the case. This creates an additional layer of bug-filled paranoia.

The bugs in your home, whether part of a wiretap or of the insect variety, represent a vulnerability. To be swatting at, smooshing, or vacuuming up bugs in one’s home, a supposed safe space, makes one vulnerable to the outside world, to surveillance and to unwelcome species, to an invasion which will lead to a dispute, conversation, low-key bug murders.

What you need, the Orkin man says with glowing white teeth, is a clean sweep.

OF all the bugs out there, we know that there are a few universally hated ones. Bed bugs, ticks, roaches (with and without wings), mosquitos, ants (and fire ants), lice, spiders, and earwigs.

The hatred seems to outweigh the other beloved ones, such as the charming light-up bugs like fireflies and iridescent beetles. Don’t forget dragonflies and butterflies -- they may have “fly” in their name, but when it comes down to it they’re still considered bugs.

One of the more controversial house bugs is the amazingly leggy centipede. It’s not something beloved by homeowners, even though it should be. The centipede is simple. It lives in the dark places of your home and emerges only when it is in need of water. It also happens to eat the bedbugs, one of the top most hated bugs ever.

Writer Melissa McEwen, who admits that she studies bugs as a hobby, describes her love for these centipedes. Their many perfectly in sync legs are “fluffy and undulating rather than creepy;” they can actually “lasso five files at one time,” including roaches, silverfish, ants and basement crickets. The centipede can even take down wasps. McEwen suggests that if a centipede emerges in your home, don’t kill it. “Be a good roommate and mist them gently with water,” she writes. If they live, they’ll help you kill the bugs.