Lessons From My Year of Pests and Vermin

Weirdly, all the ants, flies, and mice have made me feel more human.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Yuji Sakai/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Yuji Sakai/Getty Images

The ants came first. One evening, about a year ago, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth like usual and shrieked when I saw a dozen dead ants, and several in the process of dying, scattered on the gray laminate flooring. This was the beginning of something much bigger: I’d find tons of dead ants and a few live ones in the carpet in each room of my house every day. For months, I felt utterly helpless and totally yucky. The ants would not go away, no matter what I did. I called an exterminator, a nice man with several neck tattoos, who came a couple times and sprayed my apartment with ant poison. But it didn’t do jack because he didn’t address the root of the problem. The ants kept on coming in through the cracks and dying all around me.

Sure, ants weren’t the grossest bug I could have had a problem with — thank God it wasn’t roaches — but their takeover of my apartment made me feel like my home wasn’t my own. If so many of them were going to crawl inside, even just to die, they could at least do me the courtesy of paying rent.

Since the exterminator was totally useless, my boyfriend and I took things into our own hands. Every night, we’d strap on our headlamps and go on Ant Patrol, hoping to find the source of the infestation. Ant Patrol, as it turned out, made the bug problem into a bug project, and boy do I love a project. We discovered that there were ants living in a cluster of stones elsewhere in our complex and also saw ants crawling in a straight line from the grass outside our building up to the roof. We strategically placed some poison bait in both of those spots, but before things could get better, they would get a whole lot worse. The ants discovered my pantry and pounced on some nice honey that had a little bit of it crusted onto the outside of the jar.

“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War. “Hold out baits to entice the enemy … the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” Great advice for both human and insect warfare. To crush the ants, first we had to cede some territory: We took all the food out of the cupboard and filled it with the aforementioned poison bait, which the ants ate up and took back to their nest. After a week, they were gone. Victorious, at last.

Even though I grew up in New York City, a place full of cockroaches and other despicable vermin, I never had many problems with pests. As a kid, I’d see dead water bugs in the basement of my apartment building — the image of those nasty suckers is permanently seared into my memory — but never inside my actual apartment.

Aside from the mouse that briefly took up residence in my Bushwick apartment during my early 20s, the horrible universe of vermin that occupies New York City had the decency to stay out of my living space. It wasn’t until I moved to a suburban part of Reno a year and a half ago that vermin became a regular part of my life.

Yes, my ant problem was yucko and emotionally taxing, but winning the war against them taught me about perseverance and problem-solving. After it was all over, I thought I had triumphed over bugs for good. But then summer came around, and so did the flies — every night after cooking dinner but before I had a chance to eat it, giant despicable blowflies, buzzing loudly and darting around the room chaotically, found their way into my kitchen and ruined my meal. It was hard to say where the flies were coming in from, and the problem quickly became far worse than the ants because the flies were alive and actively trying to eat the food I had just worked so hard to prepare. After a couple months and lots of trial and error, we once again prevailed; we stuffed a crack in the kitchen window with some paper towels and rinsed off any pan that was used for cooking meat immediately. But really, the credit should go to our new, extremely powerful fly zapper.

Dealing with pests has become my new normal, and I am slowly accepting that part of living on planet Earth means battling with these unwanted intruders. Weirdly, these vermin make me feel more human and connected to something greater than myself — throughout all of history, people have had to deal with the same problems.

As the weather turned cold, a mouse took up residence in my home. After he got into a sack of masa harina I kept under the sink, I felt no different than a farmer in the 1600s trying to keep mice out of his grain silo, even though I live an exceedingly modern life, spending all day looking at a computer for work and all night playing video games and/or streaming movies.

Mr. Mousey was sly, but after I finally caught him, I discovered he was actually very cute. I used a humane trap and released him in a field a few miles away from our apartment, hoping that one of the hawks living there would eat him. (Because, uh, nature, ecosystems, the food chain … whatever.)

Just a half-decade ago, my life felt totally removed from the forces of the natural world: I lived in a city made of concrete and spent most of my existence online. Everything felt optimized. Since I left New York for the West Coast, I’ve had to adapt to a new life where I’m contending not only with pests but environmental pressures beyond my control. Dealing with vermin is just the tip of the iceberg. I left New York in the midst of a global pandemic, and though my new home has a population of under a quarter-million people, every time I leave my apartment, I have to think about the fact that everybody around me is running the risk of breathing in a deadly disease. This summer, I had to stay inside for two weeks straight because the smoke from the wildfires was so thick. In recent years, it’s become impossible to ignore the natural forces around us, no matter how privileged we may be.

The feeling that I could retreat into a man-made world insulated from these threats was always an illusion. Nature can be utterly terrifying, like with the storms and fires now exacerbated by climate change, and just gross, like when your home turns into an ant graveyard. And like all of us humans, I’m part of it, for better or worse.

Lessons From My Year of Pests and Vermin