Summer is here! Blazing sun, hot days, radiant fresh fruit in the basket on the kitchen table.
The first guests are approaching: drosophila melanogaster, the small fruit-fly, first one, then a second. As I write this each female has already pumped 400 eggs into my strawberry. Throughout the day what was once a firm strawberry becomes a swampy breeding ground.
In the pantry, however, a wedding is taking place. Love is in the air. Wispily winged weevil moths have set up shop on the ceiling and are looking for a mate after time spent in hazelnuts, cereal and spelt in the larval stage.
Lifting up transparent bags of pearl barley, quinoa and spelt at the organic food store I can see the delicate vibrating cocoons they’ve left behind. More larval youth sit well-packed and invisible in hollowed out grain husks, and once immersed in the rising temperature of a saucepan they’ll leave their nourishing hiding place.
I abandon the thought of finally making homemade scones again on a Sunday morning. The evacuated dwellings of the weevil moths in my raisins and nuts have attracted new inhabitants: tiny mites are feeding on what the conquerors left behind. Crumbly little brown piles cling to what’s left of the actual fruit and spoil my appetite.
The all-natural, organic, fair trade, snow white basmati rice from the rare upper reaches of the Himalayas has black beetles balancing on its grains. In the nutty chocolate I am peeling out of its thin aluminium foil I see a labyrinth of feeding tunnels.
When I tell friends in Berlin about this, they nod knowingly, somewhat embarrassed. They didn’t experience it or had it less so in Barcelona, London and Paris. Berlin, with its distinctive continental climate and continuously changing weather, is an excellent place to study the diversity of non-native food pests.
Shopping at an organic food store is enough to get started. Just add an irregular life-work balance to the mix so the critters can go about their mating rituals and breeding duties in peace, and in three to four weeks you’ll have cultivated a species or two. The results are especially impressive from May to October. Entire parallel societies form.
In our search for ever new and unknown foods and superfoods from other countries we unknowingly introduced many of the little critters that did not have much chance to grow in their former climate conditions. For instance, grains and dried fruit from the South American highlands are regularly exposed to dramatic fluctuations in temperature, and the humidity is less than 20%. (On many a day in Berlin it reaches 90%.) There several natural predators quickly put an end to their proliferation. Spiders reduce such invasive species, but who wants to use them preventatively at home?
Attempts at fighting weevil moths by establishing a colony of ichneumon wasps are made time and again (no joke, they’re available pre-packaged at well-stocked organic food stores). Yet most have doubts about the ichneumon wasps going about their business as you prepare a meal in the kitchen.
Environmental temperatures below 10°C stop them from breeding and bring about most insects’ downfall. Not in our kitchens. Not since the cold cells under the window were structurally done away with. Now we offer a cosy 20-degree atmosphere all year round in our storage spaces.
What’s more: with composting we’ve created new habitats! Entire biotopes welcome the whole family to spend the summer going from compost to compost and reproducing. Opening the bins allows flying species to make their way to apartments further up. The compost bins in our courtyard get emptied every two weeks maximum; the others, however, every two days.
A small fruit-fly has an average life expectancy of 10 days. The whole one-day lifespan thing is the fantasy of the geneticists who love them. In this amount of time under optimal conditions, such as a forgotten banana peel in the kitchen compost bin, with a regular oviposition of 400 eggs daily, 16 million flies could be born. That blows my mind.
Do these bugs bother me? Are they more than a challenge to morality and the impulse to kill? Behind closed doors various methods get discussed. UV light, for example; it attracts and burns fast but kills other rare, more useful insects, too. That’s why it’s only allowed indoors in Germany. Or neurotoxins made of African chrysanthemum. The description alone reads as absurdly as a party drug for many-legged and winged insects: it first infects the nervous system, causing euphoria and an increased need for movement, then gradually results in respiratory paralysis and ultimately death. Pheromone, i.e. sex traps allure male moths and once stuck to the adhesive film that has replaced their beloved they hold out to the bitter end.
While searching around online for “bugs and food” I found more tips for cooking with bugs than avoiding those which pillage the pantry. That got me thinking. I didn’t really want to write about grasshopper crackers or other buggy concoctions, but rather about what concerns my friends: What do I do when my food gets infested? The obvious answer: throw it away. There’s no alternative. And get cleaning. Every nook and cranny has to be wiped down. Of course, it always happens on the days I’m at home, thinking I can cozy up all alone for once!
Storing all spoiled food for a day in the freezer is recommended before putting it in your home garbage – not in your compost bin – this avoids giving it any semblance of a second chance.
The tenant following the weevil moth, the grain mite, causes the unsightly piles on your grub as well as the fecal remains of the weevil moth and is for us humans a pest that affects our health. As with all mites their digestive products are responsible for allergic episodes. The respiratory system reacts quickly with sneezing and abnormal gooey discharge. Chronic sinus infection can also result as well as non-specific intestinal inflammation and skin rashes. Those allergic to dust can literally breathe easy when they realize they’re not allergic to grains (gluten), too, but rather their unexpected roommates!
The best precaution is foresight: store your dry goods such as grains and dried fruit in a cool place sealed in an air-tight dark jar. The same goes for foods with natural oils such as nuts and cocoa beans. Lavender and seal your woolen winter clothes in plastic bags. Lavender and cedar aromas both delight us and dispel the little parasites.
And here’s an even better idea: regular dinners with friends! It helps against beetles, moths and mites. Who knew?