The following article appears in the latest issue of "Pauza!," the semi-official periodical of Peace Corps Macedonia. "Pauza" means "pause" or "break" in Macedonian, and is usually preceded by the word "kafe" (coffee). So, can I add this to my portfolio?
Larvae in My Legumes, Nits in My Nuts
by Liz Abbett
Every few weeks, I have some unwanted visitors. No, not the swarthy guys from the local cafe-bar. Not my host family, not my landlords, not the Peace Corps volunteer who lives in the apartment below mine. These particular visitors eat my food then excrete in it.
I have bugs.
Now that I have ensured that none of you will ever come visit me, let me explain. I have had bugs in the past. I probably will have bugs in the future. If you have been here for a year, you have had bugs. (If you think you haven’t had bugs, you probably just didn’t notice and ate them all. Dude. Gross.) I hope that by exposing my experience with bugs and offering some of the strategies I have found for preventing and treating bug infestations, I’ll be able to save you from some of the stomach-turning experiences that I have had.
Most of the bugs that have found their way into my home entered via packaged nuts and grains. I also have extensive experience with ants, so much so that “mravki” (Macedonian for “ants”) became a staple of my lexicon, both in English and in Macedonian. For example, “Ajde mravki” could originally be translated as “Let’s inspect the floor for ants and then kill them,” but eventually became used as “Let’s go, guys.” The ants followed me from my hometown of Gostivar to our in-service training in the village of Oteshevo, where my roommate and I were dubbed “The Mravki Girls” by a Peace Corps staff member. (For the record, the ants did not actually follow me, nor did I transport them on my person. I was just fortuitously assigned to a hotel room that was already booked for Ant-fest 2004.) Despite my experience with ants, most of this article will be devoted to the first category of critters, including which foods tend to harbor bugs, how to inspect foods prior to purchase, how to store foods to prevent proliferation, and what to do if you find bugs in your kitchen.
1. If it’s healthy, bugs like it.
You’ll inevitably find some bugs in your produce. However, these bugs are less dangerous to your food supply than the kinds that come with dry goods since dry goods will likely be nestled in with lots of other stuff and will sit on your shelf longer, giving the invaders a chance to spread. Here is a list of the foods that I have found to host bugs: rice, cereal, wheat grains, sesame seeds, baked chick peas, pecans, walnuts, almonds, raisins, prunes. I have also found bugs in the corners of tea boxes, which most likely traveled from the neighboring nuts in search of a cozy place to spin a cocoon. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it should give you an idea of which foods are vulnerable.
2. Fish for CHIPS when shopping.
Before purchasing a suspect item, fully inspect it using the CHIPS method, a handy mnemonic device that I made up five seconds ago. You will want to be in bright light, if possible. I inspect these items again before stashing them, as well as before I use them.
Crumbs – As bugs eat their way through your potential foodstuff, they generate a lot of small crumbs that settle at the bottom of the package. Lots of crumbs calls for closer inspection.
Holes – Look for circular holes that are a millimeter or two in diameter. These holes have been on every infested bag that I have seen. Sometimes, there will only be one or two holes, so look closely. You may also find holes of this size in produce.
Insects – I have not yet bothered to identify exactly which bugs I have found, but for explanatory purposes, I will classify them as “larvae” and “weevils.” The larvae are about a centimeter in length, off-white and wormy. The weevils look like tiny black ants on steroids, with scary little projections coming off their bodies. The larvae can be hard to spot in foods such as walnuts and wheat grains, but are my most common offender. As for the weevils, I bought a package of brown rice and I thought they were just the darker grains of rice. Oops.
Packaging – The flimsier the packaging, the more likely you are to find bugs. When I find bugs, they’re usually in items in the “store brand” clear unlabeled baggies. However, I have also found them in factory-packaged goods, such as the above-mentioned brown rice. Also worthy of note is that the rice was purchased at a well-known “American-style” grocery store. Bugs are not a problem limited to convenience stores of questionable repute!
Spiderwebs – Larvae leave a trail of spiderweb-like stuff in their wake. In addition to looking for the web-stuff directly, I suggest you do the “Crazy Crumb Test.” The web-stuff clings to loose material (like crumbs and flakes), causing them to do strange things like levitate, wobble and dangle. If the crumbs do not respond normally to gravity, then you probably have bugs.
3. Fort Knoxify your kitchen.
Even if you thoroughly inspect your purchases, there is still a chance that you will find a bug or two in your cabinets. Your goals should be to contain any bugs in their host food and to keep any freelance bugs out of your bugless food. I highly recommend transferring vulnerable food to sturdier containers, such as jars, Tupperware and Ziploc bags. (Finally, the jars of ajvar from your host family have a purpose!) For you cheapskates out there, look for foods that come in reusable Tupperware-esque containers, such as olives, margarine, peanut butter or that Eurocreme goop. The medical kits also have some great containers. Additionally, if you have any foods that are valuable (i.e. expensive or imported), put them in sturdier containers to protect them. If you do not have such containers readily available, double bag and make sure that the bags are securely closed.
4. Debug your kitchen.
If you follow the above recommendations, then any bugs in kitchen shouldn’t get very far. If you find an infested food product, throw it away (if it was cheap) or sort through it (if you have the patience) and wash the remaining bug-free food. Inspect any neighboring food products for signs of bugs, as well as the walls of the cabinets (much like Peace Corps volunteers, these suckers like to travel). Remove and inspect everything, if you feel so inclined.
5. Antagonize ants.
Ants are more of a springtime problem, so commit the following tips to memory. Some household ant deterrents are cinnamon and cloves. If you can locate the point of entry for the ants, sprinkle whole cloves (one every couple inches) or cinnamon in that area. If you cannot find the point of entry, at least safeguard your kitchen by sprinkling cloves or cinnamon around the food that you want to protect (e.g. around the edges of your cabinet). I had ants of mysterious origin in my kitchen but they never got into my food, thanks to lines of cloves on my shelves and cinnamon in the cracks between my cabinets from where the ants seemed to emerge.
This article probably makes me seem crazy and/or squalid. The jury is still out on the crazy charge, but I keep a pretty clean house. If bugs can get into my kitchen, they can get into yours. Unless, of course, you subsist on a steady diet of canned meat paste and the Turkish answer to Pringles. I don’t know about you, but I’ll keep taking my chances with the bugs.