Imagine a future without bugs! Sure, some learned ecologist will probably claim that these eerie tentacled creatures potter around at the bottom of the ecosystem doing important work in the grand scheme of things, but a wholesale elimination of the cockroaches and the mosquitos and the bed bugs of the world is clearly a grand and worthy goal. Unfortunately, stubborn old mother nature refuses to let it happen and I suspect it’s not going to be any sort of a topic at the next election. So with the cold, crystalline days of bug-free winter giving way to the insect-friendly sweatbox that is summer, here’s how to do the next best thing beyond making an entire species extinct—banish them from your apartment.
If a man’s home is his castle, then you want to think of your apartment as an air-tight, hermetically-sealed bunker. I learned this from an exterminator I used to hire to check out and bug-proof an apartment before I moved into it. (Yes, I am that paranoid and weirded out by the scuttling beasts.) He seemed to have good credentials and know what he was doing—even if a large part of each visit involved telling anecdotes about Rachel Ray’s New Jersey abode and her ongoing mouse problem (a situation exacerbated by her no-kill stance towards any and all creatures except the ones she cooks). The main tactic was always to stop any wandering bugs from entering the apartment from adjoining units or outside. The thinking goes that you can’t really do much about the hoarder downstairs or the empty pizza box collector next door, so you want to create an impenetrable barrier between their slovenly habits and a calm and peaceful enjoyment of your home.
Holes In The Wall
First up, whether you live in a fancy new building or a decrepit old co-op, there’s a good chance that whoever installed your stove and fridge half-assed the job. So pull out your appliances—very slowly and very carefully, especially if a gas connection is involved—and check out the spots where the pipes and plugs go into the wall. Now marvel at the sort of gaping hole a middle-class family of possums could strut through. The majority of any bug-related visitors to your abode are likely coming through this gateway, so you’ll want to close this off pronto.
Don’t worry if your DIY skills are lamentable—this is a cinch. Pick up some caulk, some gauze stuff (that sort of looks like a bandage), some steel wool and some gloves from a hardware store. This stuff is all cheap and you should be looking at change from a $20. Perhaps grab a six pack too, as a preemptive pat-on-the-back for the good work you’re about to do. Now depending on the size of the hole, you may want to insert some steel wool into it to act as an extra barrier to bugs. You might have a tool to do this, but a butter knife also works just fine. (Also, it might seem counterintuitive, but buy the thicker steel ewool rather than the thinner and more tightly-wound stuff—determined roaches have been known to successfully eat through the thin threads, whereas the thicker wool will hopefully cut ‘em up good and proper on the inside should they attempt to chow down on it.) Ed Note: Steel wool is highly flammable! Use only in holes that are far away from gas lines, ovens, and heat!
Once you’ve stuffed the hole with steel wool, cut some of the gauze to the right size and stick it over the hole. Now you’ll want to caulk over the gauze, hopefully creating a permanent barrier. You can buy little plastic spatula things for this, but most times it’s easier (and neater) to use your finger and a paper towel. Smooth it out, clean up any errant bits of caulk with a wet paper towel, then admire your handiwork while also being thoroughly grossed-out when you realize how much rotting food the last person left under the stove.
Once you’ve dealt with the offending stove and fridge, you’ll want to take a similar approach to the pipes under the kitchen sink and the bathroom facilities. Ideally, the holes around them should already be plugged up—possibly with that expanding foamy stuff—but again there’s a chance they’re not. So get busy with your newly acquired caulking skills again.
Contrary to popular scare stories about bugs living in boxes of opened cereal, most of them aren’t actually after your food as much as water and a moist environment. Plumbing pipes are like freeways to them, and a dripping tap is an oasis on a dingy horizon. Destroy this world.
The Original Nooks And Crannies
With the main holes in your apartment now fixed, it’s time to take a good look around at the rest of the unit and spot any other potential entrances. Are there sizable holes in the closets, often along the floor? What about under the baseboards? Do your outlets or light switches have gaps around them leading directly into the wall? What about any heating or radiator pipes? All of these things should be taken care of—again using your steel wool and caulk arsenal as appropriate.
If you really want to mollycoddle your bug paranoia, you can also buy those plastic outlet covers that are meant for babies and plug up another hypothetical entrance. Although the one time I tried them they were near impossible to get back off. Your call.
Doors And Windows
Next, you’ll want to fortify your lovely windows and doors for any inquisitive bugs who might consider intruding on your peace and quiet that way. Check out how tightly your front door actually closes—a flashlight can help you identify any gaps along the top and bottom of it—especially if it leads to a dirty communal hallway. Measure the gap and pick up a weather strip in the appropriate size from a hardware store. These things require little more installation than peeling off a strip of backing paper and sticking the rubber or foam to the bottom of the door. (This will also help keep your apartment cool or warm, depending on the season.)
When it comes to your windows, first check to see if they actually close—or are there gaps at the top or bottom where they’ve either been fitted badly or deteriorated? Again, you’ll want to seal up the gaps using a foam weather strip—cut it to size and stick it on.
Next, check the condition of the screens. Run your fingers across them (or use a flashlight if it’s getting dusky) and identify any holes. Tears and breeches can be quickly fixed with some of that replacement screen mesh—just cut it to size and apply—although a piece of tape will also do in a pinch.
Most flying bugs should now be kept out, but if you happen to live in a place where summer means battling blood-thirsty mosquitos, you might also want to pick up a bunch of cheap adjustable screens from a dollar store and double up on your protection. Although in my experience one of those buzzing malaria menaces will still somehow manage to get through the barricade. At which point you’ll just want to hope that your significant other finds it endearing when you and the cat are attempting to track down an infernal mosquito at 3 a.m. using nothing more than the flashlight on your iPhone.
Get A Cat
Speaking of which—and with every intent of laboring the point—get a cat. These animals have special noses created by science that allow them to sniff out bugs long before you’ve caught sight of them. Also, there’s some sort of olfactory honor system that goes on in the animal world: Bug or mouse or other critter considers entering your domain, catches a whiff of the feline, and decides to pass. It’s a good arrangement. I once knew someone whose Brooklyn apartment was besieged by a squirrel. Their landlord offered to lend them his two cats for a couple of days. Despite sounding like a half-assed solution, they never saw the squirrel again.
Next To Godliness
At this point, you should have a largely non-porous apartment. But that doesn’t mean you should drop your guard in the war against the creepy crawlies. Assuming there’s a general level of cleanliness going on in your place, there are also a couple of simple updates you should consider. Most importantly, get a small garbage can with a lid that closes. The Simple Human brand makes a brushed stainless steel can that costs about $20 and is pretty much perfect as far as these things go. It seals tight and you can use plastic bags from the supermarket it in. Remember: Taking the trash out daily is not hardship.
Also, don’t leave a bunch of unwashed recycling bottles out in a bag on the floor. Stick ‘em in the freezer if need be until it’s recycling day. Roaches, in particular, will seek out a beery smell, although it’s unsure which side of the great IPA debate they come down on.
Finally, try and minimize your clutter. Not because it attracts bugs or pests per se, but because it offers a hiding place. Piles of paperwork, print media, or other assorted junk are not cool. Mosey on over to the Container Store and buy some storage. It’s kinda cool and it’ll also make your next eventual apartment move easier.
Poisons And Miscellaneous Natural Remedies
You can read a lot about natural miracle cures for certain bugs on the Internet, but don’t put all your hopes and fears into them. A peppermint plant will not really repel ants. Rubbing cider vinegar on your skin is not really going to keep the mosquitos away—you’re just gonna walk around with a tart apple-ish whiff. (Although I am prepared to believe that the old bartender’s tale of tonic water as a mosquito repellent works.) So sure, try them if you want, but the best solution is to eliminate the point of entry. Diatomaceous earth is often touted as a natural way to get rid of roaches; I’ve viewed apartments where the current tenant has placed a perimeter line of the stuff around a stove, but why not just sort out the source? It’s a classic prevention over cure situation.
Also, I’ve been told by more than one pest control professional that most baits and traps you can buy in supermarkets are largely ineffective: By the time the poisons have been approved for commercial sale, they’ve been used by the pros for a number of years and bugs have often built up an immunity to them. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it sounds like there’s some sense in that. Just like it seems that most times a spritz with any old kitchen cleaner is just as effective as a blast of Raid on something. Although definitely remember to clean up after you’ve notched up a kill, lest that horror story about a bug leaving behind microscopic eggs comes true.
Do Your Research
While no apartment can be guaranteed completely bug-free, when you’re moving or between places there are some simple steps you should take. First, check the Bed Bug Registry website (www.bedbugregistry.com) to see if anyone in the building—or even next door—has reported a problem with bed bugs.
Likewise, before signing a lease, ask your landlord about the building’s history with said devilish critters. In some states (like New York) they have a duty to disclose any issues. This may or may not be a total deal-breaker for you—unfortunately, in a large communal building some fuckwit is always going to bring in some rickety infested furniture someone has dumped because, you know, they think that’s what people in Brooklyn do and isn’t it so great there’s all this free stuff by the curb. Seriously, I once interviewed an upcoming rapper from the west coast who was living in Bushwick for the summer and seemed overjoyed that she’d found a mattress outside on the street that she could drag into her sublet and sleep on for free. So, yeah, ask a potential landlord about bed bugs, if only to judge their response and gauge how they might react should an issue come up.
Secondly, unless you are at one with the six- and eight-legged beauties of the animal kingdom, do not live in a basement. No matter how many of the above precautions you take, you’re still basically ground zero for bugs. I once lived in a finished half-basement—not even real subterranean dwelling!—and took a turn for the crazy trying to fathom where some ants were coming in from. I considered leaving a video camera pointed at the wall all night. It turned out the diligent, hard-working proles had managed to burrow a small tunnel through the wall and out of some exposed brick.
Your biggest ally in the march against bugs is your sanity. It is very easy to get caught up in a sleepless cycle caused by worrying over bugs. Trust me: Never research bugs on the Internet at night. You’ll simply come across bat-crap crazy horror stories, disgusting images that will become burned in your subconscious, and people claiming that if you see one intruding creepy crawly it automatically means there are eight gazillion of them hiding just out of sight. Instead, try and stay calm and remember the golden rule—no bug has yet managed to successfully defeat a good old-fashioned foot stomp.
Phillip Mlynar lives in Queens, NYC. When not writing about rappers for Red Bull, NYLON, and the Village Voice, he muses on the feline form for Catster. His Twitter claims he’s the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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