Friday, September 27, 2013

when the bugs get serious

My traps are working now. I've got about twenty-three little gnat and fruit-fly carcasses—floating or sunken, vinegar-logged—in my four bottles. Surprisingly, the tiniest trap in the kitchen has caught the most critters. Then again, because the trap is in the kitchen, a high-traffic zone for rot-loving flying insects, it might not be surprising at all that it should catch the most pests.

Tonight, just after midnight, I witnessed my very first fruit fly officially trapping itself. Two or three more of the little beasts have been crawling around the outsides of the three plastic bottles sitting on the bookshelf next to my computer desk, but one intrepid (or obtuse) fruit fly traipsed right into the trap's hole and sealed its fate.

Watching the behavior of fruit flies as they approach my traps is fascinating. While I haven't figured out fruit-fly flight patterns quite yet, I've seen a great deal of variety, enough to suggest that fruit flies, brainless as they are, may possess something like moods or personalities. Some seem happy-go-lucky, zigging and zagging merrily through the air, while others seem to cruise along sedately (thereby making themselves easy targets for a shot of Windex), free of the world's cares and oblivious to the many dangers lurking in my studio. Is the same fruit fly capable of two different flight patterns? Are there subspecies of fruit fly that have certain unalterable flight patterns genetically encoded in them?

It matters little, as far as the vinegar traps are concerned: fruit flies, whatever their idiosyncrasies, all seem to behave the same way once they're close enough to catch a whiff of the fermented liquid inside those cylinders of death. They zigzag or arrow toward a bottle, at which point they suddenly shed their sense of fun and become deadly serious. I know they're serious because once they land near a vinegar trap, they rarely take off again right away: they're concentrating. They land, then they begin crawling around in staccato bursts—start-stop, start-stop—following whatever search algorithm is graven in their rudimentary consciousness. The algorithm is sensitive to the presence of fermentation, and the fruit flies often find themselves led upward, upward along the outside of the plastic bottle. With luck, some insects arrive at the top, on the trap's edge, hesitating on the rim of a deadly but seductive crater. With further luck, some fruit flies pause, drinking in the scent of the vinegar, determining where the most intense concentration of it is...

...and then they start down.

Watching this phase of the entrapment is agonizing to me. Many fruit flies don't make it to the bottom of that crater—to the hole that is the threshold for the trap. Instead, for some frustrating reason, they turn around, crawl back up the crater to its lip, and fly off, playful once again. Tonight, though, I watched while one ill-fated fruit fly crawled down and through the threshold. It had killed itself, and it didn't even know it.

What I've learned about fruit-fly behavior, though, is that temptation, seduction, makes a fruit fly deadly serious. One whiff of vinegar, and it ceases its ludic antics to become suddenly, ruthlessly focused on the pursuit of putrid perfection. It lands, it quests, it pauses for long, pensive moments. If I'm lucky, it follows its olfactory receptors and finds its way into that fatal womb from which no fruit fly ever returns. If I'm unlucky, it wends its way right up to the aperture, then crawls back out and sails off.

And when that happens, if I have my Windex handy, I blast the fucker.


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