Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.
My city just enacted a mandatory composting ordinance. The problem is my apartment seems to be a magnet for fruit flies. This hasn't happened in any of the other places I've lived, and my habits haven't changed. How do I comply with the ordinance, but keep the fruit flies away?
The CSA enrollment email arrived last week, which means that I have pestilence on the brain. Because with CSA season comes fruit flies, and the battle begins. So this seemed like a good time to take on this question, and to mentally prepare myself for what's about to come.
There are, essentially, two separate issues to address here. The first is what to do when fruit flies have taken over your home and the second is what to do to ensure that a home composting operation doesn't lead to an infestation in the first place. Because fruit flies are a common thing to happen even if you aren't composting in the home, let's swat that scourge first, then move along to a discussion of composting best practices.
As annoying as fruit flies are—and boy howdy, are they ever annoying—ridding your home of them requires nothing more than a homemade fruit fly trap. If it's possible, it's also a good idea to stash whatever is attracting the flies in a place that the flies can't get to. But that isn't always possible (see: a compost bin; my tiny home during CSA season).
At its most basic, a fruit fly trap is any sort of vessel that can hold a liquid "lure" to entice the flies to come by for a drink in the hopes that they drown. That can be a bowl, or a jar, or a cup or mug or one of those little plastic souvenir baseball helmets that you get when you order an ice cream sundae at the stadium.
The problem with basic traps like this, which do work, is that some of the more tenacious fruit flies will congregate right on the lip of the container rather than heading inside for a deadly drink. If you notice that happening, step up your trap game in one of two ways. The first is to secure a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl with a rubber band, and then poke holes in the plastic wrap. The idea, is to lure the flies in through the tiny holes and then, you know, keep them in there. Another way to achieve a similar outcome is to roll a piece of paper up into a cone, secure it with tape, and then place it tip-side-down in the lure container so that being funneled in is very easy, but flying out to safety is quite challenging.
There is no shortage of options for fruit fly lures—we could be here all day talking about what to use, but that wouldn't be the best use of our time. The general idea is that you want something sweet to draw them in and something liquid in which they'll drown. There is, however, a secret ingredient that you shouldn't skip: Liquid soap. Adding a small splurt of dish soap to the lure is going to do a really important and dastardly thing—that soap will coat the flies' wings, and they won't be able to fly out to safety.
I usually tell people to use what they've got in the house for a lure; during CSA season when we tend to get fruit flies in our home, I set out apple cider vinegar traps, but wine, beer, fruit juice, a piece of banana in a bowl of water…all those things will work too.
If you're a sick-minded human like me, you'll choose a lure that's lighter in color so you can derive a grim satisfaction from seeing all the little fruit fly corpses at the bottom of your trap.
Another place where fruit flies tend to gather is in drains. When an infestation hits, pay a little more attention than usual to what's going on in your drains and, if you're noticing that the flies are indeed congregating, pour some boiling water down there. It might also be that food particles have gotten stuck on the walls of the drain, in which case a bottle brush can be used to scrub away bits and pieces that may be attracting the flies.
I mentioned when we started this discussion that CSA season is coming up, which ties into today's question in two ways. The first is that, as I also mentioned, fruit flies tend to be a natural extension of the CSA experience for us, in large part because we live in such a small home that I'm forced to store a portion of our produce on the counter, as my fridge isn't big enough to contain the bounty. So fruit fly invasions are a real thing I live! The other reason is that our CSA offers composting services, though I do not take advantage of them. That's mostly a space consideration, though it is also partly because I'm a terrible person who doesn't give enough of a shit about the world around me to bother turning a banana peel into mulch.
But! I did pay attention to the CSA literature last summer and so I can offer a few composting tips that will hopefully help to keep the swarm at bay. The first is, space permitting, to store food scraps for composting in the freezer. The second is to make sure that you have plenty of brown material in your compost bin—if you can work it, try to keep food scraps in the center of the bin and your browns on top so that the fruit flies won't be as attracted by the smell of food. The last tip is to choose a metal composting bin over a plastic one, as plastic is porous and will retain smells that attract flies.
So while I've given lots of information here based on research, I'd like to hear from people who are practicing composters because you all have been out there in the weeds, so to speak. So! Tell us whatever you think is helpful for new composters to know. What tricks have you learned? What do you wish you'd known when you first started? Do you have a favorite brand or style of composting bin? Tell me your secrets.
Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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