Angels and Insects in New Orleans: Night of the formosan termites

Just Before The War With the Termites

Just Before The War With the Termites

First one, then two, flittering decoratively around the lamp in the kitchen. They had tiny, translucent wings the color of sand. Each one no heavier, it would seem, than a single grain. The boy moved to the kitchen window to look outside, drawn by some activity in the darkness  of a hot, summery night in New Orleans. The neighbor’s security light shone, surrounded by bugs. Our window, too, had drawn an unusual number of insects. They pressed and beat against the pane, drawn by the light.

It was time for bed.  We coaxed the boy, age two, away from the window. My daughter, six, began the pre-bedtime evasive action.  My wife went up first with the boy; I lagged behind with the girl, putting off that moment of sharpness and anger which is usually required to get her upstairs.  Then we heard screams. We both ran up the stairs.

My wife stood beneath the chandelier at the top of the stairs waving her hands at the trembling chiffon-like cloud of tiny fluttering insects. For a split second they almost seemed decorative,  but their sheer buggy numbers were alarming. My wife was shouting. The words “infested,” and “invasion,” came tumbling forth. Voices were raised,  then raised further. My family responded to the crisis in our special way–my wife got loudly upset and I loudly told my wife to calm down; my daughter joined the fray,  jumping and shouting a barrage of semi-nonsensical exclamations which, as far as I can tell, derived both from a terror at the upset parents and a delight in the same, with an added dollop of  pleasure in the chaos, her middle name.

My son, the most level headed person in the family, looked at the bugs, reasonably exclaimed, “bugs!” and then took a few steps down the stairs before turning to regard the whole scene with an implacable expression tinged with a  look that seemed to ask, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?

Then we turned on the light in one of the bedrooms and saw that it, too, was filled with the bugs. We were in a Hitchcock movie: the innocent, domestic facade with its hint of  foreshadowing, in the form of those three flies around the lamp; the excruciating obliviousness of the family as they wade into peril. Then, a woman’s screams. Then a man’s. The kid’s screams were our innovation.

After a few minutes of my yelling, “Just be quiet so I can think!” I concluded I had no idea what to do and I started madly clapping into the cloud of bugs.

“Get the vacuum!” my wife yelled.

“Ok!” I said, relieved to no longer have to clap ridiculously into the chandelier.

We have a very good vacuum–a hepa-vac made by Nikro Industries. It cost over five hundred dollars. It’s a monster. And by design everything that goes in, including tiny particles and also, by extension, tiny bugs, stays in. The boy and the wife retreated to the relative safety of downstairs. But my daughter wanted to stay with me on the front lines.

I fired up the engine, a fearsom sound, like a plane taking off, and began to wave the hose around near the light.  My daughter danced and leapt and yelled over the sound of the vacuum, instructing me to go after this or that bug like some mad, mostly nude artlilery commander. She was ecstatic.

 It’s not such a leap to refer to artillery –these were formosan termites (I now know), and they arrived in New orleans shortly after World War II, burrowed into shipping containers that originated in the Far East. Every spring they move through New Orleans in massive swarms, grouping around street lamps and homes with their lights on. It turns out everyone in New Orleans knows this, and knows to turn off all the lights in their house. Now we do, too. At the time, though, it was panic and battle and the roar of the vacuum and my daughter leaping around pointing wildly.

Amazingly, it worked. Their numbers thinned. Soon we were able to go after the holdouts individually. It was almost poignant to see their flight path suddenly go into a tailspin in the moment before they vanished into the vacuum tube.

We went through the whole house vanquishing the holdouts, double checking our work. We turned off every light in the house and then went room to room, flicking them back on, a surprise attack.

In the end we sat quietly for a couple of minutes to savor our victory. Then me and Evangeline resumed the nighttime ritual of the past week, which is to sit on the floor of her room and do a jigsaw puzzle together. I had never cared much for jigsaw puzzles but now I think they are the greatest thing.

She is very good at them and claims that in school she is known as “The Puzzle Master.”

The first couple of nights we did an easy one, but the previous night we ha struggled through a very complex map of the world. We finished it. Now,  on the second night, and more familiar with the puzzle, some other layer was in play– I didn’t want to get too ahead of her; I wanted her to figure it out on her own . I held back.  She in turn was almost reluctant to make too much progress.

It took a minute before the teamwork of the war on the termites adjusted to the pace of working on the puzzle.  Once or twice I put a piece near her that was the right piece for the spot we were working on. She picked it up, held it above the spot where it belonged, and, maybe in protest against my act of charity, put it aside. When we got to the end she waited a long time before she fit the last piece in.

She looked at me in provocation, or expectation, an interesting moment of suspense–would she finish the puzzle, or prolong the night by depriving herself of a triumph?. I kept quiet. She put the piece in its place. The world was complete. For the second time that night we gave each other high fives, celebrated our success, and turned out the lights.

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