Kitchen Fruit Flies

Fruit Fly

Learn how to get rid of fruit flies using time-tested, organic and natural techniques.

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Fruit flies are a common kitchen nuisance especially active in late fall and summer when the produce they love is in abundance. Also known as vinegar flies, they are attracted by orange rinds left on the counter, tomatoes ripening on a windowsill, bananas turning brown in the fruit bowl and lettuce left in the sink. The pin-head sized creatures do not bite but are an unsettling sight circling lazily around your produce.

The flies are so tiny, ranging in size from less than 1/16th of an inch up to 3/16th of an inch, that they disappear to all but those with the sharpest vision as they fly from bright light to shadow. The head and thorax are yellow and tan while the abdomen can be dark, even black. Many types have red eyes.

Due to their particularly small size, fruit flies can enter a house from the outside through common window screen. They’re also brought into the kitchen on the produce you bring home from the market.

Fruit flies will breed anywhere there is damp, decaying organic matter. This includes in sink drains (dark, slightly larger flies specific to drains are known as ), garbage pails and compost buckets, tile grout, even wash cloths. Because they will breed in so many different places, these pesky insects can be difficult to eradicate once they are established.

Don’t be so frustrated by the persistence of the short-lived fruit fly that you resort to anything other than safe, organic methods of control. If you don’t deny the flies a place to breed by employing thorough sanitation methods, you can spray pesticides all you want. The pest will come back. And even those who recommend using pesticides on flies of all kinds don’t recommend spraying in places where food is stored and prepared.

Life Cycle

The female fruit fly will lay between 500 and 2,000 eggs, one at a time, usually on or near fermenting fruits or other decaying organic material. The eggs, contained in a moist secretion, are left on rinds, fruit meat and other, usually damp sources.

The larvae hatch out in about a day, then feed for five or more days on the yeasts produced in the fermenting vegetable matter (or drain slime) before moving to a drier location to pupate. They take two days to become sexually mature. Flies live no more than one or two weeks and mate twice during their short lives. (Hat tip to the (PDF) from which much of this life cycle information was sourced.)

Damage

Fruit flies are mainly thought of as a nuisance pest, known to buzz around un-refrigerated produce and kitchen sinks. But the flies are labeled “filth” flies because of the bacterial contamination they can spread as they lay their eggs on fruits and vegetables. As the fruit fly moves from surface to surface, it transfers harmful pathogens around your kitchen and to the foods prepared there. Drain flies can potentially carry more harmful contamination.

Control

Sanitation is job number one. Denying flies access to the decaying organic matter they seek prevents their multiplying. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Besides what’s in your fruit bowls and on your kitchen counters, flies will breed in drains and around sinks, on mops, on damp wood under sinks and behind walls, and at the lips of cans and bottles.

  • Don’t store produce on your counter. Refrigerate all fruits and vegetables, even (especially) the bananas. This is good practice to prevent the introduction and spread of this household invader and is absolutely necessary when fighting established infestations.
  • As you cook, clean up kitchen peelings and other vegetable scraps immediately. Take all compostable material out to the compost heap as soon as you’ve produced it. Or keep a compost crock with a tight sealing lid next to your prep area to keep cores and peelings before sending them outdoors.
  • If your kitchen scraps, including citrus rinds and banana peels, will ultimately end up going out with the garbage, start a scraps bag that you keep in the freezer until it can be put out for pickup with the trash. Banana peels, left overnight in the trash, are especially attractive to the flies. Instead, freeze them.
  • Thoroughly clean and dry all food prep areas, including under counters and around stoves; anywhere stray matter might build.
  • Make sure all garbage cans have tight fitting lids. Keep them covered. Keep you cans clean inside and out, including edges around the top.
  • Thoroughly wash all containers headed for your recycling bins, especially fruit juice bottles and soda cans.
  • Think flies are coming out of a sink drain? Cover it with plastic wrap overnight and check for flies underneath come morning. Keep drains clean and free of organic material with natural drain cleaners. Run garbage disposals frequently. Pouring equal parts baking soda and salt, then topping with an equal amount of white vinegar The Department of Entomology at Iowa State University that pouring bleach or ammonia down a drain to kill flies has no benefit.
  • Wooden cutting boards can harbor eggs and larvae. Wash them in hot water frequently and allow to completely dry.
  • Check under and around sinks for leakage. Fruit flies will lay eggs on any organic surface that is moist, especially underneath sinks. Reseal fixtures and and re-grout tiles around sinks to stop leakage. Allow wood and other surfaces under sinks to dry completely after you do.
  • Use traps to lure and capture adult pests. Some traps are specifically designed for indoor use.
  • Making one or two homemade traps and placing them around food storage and prep areas can be highly effective. Here’s how: Make a cone from a large file card or half sheet of paper leaving a small opening at the bottom and insert it into a jar containing a half-inch of apple cider vinegar. The flies go down the cone towards the vinegar, but once inside can’t find their way out, circling the lip of the jar wondering how they got there in the first place. Make sure the cone seals at the edge of the jar (we rub the lip with oil which seems to capture the flies trying to squeeze through). Humane types can take the jar outside, remove the cone and let the surviving flies free.
  • A piece of plastic wrap over a custard cup or other small bowl with a small hole approximately the size of a pencil poked in the plastic near the center is also a quick and effective way to trap circling flies. The traps also work with beer and wine. attract flies with fermentation.
  • If pests persist despite your best efforts, look for hidden breeding spots, like a bruised potato in the back of a cupboard or a juice spill that’s run under a cabinet or the refrigerator.
  • Flies can breed in water trays set under house plants. Clean them after dumping runoff from watering.
  • Replacing window screen with very small-mesh screen can help keep flies from entering your home from the outdoors.
  • Lavender has been shown to discourage fruit flies. Basil, mint and thyme, on the other hand, have been shown to be more attractive to the flies than slices of banana. (Thanks to University of Southern California Science Fair (PDF) and the grade school experimenter who conducted the tests).
  • Clove will repel this household nuisance. Stick as many cloves as you can (at least 25) into a fresh lemon and add to your fruit bowl.

Final word from a friend: I’m an organic vegetable (and fruit!) gardener and an active cook. My kitchen is always full of the kind of stuff this flying fuss is looking for. I use a lidded compost bucket, keep a couple of vinegar traps out all the time, and do my best to keep a clean food-prep cooking area. But I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, in season, I’ll never eradicate the little buggers completely. Instead, I’ve come to see them as a symbol of abundance, most active when I’m most active in the kitchen, canning peaches and apple sauce, pickling beets and letting a slurry of berries ferment in a wine crock. The flies will die down when the weather gets really cold. Until then, I keep things sealed, covered and refrigerated the best I can. I wash all produce just before using. And I swat at the few flies who make the mistake of swimming right up in front of my face.

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