There’s a certain hierarchy of pests in New York City. Rats might be taking over the city and roaches are perennially gross, but when the warm weather rolls in, ants have their moment. The home invasion can happen overnight: What was once your kitchen is suddenly a cafeteria for a line of little bugs working in perfect harmony to secure food and destroy your peace of mind. They’re more a nuisance than anything else, but their capacities for organized crime (trespassing) is part of what Larry Bernhardt, exterminator at Top Notch Pest Control in Bensonhurst, likes most about them. “They are smart,” he says. “It makes them a formidable foe.”
I called Bernhardt to talk about the start of ant season, the worst things he’s seen on the job, and the underappreciated resilience of an insect that has existed since the time of dinosaurs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rats and bedbugs take up a lot of space in New York pest discourse. Do you think ants are underestimated?
They’re always put on the back burner. If you have a rat in your apartment, the world stops. People want them out right away. Meanwhile, some people see an ant or two and kind of go about their day. But colonies are not made up of one or two ants — there are usually hundreds. And once they find food, they’re gonna keep coming back.
We’re entering peak season, right?
In the spring and summertime, ants are probably the top two of pests we deal with. And we had a milder winter this year, so they’re kind of starting early. They’re also one of harder bugs to control — the colonies can be large, and they’re also underground a lot of times.
So how do you kill them?
We do a thorough inspection of exteriors and interiors to pinpoint where the activity is, then we place bait. They’ll eat it and bring it back, so it’s the best way of trying to eradicate the queen and destroy the colony.
And how can you tell if you’ve killed the queen?
A lot of times it’s underground, so you don’t know for sure; you just have to judge it on activity.
What made you want to get into this business?
I’ve been doing it for 17 years; it’s a family business. I was pursuing being a stockbroker first and then decided to give this more of a serious shot and took over from my dad, who’s semi-retired.
I know our trash problems have worsened our rat problems, but is the same true for ants?
Anytime you’re feeding an insect, the more they’ll reproduce — that’s just how they’re wired. But as far as our phone calls go, they’ve been pretty consistently the same.
Are clients freaked out when they call you?
You could have hundreds of ants trailing into the kitchen. People get grossed out. They feel like they’re being invaded.
Any nightmare situations you’ve dealt with?
I’ve seen thousands of ants trailing into someone’s kitchen, going from one area to another — it took four or five services to get it under control. Outside, there were just thousands of more ants. It was a battle.
I bet the job has taught you a lot about how ants think.
They are smart, just in how they communicate with other ants and feeding the colony. It makes them a formidable foe. Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re not hard to kill. And one crumb is a meal for literally the whole colony.
That’s kind of cool.
They’re one of my favorite insects. They’re super strong for their size and they actually bury their dead. They’ll even carry them if they die somewhere else back to the colony. They’re awesome — I had an ant farm when I was younger.
And now you’ve become an ant killer.
I’ve come to terms with it. I sleep pretty good at night.