New York

The Khapra beetles, closely followed by the Department of Agriculture, came to Soho a few days back and for a while pandemonium reigned as the neighborhood tried to rid itself of the pests.

The agricultural workers had been crawling around the infested building, covering it with a plastic skin, and threatening the artists of the neighborhood with toxic fumes.

If there's one varmint that makes an artist nervous, it's your federal government worker, especially if he's planning to take on some heretofore unknown little insect with a deadly poison.

"What are you more afraid of, the pesticide or the bug?" an actor named Ray Abruzzi was asked yesterday.

"The poison," said Abruzzi.

Do you know this little bug or recall the famous sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley: "Hail to thee, blithe Khapra Beetle, bird thou never wert!" Actually, no one wrote a line about the Khapra beetle until last week, at which point the media here went wild with Khapra beetle lore:

It was a tiny bug, potentially more dangerous than the Medfly because it was nourished by more than mere citrus and flourished in more than just Miami-like climes. It was an import from India, with a life span much longer than its puny one-eighth-inch length.

It had been discovered in a warehouse in the artists' district in Soho and, though it numbered only a hundred, it was known to multiply rapidly. It not only could take a nap of up to three years when food ran low, it awoke from its slumber -- through a strange quirk of nature -- biologically younger than before because it could retreat to a larval stage.

But what most captured the attention of the press -- and the residents of the targeted area -- was the method by which the Department of Agriculture planned to eradicate the hapless beetle.

They planned to cover the entire five-story building, located at 47 Vestry St. in downtown Manhattan, with an enormous tarpaulin, then flood the building with a gas called methyl bromide. Then they thought they'd release the methyl bromide into the neighborhood and -- some residents feared -- eradicate the artists.

One does not try this in a media-conscious neighborhood like Soho. There was pamphleteering. There were words like "Agent Orange" and "Love Canal." "Reprieve for Khapra beetles" led the local evening news. The city's Department of Environmental Protection forbid the fumigation, pending an independent safety study.

The Department of Agriculture met with the local community board, bringing along entomologists from the Museum of Natural History, with unfortunate Khapra beetles stuck on pins. They spoke of the great Khapra infestation of the Midwest beginning in 1953 -- an infestation that took 12 years and $11 million to stop. They suggested that no matter what warm feelings one might have for a little yellow bug the size of a pencil point, a long-term relationship was not meant to be.

They also said they would give the community 24 hours' notice before fumigation so that those so inclined could evacuate the neighborhood, though they felt there was no need.

Yesterday, true to their word, they announced extermination for Thursday, at precisely 2 p.m. So do not ask, as the poet wrote, when the bell tolls, for whom it tolls. It tolls, little Khapra, for thee. Another fabrication, by the way, that poem. Though someone will certainly have written it within the week.