An optimization problem for the fundamental eigenvalue $\lam_0$ of the Laplacian in a planar simply-connected domain that contains $N$ small identically-shaped holes, each of radius $\eps\ll 1$, is considered. The boundary condition on the domain is assumed to be of Neumann type, and a Dirichlet condition is imposed on the boundary of each of the holes. As an application, the reciprocal of the fundamental eigenvalue $\lam_0$ is proportional to the expected lifetime for Brownian motion in a domain with a reflecting boundary that contains $N$ small traps. For small hole radii $\eps$, a two-term asymptotic expansion for $\lam_0$ is derived in terms of certain properties of the Neumann Green's function for the Laplacian. Only the second term in this expansion depends on the locations $x_{i}$, for $i=1,\ldots,N$, of the small holes. For the unit disk, ring-type configurations of holes are constructed to optimize this term with respect to the hole locations. The results yield hole configurations that asymptotically optimize $\lam_0$. For a class of symmetric dumbbell-shaped domains containing exactly one hole, it is shown that there is a unique hole location that maximizes $\lam_0$. For an asymmetric dumbbell-shaped domain, it is shown that there can be two hole locations that locally maximize $\lam_0$. This optimization problem is found to be directly related to an oxygen transport problem in skeletal muscle tissue, and to determining equilibrium locations of spikes to the Gierer–Meinhardt reaction-diffusion model. It is also closely related to the problem of determining equilibrium vortex configurations within the context of the Ginzburg–Landau theory of superconductivity.