This general information will give you an insight into many common household pests and what to do about them. In some cases you may be able to eradicate them yourself; in others you may need to hire professional services. Even in the do-it-yourself cases, it is a good idea to check with a pest control company to get up-to-date information on how to best control pests and to learn the latest about integrated pest management, (commonly referred to as “IPM”).
MAKING PESTS UNWELCOME
Conditions in your home may offer a comfortable haven where pests flock not only to visit, but nest and multiply. Some like it hot, some like it cool, most like moisture and darkness, and all like something to eat. Damp, dark basements are favorite habitats, as are kitchens and bathrooms. If you don’t leave them a gourmet meal in the kitchen, they’ll snack on carpets, books, and even the walls of your house. Sometimes, despite faultless housekeeping and the best of intentions, pests enter in bags or cartons from the grocery store, in furniture, or even in secondhand appliances. Television sets, because of their darkness and warmth, are prime offenders.
ZEROING IN ON THE WORST OFFENDERS INDOORS
The National Pest Control Association says the 10 most common household pests are cockroaches, mice, rats, termites, ants and carpenter ants, fleas, dog ticks, spiders, and silverfish. Each requires different tactics for eradication.
Cockroaches exist in 55 varieties in the United States, but only 5 kinds are troublesome indoors. Not only do they spread disease by contaminating food, they create an offensive odor in large populations. Indeed, even dishes crossed by cockroaches may give off an offensive order unless they are washed thoroughly before food warms them.
Because cockroaches multiply so rapidly - one common German cockroach produces forty more every thirty days - it is essential to determine their hiding places. One method of doing this is to enter a dark room quietly, turn on a bright light and see where they run. To eliminate roaches, make access to their hiding places difficult and keep the areas where they were seen spotless. Be sure there are no food crumbs or wet spots. Pay particular attention to the undersides of tables and chairs, behind mirrors, inside drawers, on closet and bookcase shelves, inside the motor compartment of the refrigerator, around sinks and the dishwasher, and under loose floor coverings. As a next step, consider using baits and traps. Some people have had success using boric acid in cracks and crevices where roaches like to hide out.
Mice look for a steady source of food supply. They, as well as the parasites that live on them, contaminate food with droppings, urine and hair. Able to squeeze through incredibly small openings, these tiny animals - often weighing less than an ounce - can enter a house through basement windows, small holes in the foundation, vents in the basement or attic, and gaps in weather-stripping. Blocking or screening these openings and using a mousetrap with tasty morsels of peanut butter, bacon, gumdrops or cookies usually is sufficient to rid a house of them.
Rats pose a larger problem, especially in areas where poor sanitation and the accumulation of garbage provide ideal conditions for them to breed. Ranging from six inches to a foot long, they nest in basements, attics, sewers, subflooring, open garbage cans and piles of trash. Active mainly at night, rats contaminate food with disease germs and filth that can cause acute food poisoning. Worse, they will bite people - particularly small children who have been left in bed with milk, juice or other food.
Controlling rats requires sealing all openings around the house with sheet metal, iron grills, hardware cloth, cement mortar, or similar substances they cannot gnaw through. Elimination of food sources requires constant community cooperation to see that garbage is stored in sealed containers and collected often. Furthermore, attractive nesting areas, such as firewood stacked against a house, must be removed. Where rat infestations are confined to a single area (a garage attic for example), large traps may be adequate to rid the vicinity of these rodents. In some cases, potent poisoned baits called rodenticides are needed, as a last resort. These must be used with the utmost care to prevent harm to humans and household pets.
Termites live in underground colonies and feed on wood products. You may never see them, even if they’re feasting on the lumber that’s holding your house together. Fortunately they work slowly, giving you several years to discover their presence before causing substantial structural damage to your house. You might see a swarm of termites during the spring due to temperature and moisture conditions. A telltale sign is discarded wings on the floor or windowsills after a warm rain in early spring. But, termites can be active other times during the year, such as during the winter in heated basements.
Because termites strike five times as many homes every year as do fires, the annual bill for the damage they do is astonishing. In addition to destroying wood, they’ll eat books, clothing, and anything else containing cellulose. One way to detect their presence is by their characteristic pattern of destruction: they eat the soft part of the wood and leave the annual rings intact. Another sign of their presence is mud tubes constructed along obstructions they cannot chew through. However, such signs are not often readily visible.
It is virtually impossible for you to get rid of termites yourself. If you’re fortunate, your house was designed and constructed with prevention of termite damage in mind. The ground beneath your house may have been treated to repel termites, and specific care may have been taken to prevent any contact of wood with the soil. Call in a reliable pest control company if you suspect termites are at work in or near your house. Having an annual inspection to detect termite damage is a sound investment, like fire and accident insurance.
Ants come in more than twenty household varieties and have many tastes. Some prefer sweets, others like grease, and still others feed on insects and seeds. Consequently, do-it-yourself eradication with bait is often a trial-and-error effort. To get rid of these annoying indoor species that contaminate food and in rare cases bite humans and pets, find and destroy their nests and remove their source of food by practicing vigilant housekeeping and storing foodstuffs in tightly closed containers.
Carpenter Ants are frequently confused with termites because they, too, destroy wood. Unlike termites, however, they do not eat the wood, preferring instead to tunnel channels through it in order to enlarge their living space. Although a carpenter ant has wings, its front pair is much longer than the back pair; its termite cousin has two pairs of equal length. Another distinguishing feature of the carpenter ant's body is a pinched-in waist like that of a wasp.
If you find little piles of sawdust near the baseboards of your house, suspect that carpenter ants are at work. Since their nests are extremely difficult to find, call in professional pest control help to determine the extent of damage and stop these creatures in their tracks.
Fleas have been troubling mankind and animals for thousands of years. These tiny tormentors reproduce at astounding rates, laying several hundred eggs which hatch and mature in less that two weeks, with each new flea ready to reproduce hundreds more. They enter your house on pets and lay their eggs in carpeting, bedding, and upholstered furniture. Since they must feed on blood to survive, hungry fleas can make life miserable for you and your pets, causing itching and swelling wherever they bite.
Getting rid of fleas is tricky. As always, prevention is your best bet. Vacuum thoroughly and regularly, especially areas where your pets sleep. Use flea combs on your pets regularly and consider Insect Growth Regulators. Once you have a flea problem, you must eradicate all fleas and eggs in the house and stop more from coming in. If you do it yourself, thoroughly clean infested rooms with a vacuum cleaner. Include baseboards, rugs, upholstery, floor and wall cracks, ventilators, closets and any other areas where eggs or larvae may be. Discard the vacuum cleaner bag in a sealed container at once. Talk to your veterinarian to determine if your pets should be treated at the same time you clear the house and to get advice on the use of flea collars. If the problem is really serious, consider calling in professional pest control services.
Ticks come in two varieties: American and Brown Dog. American ticks usually live outdoors but can be brought in by pets, mice and rats. These ticks are dangerous because they transmit serious diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease to humans.
The Brown Dog Tick usually lives indoors and is the only kind of tick to frequently infest homes in the United States. Once they enter a house, they prefer to stay there because it is dry and warm. They are flat shaped and about 1/4 inch long with a uniformly red-brown appearance. They must have blood to survive, but they rarely bite humans. After feeding on your pets, they drop off the animal and hide, living for months or even years without a meal. Meanwhile, they occupy themselves by laying from 100 to 5000 eggs at a time. When the eggs hatch and all the new ticks hop on your dog in search of blood, you'll wonder why your pet has suddenly gone berserk.
As with fleas, both your pet and home must be treated simultaneously. You may need to take your pet to a veterinarian to determine the best treatment. Then check and thoroughly clean all hiding places, i.e. baseboards, furniture, window frames and sills, molding, loose wallpaper and linoleum, rugs, curtains, drapes, picture frames, and all cracks and crevices. Again, prevention of the problem is your best bet. Vacuuming your home thoroughly does help. As for your pet, comb the fur with a flea or tick comb with your pet sitting on a white piece of paper or a sheet. You will be able to see if your pet has an infestation or not and how serious it is.
Spiders have a bad reputation. Actually, many of the 25,000 varieties in America are helpful because they trap and eat other pests. Although they rarely bite humans unless they are injured or cornered, their venom can cause painful sores. Two species especially dangerous to man are the brown recluse and the black widow. Found in out-of-the-way spots like closets, attics and garages, the brown recluse attacks only when disturbed. Seek treatment at once, because untended bites can be fatal. The venom of a black widow is 15 times more powerful than that of a rattlesnake, but because the spider injects so little during a bite, death does not often occur except in very young children.
Your best protection against spiders is to cut down on the insect population inside your house so they will move out in search of a more dependable food supply.
Silverfish and their close relatives, the firebrats, pose no known danger to humans, but they can do extensive damage to clothes made of natural fibers, books, wallpaper, and important records. Silverfish are wingless, slender insects with a color ranging from dark steel gray to almost black with a glistening metallic sheen. Small and unobtrusive, they work at night and are rarely seen unless they get into a sink or bathtub and cannot climb out again.
To get rid of these pests, first control the moisture. These insects flock to wet and damp areas. Next, clean and caulk all cracks and crevices. Look at your baseboards, door and window casings, closets and places where pipes go through walls. The results may not be immediate, but if you are persistent, your problem may be eliminated within a few weeks. However, if the problem is serious, you may need to call in professional services.
DEALING WITH PESTS IN THE LAWN AND GARDEN
By practicing prevention, you can head off most pests without resorting to pesticides. Here are some simple suggestions:
USING NATURE’S ALLIES
Some of nature’s strangest looking creatures are actually your allies in getting rid of pests. As many as 100 insects in your environment may be valuable biological control agents; many birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and spiders also work to your advantage.
Before you declare a war on pests in your home and garden, you may want to see if you can use or restore the balance of natural forces that can keep troublesome creatures in check. For example, every day of their lives ladybug beetles eat two and a half times their own weight in aphids, mealybugs, moth eggs, spider mites and scale insects. Or consider this: it is not unusual for a single bird to gather hundreds of caterpillars, flies, grasshoppers, snails and spiders.
In some states there are now companies that raise and sell “pests of pests”- predators that kill and eat pests, parasites that weaken or kill them, and pathogens that cause fatal diseases in unwanted species. Some of these firms are legitimate sources of ladybugs, praying mantis, and other beneficial creatures. But mail-order pest control is risky. KNOW WHO YOU ARE DEALING WITH BEFORE YOU MAKE A PURCHASE. Something advertised as a “Foolproof Natural Method for Killing Pests” may turn out to be two blocks of wood with instructions to place an insect on one block and hit it with the other. Know if companies are required to register in your state. New York State, for example, has strict requirements for registration.
SELECTING AND USING PESTICIDES WISELY
Sometimes a pesticide is the only solution to a stubborn problem. Every pesticide marketed today must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, and in New York State, with the State. The EPA offers these tips for their safe use:
Keep in mind that research updates and improves pest control methods, including the use of chemicals, from time to time. You should call a reliable pest control company, or your state coop extension, to get the latest information on which pesticides are the most useful against your particular problem.
GETTING PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE
When the job gets too big for home remedies, it’s time to call in a pest control company. Of course, you may want to, rather than keep pesticides around the home, particularly if you have children. Before you do, check around for a reliable company; otherwise, you may wind up with self-style exterminators who are pests themselves. Decide what treatment you want and then make sure you get it. Some companies, for example, claim to use IPM, but don’t. You decide what you want.
A federal law requires commercial applicators, with few exceptions, of “restricted use” products to be certified. The certification program is left up to the state. Homeowners can call the certifying state agencies for information.
Be wary of the person who comes to your home uninvited and offers to give your house a free inspection for pests. He or she may try to scare you into authorizing immediate and costly treatments to prevent the collapse of ceilings or floors. Such a person may bring along frightening specimens of spiders or cockroaches, or fragments of wood riddled with termite channels, and pretend to find them in your house.
Always deal with a licensed exterminator. Exterminators are licensed, in New York State, by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Your local Cornell Cooperative Extension Service agent is a good source of information on pest control methods. Ask friends and neighbors to recommend companies they have used successfully. Check prospective choices with the Better Business Bureau for a reliability report.
Before you sign a contract for pest control services, be sure you fully understand the nature of the pest to be exterminated, the extent of the infestation, and the work necessary to solve the problem. Find out if the company has liability insurance to cover any damages to your house or furnishings during treatment. If a guarantee is given know what it covers, how long it lasts, what you must do to keep it in force, and what kind of continuing prevention and control is necessary. Don’t expect an application or series of treatments to last indefinitely. Rarely, for example, can a firm guarantee to leave a house free of cockroaches for more than six months. Some pest control companies offer renewable retreatment warranties. But remember, changing the environment to prevent pests can last indefinitely.
If a sizable amount of money is involved, don’t hesitate to get bids from several pest control companies. Even termite damage will not be significantly worse if you wait a week or two before authorizing treatment. Don’t rush your decision. Since you are paying for professional knowledge as well as skillful application of pesticides, look for someone whose judgment you can trust. Non-chemical controls can be recommended and implemented by properly trained professionals. If you want to reduce your exposure to chemicals, you can indicate your preference. IPM may be economically reasonable and some claim it is cheaper in the long run.