Pest Patrol

Cockroaches in the kitchen? Mice in the walls? Try these natural solutions for safe pest control.

Piles of dishes

As pests make their way into your home, try simple, non-toxic methods to keep them at bay.

Photo by iStock/Svetl

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As spring and summer begin, many of us start looking forward to longer days, warmer weather and garden-fresh food. But spring and summer are also the beginning of the seasons when we confront household pests — from now through fall, mice, ants and other critters come out to forage, build nests and reproduce, sometimes finding our homes the ideal locale for these activities. While some of these animals can cause damage to our homes, few of them cause damage equal to the negative environmental and health effects of chemical pesticides. When you find a trail of ants or evidence of a mouse in your home, try these natural and nontoxic solutions rather than turning to harmful chemical pesticides.

Ants

If you find a trail of ants marching across your kitchen countertop, it’s easy to panic. However, several natural options work well to block ants’ paths and discourage future entry: diatomaceous earth (read more at the end of the article), orange peels, vinegar and lemon water are all purported to mask the scent trails ants leave for one another and deter future invasions.

This is not true when it comes to fire ants. When it comes to these invaders, shelve the grits, baking soda, club soda, vinegar, molasses, plaster of Paris, aspartame, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and coffee grounds! In scientific testing, none of these home remedies worked worth a lick against the red imported fire ant — a nasty, non-native species that’s invaded the South, from Florida to Texas, and is spreading westward into California.

Although most ant species are neutral or even beneficial, this one can ruin a garden in no time by devouring germinating seeds, tunneling into potatoes and tomatoes, and girdling young fruit trees — and they’ll bite and sting you, too. Drought makes these ants even more voracious, as it prompts them to turn to garden crops for moisture.

If you have just one or two fire ant mounds in your garden or landscape and not a widespread problem, drench the mounds with a citrus oil and soap solution, a combination that’s repeatedly proved effective. In controlled studies conducted by Texas A&M University entomologists, the researchers had significantly less active fire ant mounds for as long as a month after they drenched the mounds with a mixture of 1-1/2 ounces of Medina Orange Oil, 3 ounces of Dawn liquid soap and 1 gallon of water. A compound in citrus oil, d-limonene, breaks down the ants’ exoskeletons and causes them to suffocate. The commercial product Orange Guard Fire Ant Control — approved for use in organic agriculture by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) — also contains orange oil. (For other approved products, check the OMRI website, omri.org.)

If your fire ant problem is more extensive than a mound or two, step up your response with the “Texas Two-Step” method recommended by Texas A&M University extension specialists for fire ant control in home vegetable gardens and landscapes.

Step 1: Once or twice a year, broadcast a fire ant bait product that contains spinosad — a natural metabolite produced by a soil microorganism — as its active ingredient. Foraging ants will carry the spinosad granules back to their nest, and the granules will kill the colony within a few days to a few weeks. For best results, apply fresh granules when ants are active (when soil temperature is between 70 and 95 degrees) and rain is not in the forecast. Payback Fire Ant Bait is a spinosad product approved for organic use by OMRI.

Step 2: If you spot new fire ant activity in your garden or a surrounding area between applications of Step 1, treat individual mounds with either more of the spinosad granules, the Medina Orange Oil/soap solution, Orange Guard, or very hot water.

—Vicki Mattern, courtesy Mother Earth News

Reader Tips:

I like ants. I like insects that work toward tomorrow. But there comes a limit. I have some very small ants that get up on my sink and countertop. I have dogs, so I don’t like using harmful chemicals around my house, and I do my best to get the ants back outside. But I can do just so much before it’s time to mix up water and vinegar in a spray bottle (about 1 part water to 1 part vinegar). This concoction stops the ants in their tracks.

Another mixture that also works for me is dish soap and water in a spray bottle.

—John Keatts, Las Vegas

I recently read an article that claimed orange peels can kill ants. An extract found in the peels, d-limonene, kills the ants by destroying the wax coating on the insects’ respiratory systems.

Soon after, while cooking breakfast one morning, I discovered ants in our bacon grease container. I placed equal amounts of orange peel and water into a blender to form a paste. I placed the orange paste on a small plate so that any ant’s access to the bacon grease required crossing — and making direct, prolonged contact with — the paste. According to my experience, this barrier of orange paste will work for at least 72 hours.

—Ward Stern, New Hope, Alabama

Mice

Mice are highly misunderstood animals, and this sad truth means that every year humans use careless and often ineffective measures to eradicate mice from their homes.

Contrary to popular belief, these little animals are intelligent, able to empathize with one another, and extremely organized and tidy.

Natural deterrents can discourage mice from settling in your home, but when those fail, kind methods allow for proper removal without the need to kill or harm that mouse in the house.

Inhumane and Ineffective Measures: Humans often perceive mice to be more problematic than they actually are, and this can result in wanting to euthanize the animal through common products such as glue traps, mouse traps and poison. These measures are extremely cruel, often leading to slow, agonizing deaths.

To make matters worse, these methods don’t do anything to control the rodent population in the long run. In fact, they tend to make matters worse. When a mouse is killed, this simply means more food for the remaining mice. And well-fed mice lead to more abundant breeding.

Natural Deterrents: Perhaps the most effective way to rid our homes of mice is through the use of natural deterrents; keeping our homes free of food debris, crumbs and loosely bagged food is a must in order to deter rodent inhabitation.

Keep countertops clean and ensure food and pet food are kept in strong containers that can’t be chewed through. Tightly seal trash with lids, and don’t leave pet food out at night. Fix any holes or cracks within the home with a sealant and insulation. You can also try rodent repellents; some people report that ammonia-soaked cloths are helpful.

Humane Trapping Methods: If any mice linger after these deterrents are used, they can be humanely trapped with live cages. Insert peanut butter at the back of the trap so mice fully enter and don’t get their tails caught in the trap door. It’s also easy to make DIY traps: Place peanut butter inside a small trash can, then stagger books along one side so the mouse can climb the books and jump into the trash can, but can’t jump back out.

After the mouse is trapped, place a towel over the top, then release the animal. “House mice and rodents that have lived in buildings for their entire lives will have a slim chance of surviving outdoors,” according to the Humane Society. “If possible, relocate mice to an outbuilding like a shed or garage.” Check traps regularly, as dehydration occurs within only a few hours. If you’ll be away for many hours, move traps where mice can’t get in.

—Kayla Matthews, courtesy Mother Earth News

Fun Facts about Mice:

Mice are often unfairly portrayed as dirty rodents, but they are actually fascinating, gentle creatures.

For instance, mice:

• Communicate with one another vocally beyond the auditory capabilities of human ears.
• Use facial expressions to convey moods.
• Designate separate areas or compartments within their homes for food, shelter and toileting purposes.
• Typically stay within 10 to 26 feet of their nest, even when searching for food.
• Can fit their bodies through holes as tiny as dimes.
• Use their whiskers to determine temperature changes and detect smooth and rough textures.

Roaches

Cockroaches are one of the most successful organisms on earth. They’ve been around for 350 million years and survived several global catastrophes — including the extinction of the dinosaurs. Their evolutionary tenacity is attributable to their appetite: Roaches will eat any organic matter — from dried wallpaper paste to pizza crumbs. Our revulsion toward them seems as deeply ingrained as their ability to survive, and with good reason: They carry mites and disease, and their droppings can trigger asthma attacks.

Cockroach complaints are common in cities because underground conduits for trains, sewage, natural gas, water and wiring connect buildings, and these subterranean networks teem with several species of cockroach. Roaches are attracted by anything they find edible, but obsessive cleanliness will get you only so far. Roaches can survive, even thrive, on specks of leather that flake off of shoes and the dust that falls from natural-fiber clothes. When it comes to roaches, the best offense is a strong defense: Caulk your home.

Get a 25-dollar air-powered gun and use an air compressor (300 dollars, or 50 a day to rent). Avoid any brand that contains a binder based on natural gum. You may find a caulk that contains boric acid, a mild but effective cockroach toxin. Then, seal yourself in. Fill cracks in the walls and ceiling; between walls, ceilings and floors; and around doors and windows. Plug holes carrying wires and plumbing. Remove and caulk entrances of outlets, switches, fixtures and cables. Stuff roach- (and mouse-) repelling steel wool into cavities too large to caulk, and tack aluminum flashing over large holes and caulk around them. Install screen in a caulking gasket behind the outlet fixture of all air vents. If roaches still manage to squeeze in, you can use powdered boric acid and a dust blower to dust their entry points. Find instructions at motherearthnews.com/roaches.

—Courtesy Mother Earth News

Cheap Fix:

Nobody will ever be able to permanently get rid of our friendly “companion” the cockroach. The bugs were on the planet long before man, and they’ll likely still be twitching their antennae millions of years after Homo sapiens have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Of course, you could call in an expensive professional “fogger,” whose liberal applications of spray will do in a great number of bugs (and not do your health any good, either). But these poisons have little effect on the hidden egg sacs; before the insecticide smell has left your food, new roaches will appear to take the place of the fallen. These insects are nigh on invincible. But Ms. Roach does have one weakness: She dearly loves a little drink now and then.

All it takes to get the pests’ attention is about a quarter inch of sweet wine in a bowl. Leave this libation in the bugs’ stompin’ grounds, turn off your lights, and go to bed. The roaches will smell the stuff (you can count on it), head for that container with a will, clamber up the sides, and guzzle away. After a few sips (not many insects can hold their liquor) the carousers will fall, drunk, into the bowl and won’t be able to muster up the coordination or ambition to get back out again. If roaches can giggle, they must surely titter while they drown.

It doesn’t matter how many leggy corpses are already afloat in the fatal pool. New bugs will keep on fighting their way in to meet the same soggy death. This “booze bomb” has to be about the quickest, cleanest, most effective method of roach control.

—Boyd Hill, courtesy Mother Earth News

Spiders

Most spider species are venomous, but in North America only a few — primarily the brown recluse, the black widow and the hobo spider of the Pacific Northwest — have the potential to inflict serious harm on humans. (Also, the yellow sac spider — a recently introduced species from Europe that’s becoming increasingly common in the eastern United States — can inflict a painful “hornet-like” bite that can be serious.) Meanwhile, billions of harmless spiders consume vast quantities of insects, serving as one of our planet’s most important pest controls. Still, poisonous spider bites are no laughing matter.

Fortunately, they’re also easy to avoid. Just follow these common-sense rules:

• Be especially wary in little-used, undisturbed places such as basements, outbuildings, brush piles, crawl spaces, attics and closets. Look carefully before you reach into the back of that old dresser drawer!

• Shake blankets and towels that have been stored or piled for awhile. The same is true for rags, laundry, shoes and clothing.

• Wear gloves, long pants and long sleeves when raking leaves, cleaning out a shed or basement, or fetching firewood from a woodpile. Knock one log against another before picking it up, and watch for any spider activity.

• Remove any litter or clutter in basements, attics, garages and sheds that might provide shelter for spiders.

• If you think a spider has bitten you, apply an ice pack to the area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour for four to six hours to reduce the pain and itching. If you suspect you’ve been bitten by a poisonous spider, seek immediate medical attention.

—Terry Krautwurst, courtesy Mother Earth News

Reader Tip:

We look for ways to keep spiders out of our living areas without killing them, because of their appetite for other unwelcome insects. Sprays are available, but the chemicals in them can be dangerous. After research, we found our solution in a bar of Ivory soap. We grate a bar and sprinkle a pinch of the flakes into every corner of the house, replacing with fresh flakes monthly. Using this, we’ve been able to control the spider population in our house, which is amazing because we live in a small cabin surrounded by forest. Sometimes we find small spiders in our vehicles, too, so now we sprinkle the grated soap under the seats.

—Mary Ann Reese, Maple Falls, Washington


All About Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a powder made from fossilized crustaceans called diatoms. DE’s sharp edges cut into insects’ bodies, causing them to die of dehydration. Diatomaceous earth is most useful in dry situations — for example, puffing it into crevices where cockroaches have been seen. In the first few days after treatment, cockroaches may become more visible as they search for water, but will die within two weeks. DE becomes less effective when wet, yet still can be used in the garden to make life difficult for newly emerged Japanese beetles or cutworms. In dry weather, DE spread beneath plants will kill slugs. When buying DE, be sure to buy a product listed as “food grade” and store it in its original container on a high shelf, out of the reach of children and pets, in a dry place.

Which Pests Does DE Control? Most indoor invaders, including roaches, silverfish, spiders and even fleas are impacted by DE. Including DE in chickens’ dust bath mixture helps prevent problems with lice. DE can also help control fleas on dogs and reduce parasites in horses, pigs and other animals.

How to Use DE: Lightly sprinkle dry DE on the soil’s surface where slugs, newly emerged Japanese beetles, or other unwanted pests will come into direct contact with the dry particles. Renew after rain or heavy dew. Indoors, use a bulb puffer to blow DE into crevices where bugs are likely to hide. You also can puff DE onto newly hatched larvae of many pests, including squash bugs, Mexican bean beetles and Colorado potato beetles.

Honeybees and other beneficial insects have no way to protect themselves from the mechanical effects of DE. When applying DE to plants that are likely to be visited by bees, cover them with an old sheet after treatment so the DE will target pests and the bees can’t get to the plants. Later, uncover the plants and rinse away the DE with a fine spray of water.

—Barbara Pleasant, courtesy Mother Earth News