Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Are Bird Mites Real? Do They Infest Homes?

What are bird mites?

This image shows a mite, and human hair for scale, that was collected from a hummingbird feeder in mid-summer. The mite was carried to the feeder on the beak of a hummingbird. The dark patch visible inside the mite is hummingbird blood on which the mite had fed (this dark coloration is why the mites are sometimes called "black pepper mites").

Birds/poultry and rodents harbor a group of ectoparasitic mites (numerous, related species) that live in the animal's nest and feed on its blood. When these mites leave the host animal's nest and enter our homes, or we otherwise come into contact with them, the mites are called bird mites, nest mites or sometimes rodent mites.

These mites only leave the host animal's nest if the nest is abandoned or if the animal dies. So a typical scenario might be that a bird nest located outside a bedroom window, perhaps attached to the eves, is infested with these parasitic mites feeding on the occupants of the nest. The birds leave for some reason (migration, predation, and so forth) and in the absence of their normal hosts the mites abandon the nest and enter the house in search of a meal. The same scenario can happen with rodent nests in association with homes as well.

Do bird mites infest homes & people?

Mites that enter homes will bite causing a irritating, itchy lesion much like a mosquito bite. However, since we are not a suitable substitute for their natural hosts bird mites can not establish a permanent infestation in homes. Generally if the source nest of the invading mites is removed the migration into the home will stop. Once the source is eliminated then simple cleaning and vacuuming (dispose of dust bag outside) of the affected room is enough. Insecticides are generally not needed.

Unfortunately there's considerable misinformation about this mite's ability to permanently infest homes and people. People will believe what they want to believe but there simply is no good scientific evidence that the mites are able to survive and reproduce on our blood alone. So while they can certainly bite us, neither we nor our homes can become infested by bird mites.

Finally, people who handle birds and rodents such as those that raise poultry or work in a pet store often encounter these mites.

See Bird Mites at our 'Bugs site for more information.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What are These Bugs on My Deck?

We have started a new "'Bugs Help Line" to answer specific questions from our visitors. For instructions on how to submit your own questions about home and garden pests click here.

This question about swarms of bugs found on a deck was recently submitted:

Question:
We just noticed the bugs a week ago and they seem to be increasing rapidly. I've noticed that they only seem to be on certain locations all with one thing in common - some variation of man made plastic. They are all over the rails of our resin deck, on the plastic slide on my daughter's play set and the vinyl sheet covering our firewood (which is far from the house). There are a few locations on our vinyl siding that has them as well.

They are mostly darkish brown with a few reddish ones. They appear to have wings and hop or fly when I blow on them or touch the area around them.

Do you have any idea what they are and should we do anything about them?

Answer:
These are called barklice, or psocids, but they are not related to true lice and are harmless. Barklice feed on the fungi that grows on surface of tree bark, or in this case on your deck. There's a related species called booklice that can be a minor nuisance/stored product pest in homes. No control is necessary and they won't damage your deck. If you clean the deck and remove the fungi/mold the barklice will go away. Various commercial cleaners can be used but ordinary laundry detergent will work as well as anything to remove fungi and mold.

Wood Destroying Insects

There are only a small number of insects that actually damage wood. Click here for a comprehensive review of wood-damaging insects in the US.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mysterious Bed Bug Bites At Night

We have recently started a new "Bugs Help Line" to answer specific questions from our visitors. For instructions on how to submit your own questions about home and garden pests click here.

This question about possible bed bug bites was recently submitted:

Question:

My name is Tiffani and I think I may have bed bugs but I'm not sure because I have all the bites and my 2 year old daughter who sleeps with me most nights has not been bitten once. Yet I wake up with new bites everyday. I have not yet seen a bed bug but I have not had the chance to really search yet. I want to know if it's possible that we have bed bugs if only one person who sleeps in the room is being bitten? Also thank you for your website it was very helpful.

Answer:

Tiffani,

The
first thing to do is to thoroughly check your bed and bed side furniture for bed bugs and/or dropping. Left up the mattress and check any folds or seams for reddish-brown bugs or their black, greasy droppings. Also check nearby tables, the bed frame, and so forth. Here's a drawing of what bed bug bites and bed bug hiding places look like.

If your search fails to turn up evidence of bed bugs then the bites are probably caused by something else. I think it is unlikely that you alone would be bitten and not your daughter sleeping in the same bed but nothing is impossible **.

** A commenter has pointed out that not everyone reacts in the same way to the allergen in bed bug bites. Just as people differ in how they react to mosquito bites (medically very similar), some people get a large, itchy swelling while others hardly react at all. So, the absence of a "bite mark" does not always guarantee that no bite has occurred.

If bed bugs are not the cause take a look at this list of other possible causes of mysterious bug bites.

If you do find bed bugs use the cleaning suggestions in the page cited above to get rid of them. Usually a thorough cleaning and a light dusting of insecticidal dust of the hiding places is enough.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Which are the Best "Bug Sprays"?

Whenever I'm ask to recommend a good "bug spray" (aerosol spray insecticide) for general pest control in homes I'm tempted to answer "none" because, in fact, aerosol spray cans are not a particularly good way to package and apply insecticides. The reasons are pretty simple: aerosol sprays cans are expensive to manufacture thus making the cost to the user very high compared to other forms of insecticide; also, because aerosol cans are under relatively high pressure they produce a very fine spray droplet which tends to drift in the air making it difficult to place the insecticide exactly where you want it (and where you don't want it, like up your nose!); and finally, for those concerned about waste, you're left with an empty metal can that has to be discarded.

Having said all that, however, I know that many people prefer aerosol sprays to other forms of insecticide packaging because they are very convenient, and cost is usually a secondary issue.

So, if you are going to use aerosol sprays, which are the best for use in homes? Fortunately, within the last few years new aerosol insecticide products have been developed that are much safer for the user and less damaging to the environment ("eco-friendly") in terms of their effects on other, so called non-target animals. These new aerosols contain natural plant oils instead of synthetic pesticides and for this reason are sometimes called botanical insecticides.

Do Plant Oils Work As Well?

Perhaps surprisingly the answer is yes. In the right formulations plant oils are just as effective as the synthetic pesticides found in older bug sprays. And, another big advantage of botanical sprays is they usually smell better, with what can be described as a soft botanical scent. Older aerosol insecticides often have a strong petroleum solvent odor.

Pesticides based on plant oils are now available in a variety of formulations including wettable powders, dusts, liquid concentrates as well as aerosol sprays. Only the aerosols are generally available in retail stores and even these can be very difficult to find locally. We have found the two listed below to be the most useful in terms of general pest control around the home and both are available online through Amazon:

Use EcoEXEMPT KO (see article below) for all crawling and flying pests in homes.

Use EcoEXEMPT JET (see article below) for yellowjacket and paper wasp nests.

If you are curious about any of the new botanical insecticides, including the wettable powder and dust formulations, and the aerosols mentioned above, see this article at our 'Bugs site for much more information:



subject: Best Bug Sprays For Home Use

Monday, November 16, 2009

Do Termite Baits Work?

Until fairly recently homes were protected from most termites by treating the soil around the home's foundation with highly toxic and long-lasting insecticides. Even today soil-applied insecticides are still used but the insecticides now are less toxic and less persistent, and may be less effective.

Termite Baits

Termite baits combine a low toxicity insecticide with an attractive food (usually some kind of cellulose). Bait stations, usually a plastic tube containing a bait that can be buried below the soil surface, are placed around the property where foraging termites find them and carry poisoned food back to the termite colony. Control is maintained over time with periodic replacement of the bait.

Termite baits are much less toxic and environmentally hazardous than old-style, soil applied insecticides. They are very effective when used properly and maintained over time. The main disadvantage, however, is they do require regular, long-term maintenance and for this reason can be expensive compared to a one time insecticide application.

There are several termite bait products available to homeowners as DIY projects however most are only available through pest control companies.

For much more information about termite baits, including current products, see the following article: Baits for Subterranean Termites.

I've also posted a series of articles about termites in general starting here including pictures of the different termite castes.

Subject: Do Termite Baits Work?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Regional Pest Control -- South-Central US

We have launched a series of articles at our 'Bugs site to encourage homeowners to do their own pest control rather than relying on professional exterminator/pest control services. We believe that in many, perhaps most situations homeowners themselves can manage pests more economically and with less environmental impact.

New articles are arranged geographically so that we can focus on just the most important pests where you live. Our second article focuses on the south-central US in and around the cities of Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Pine Bluff.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Which Pesticides Kill Bed Bugs?

Because bed bugs are so closely associated with bedrooms and bedding we need to be especially careful when selecting a pesticide to use against these little blood suckers. It makes no sense to apply a toxic pesticide in our rooms and on our beds that we would then be exposed to as we sleep or otherwise use the room.

Fortunately there are now very effective natural dust insecticides for use against bed bugs that also offer a wide safety margin when used in bedrooms and on bedding. These natural dusts include silica, pyrethrum and botanical oil combinations. These dusts should only be used after all exposed bed bugs are removed by thorough vacuuming and cleaning as a final step in your bed bug control program.

We've posted a series of articles at our 'Bugs site about bed bugs, bed bug control and using natural dust insecticides. The first article is about bed bug indentification and life cycles and you can follow the links to the other articles about control and which insecticides are available for use indoors.

Where Do Fleas Lay Eggs?

Fleas are probably the most common and vexing pest problem for most pet owners. These tiny ectoparasites bite to feed on blood from our pets but will bite us as well. Flea bites result in itchy lesions, secondary infections and even the transmission of internal parasites and diseases. Homes can be quickly infested, seemingly over night, and once this happens getting rid of a flea problem can be all-consuming.

While modern flea medications like Frontline (tm) do a excellent job of controlling biting fleas that are on pets, what about flea eggs? Where do fleas lay their eggs and how can these eggs be killed at the same time as the adult, biting fleas?

Eggs are laid in the animal's nest

Like most other insects fleas have several distinct stages in their development, namely eggs, larvae, and adults. For fleas in particular the only stage that bites is the adult flea. Most of a female flea's eggs are laid in the host animal's nest. In the case of indoor pets this "nest" can be anything from a specific pet bed to a favorite chair or rug to, unfortunately, our own bed depending on where the pet spends time.

After a short incubation period eggs hatch into worm-like flea larvae that also live in the nest feeding on dried blood and feces from the adult. Then, after a period of development, flea larvae pupate and eventually emerge as adults ready to find their first meal of blood. Adult fleas spend most of their time in the host animal's fur feeding but occasionally return to the nest as well.

Because both flea eggs and flea larvae live in the animal's nest, the nest should be treated at the same time as any treatment for the adult, biting fleas. Treatments for flea eggs and larvae usually involve a type of insecticide called an insect growth regulator, or IGR. IGRs are very safe, effective and long-lasting so they are a perfect compliment to topically-applied flea medications.

We've posted a series of articles about fleas and flea control at our 'Bugs site. The first article is about flea identification and life cycle and there are links to more detailed flea control suggestions including how to use IGRs to stop larvae from developing into adult fleas.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Do Dust Mites Bite Humans or Pets?

Dust mites are a type of tiny mite that feeds on the organic debris, or dust, in our homes. What we call "dust" is actually made of a mixture of hair, skin cells, plant pollen and other stuff that we and our pets shed every day, plus material that blows in from the outside. On a percentage basis skin flakes and dander from animals make up a large proportion of dust in the average household. Dust mites feed on this debris and usually go about their business pretty much unnoticed. Dust mites are light in color and tend to stay in undisturbed areas where dust accumulates.

Dust mite do not bite people or our pets and in fact don't have the type of mouthparts (jaws) that would allow them to bite even if they "wanted" too, nor do they burrow into skin in the way that scabies mites do. The main problem that dust mites cause is allergy. Dust mites are notorious for the allergens, substances that cause everything from a stuffy nose to full-blown asthma, that they excrete in their feces.

For more information about dust mites, dust mite allergies and protecting yourself from the allergens we've posted a series of articles at our 'Bugs site. The series start with "House Dust Mites and Dust Mite Allergens".

Friday, November 06, 2009

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

Bed bugs (sometimes spelled bedbugs, without the space) are fairly small (1/8"-1/4"), wingless, reddish-brown insects that are only found in association with people, usually in the room where people sleep. You never find a bed bug just crawling around outside, for example! They don't move very fast, can't fly and depend on us to move them from place to place usually by hiding in our belongings.

Bed bugs are normally first detected because of mosquito-like bites that occur during the night. Bites itch but are not otherwise dangerous because bed bugs do not spread disease like some other insects. Once bites occur an inspection of the room and bedding will usually turn up the insects between the mattresses, on mattress seams or on bedside furniture.

See pictures of bed bugs and a drawing of hiding places and bites. The second link also has information about safe and effective ways of getting rid of bed bugs if they do turn up.

Subject: What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New York City Bed Bugs - Bites in the Big Apple

Why are bed bugs returning to our big cities?

Human bed bugs, Cimex lectularius, are almost unique among ectoparasitic insects in that they specialize in feeding on human blood, and only on human blood (click here if you're not sure what bed bugs look like). While there are plenty of insects and other arthropods that feed on the blood of animals such as birds, reptiles (snakes and lizards), and mammals (hairy creatures that give birth to live young and have mammary glands) most will happily feed on a variety of different animals as well. For example, certain mosquitoes may select a bird for one meal then a human for the next meal, and so on. This, by the way, is how West Nile virus gets passed between birds and humans. The human bed bug, on the other hand, feeds only on us.


Human bed bugs, along with body lice, have always been closely associated with their favorite meal ticket, people. Both insects are even the subject of children's nursery rhymes and common vernacular, for example "cooties!" and "don't let the bed bugs bite!". Since our earliest history bed bugs have visited us at night and body lice have shared our clothing.

It has only been during the last 60 years or so, since the end of World War II, that these insects have been relatively scarce. In fact, if you were born after 1945 you may have never encountered bed bugs or body lice at all. This was certainly not the case for earlier generations who are/were well acquainted with these little blood suckers.

Body lice are now controlled mainly by regular washing of clothes in modern societies but in displaced populations insecticides are still used. What really changed after 1945 was the introduction of synthetic pesticides like DDT during World War II that dramatically reduced the incidence of both insects. In the years following the War bed bugs and body lice all but disappeared.

During the 1960's, however, we learned that insecticides came with a price. If used indiscriminately synthetic pesticides can damage the environment and even our own health. Because of this, since the 1980's there have been restrictions placed on where and when synthetic pesticides can be used, and the greatest restrictions have come to any use indoors. By the 1990's the synthetic pesticides were mostly banned, at least in the US, for use indoors which has opened the gate, so to speak, for the re-emergence of bed bugs.

So this is why the bed bugs are back - safer indoor spaces with less pesticide residue are also "safer" for our old pal the bed bug. Fortunately we now know how to manage bed bugs without toxic pesticides. For details we've posted a series of articles about bed bugs at our 'Bugs site starting with bed bug identification and bite symptoms with links to control information. Sleep tight.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bug control tips in houses and apartments

Which bugs invade homes and which need control?

Most people believe there is a long list of insects that invade homes and can potentially damage our valuables or even hurt us. The truth is the list is very short and in modern society these species pose little real threat to us or our homes. Oftentimes the drastic steps we take to avoid these species are potentially more damaging than the insects themselves. In other words "the cure is worse than the disease".

I've been answering questions about insects from the general public for over 20 years (see my bio here) and the following eight are the ones most often found in homes. These eight represent the vast majority of insects that ever enter homes and none pose a significant threat if reasonable levels of sanitation are maintained.

The Big Eight Household Bugs

ants
carpet beetles
cockroaches
fleas (only if pet dogs or cats are housed indoors)
house centipedes
meal moths
silverfish
spiders

Obviously individual pests on this list will vary in importance depending on where you live. For example, cockroaches are more common in warm climates whereas silverfish need dampness to thrive but small nuisance ants can occur almost anywhere. Take a look at the individual pest pages by clicking on the links above. Each set of pages describes the pest's life history and some options for control when needed.

What about insecticides?

I almost never suggest that people use insecticides indoors to control household pests because with conventional pesticides any potential benefit is far outweighed by potential hazard. However, there are now new natural insecticides made from plant oils (so called botanical pesticides) that are safe enough, and effective enough, to be recommended in situations of even severe infestation. The main downsides of botanicals are somewhat higher cost and limited availability. See the individual pest pages cited above. A good selection of plant-based botanical insecticides are available here @ Amazon.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Small, tiny, little black bugs in homes

carpet beetle
varied carpet beetle
I am a volunteer in the "Entomology (Study of Bugs)" section at a site called AllExperts. The site allows users to ask questions of volunteer "experts" in a variety of categories.

As a volunteer I get a variety of interesting and sometimes funny questions but one category stands out because of how often it is asked, often using very similar words. The question starts out something like "I have [small or tiny or little] black bugs on the walls in my ____________. They crunch when I squish them. What are they?" Sometimes the question includes a picture but often it does not. While there are many insects that fit this general description the one that you are most likely to find in the typical home are dermestid beetles, commonly called carpet beetles (see photo above). Carpet beetle adults can be all black to mottled grey, white, and brown, and round to oval in shape. They are all fairly small (see carpet beetle pictures).

Need an id? Send me a clear image here.

Carpet beetles are very common and you can find a few in almost every home. Carpet beetle larvae (often described as "fuzzy", see pictures here) feed on a wide variety of plant and animal material including hides, hair, dried plant fibers, grains and so forth. Our modern homes are full of this sort of material - we call it wool, silk, natural cloth fibers, cereal and even dry pet food. Animal skins and mounted animal trophies can be damaged by carpet beetles as well.

Carpet beetles reproduce more slowly than some other pests so they may be relatively few in number but their damage can be significant. Dermestid beetles can be especially damaging in museums and other places where animal and plant materials are stored for long periods.

Carpet beetle control

Don't be overly concerned if you find a few carpet beetles on the walls of your home. They pose no threat to the home's structure and they won't bite. Normal cleaning and proper food storage is usually all that is needed to keep carpet beetles under control. Do not resort to insecticides and never use mothballs (see this article about mothballs and their dangers for more information).

If you are finding beetles regularly or discover an infestation in stored food, take a look at our control suggestions.  

Questions? Contact us here.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Regional pest information

We have launched a new series of articles to encourage homeowners to do their own pest control rather than relying on professional exterminator services. We believe that in many, perhaps most, situations homeowners can manage pests more economically and with less environmental impact.

New articles will be arranged geographically so that we can focus on just the most important pests in a particular region. Take a look a our first article that covers the most important pests in western Oregon (our first regional article). Leave a comment below if you'd like your region tackled next.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Flea sprays for carpets and pet bedding

flea biteFleas can be extremely annoying and even dangerous for you and your pet. Fleas are ecotoparasites that feed on blood and can transmit diseases and some internal parasites like worms when they bite. In fact, did you know that one of the deadliest human pandemic plagues in all history was spread by flea bites? This was the Black Death plague of the middle ages (1349-1352; click the link if you are curious). In modern times, however, fleas are more of a nuisance than a real health threat although flea bites can be so stressful and prone to infection from scratching for some animals that death has occurred.

Fortunately, pet owners today have a wide variety of ways to combat an existing flea infestation and to pro-actively prevent fleas from gaining a foothold in the first place. Fleas can be controlled by treating pets directly with a variety of flea medications and carpets, furniture and pet bedding can be treated with very low toxicity chemicals that stop flea development.

Twenty years ago the only options for flea (and tick) control were flea collars and toxic insecticides. While flea collars are moderately effective for ticks they are less effective, ironically, for fleas because fleas tend to infest animals around the back legs and belly whereas ticks attach around the head near collars. We no longer need to apply toxic insecticides indoors because much safer alternatives are now available to all pet owners.

Flea sprays stop flea development in carpets and pet bedding

One question we get often is "how effective are flea sprays?". By "flea spray" people mean the aerosol (sometimes hand pump) sprays that contain a relatively low toxicity insecticide like pyrethrum and an insect growth regulator, usually methoprene or Precor. Insect growth regulators stop larval fleas, which don't bite, from turning into adult, biting fleas.

Take a look at this page about fleas and the flea life cycle for general information. You'll also find a link on that page for our flea control suggestions and product comparisons that we update frequently.

When used properly, and in combination with other flea control methods, flea sprays can be very effective especially for long-term control. Always check the product label for the active ingredients methoprene, Precor or some other insect growth regulator. One thing to look for is a statement on the package that says something like "breaks the flea life cycle!" which indicates that the spray contains an ingredient that stops flea development. Treat carpets, furniture and pet bedding with the sprays because this is where flea larvae live. No need to treat outdoors with any flea control product because fleas generally stay close to the animal's "nest" or bedding.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Unknown bug bites and dry skin

Reports of "mysterious bug bites" increase in winter

Every winter the number of people contacting us about mysterious bug bites increases. The typical question is something like "I feel something biting me but I can't see anything", or even "I've got bites all over my ______ but I can't catch whatever it is". While there is a small number of insects and mites that actually do bite people most of these reports have a much simpler explanation.

There are many causes for mysterious or unknown bug bites. Some are caused by real insects or mites (see the Causes of Mysterious Bug Bites article below for a list of possible culprits), but others are caused by non-arthropod agents such as allergy, drugs or even environmental chemicals.


Something as simple as winter-dry skin can even be mistaken for "bug bites". Everyone has probably felt the itchy, "crawly" feeling of dry skin and wondered, at least for a moment, if some bug (probably a spider!) was getting ready to bite. For some people these feelings become overwhelming and they come to believe they are actually infested.

When confronted with a question about an unseen bug biting my first reaction is usually to suggest they consult with a dermatologist to rule out allergy and chemical sensitivity. Dermatologists are pretty good at telling the difference between these skin aliments and true bug bites.

Take a look at the article cited above for a list of the insects and mites that do bite people but also consider that what you are experiencing is actually a case of mistaken identity. In my 20+ years of taking questions about mysterious bug bites they almost always turn out to be caused by something other than an insect or mite.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Do flea "bombs" or foggers really work?

What are flea "bombs"?
Flea bombs or foggers are pressurized cans of insecticide that totally release their contents once the trigger is pressed. In use, flea bombs are placed upright in the center of a room. When the trigger is pressed the entire contents of the can are sprayed upward as a fine aerosol spray or mist.

Flea foggers usually contain an insecticide to control adult, biting fleas plus an insect growth regulator such as methoprene, or the tradename Precor, that prevents larval fleas from developing into adults - thus "breaking the flea life cycle".

Do flea foggers really work?
Unfortunately foggers, and other total release insecticides, are not a particularly good way to apply insecticides. This is because the foggers produce spray droplets that are too large to stay suspended in air long enough to disperse to "every nook and cranny" of the room as advertised. Essentially any surface that is shielded by furniture, is not treated. Plus, surfaces that don't need to be treated, like table tops, get covered with insecticide unless they are protected

What's better?
I prefer pump sprayers for applying insecticides because you can carefully place materials exactly where they are needed, even under and behind furniture. Non-aerosol insecticides are usually cheaper than aerosols, or foggers, plus, with aerosols you are left with disposal of the spray can when you are done. Hand pump sprayers are my first choice because they combine the advantages of a sprayer and are less expensive, easier to use, and produce a large enough droplet that it stays where you put it.

Some flea control products are packaged in their own hand pump spray bottle. These are both easy to use and very economical compared to aerosols. Take a look at this article about methoprene for an example of a hand pump sprayer for treating furniture and bed bedding with flea control insecticide.

There are also small (1 quart) hand pump garden sprayers that work well indoors for everything from flea control to insecticidal soap for house plants. These sprayers are also far more economical than any of the aerosol applicators. See our 'Bugs article about the new botanical insecticides for a wide selection of materials that can be used with hand pump sprayers.

Bug infested cars and Car Talk (tm)

Cockroaches, and other "bugs", in cars

Most of you probably know that Car Talk is a popular radio talk show on NPR where two brothers, Tom and Ray, talk about cars, car repair and the like. They take calls from car owners about everything imaginable having to do with their cars. Every once in while Tom and Ray get a call concerning insects, or other critters, that have invaded someone's car. A recent show included a caller whose car was infested with cockroaches but there have been other recent callers that had cars infested with wasps, honey bees, flies, mice, snakes, and so on.

The most common insects that invade cars are of course cockroaches and ants but wasps can build nests and a number of so called "stored product" pests like carpet beetles are common as well. It is, however, very unlikely that bed bugs would infest cars unless someone is actually living and sleeping in the vehicle. The reason for this is that bed bugs become active and feed at night and hide during the day.

So, what should you do if you discover an infestation of insects in your vehicle?

Don't use insecticides or other poisons!

First, don't spray insecticide or use foggers inside your car. If you contaminate the car with insecticide you will have to "live" with the residues every time you are in the car. Depending on the insecticide these residues can be dangerous, or at the very least smelly and unpleasant.

Clean

Second, carefully clean out the car's interior of any food scraps. Check under, between and beside seats, clean carpets, and so forth. Cockroaches are world champion scavengers and will exploit any food source you leave for them. A few Cheerios (tm) can support a cockroach for weeks. Don't make it easy for them to set up shop in your car, or your home for that matter. See these articles about the life history, identification and control of cockroaches for more information.

Social insects like bees and wasps might construct their nests inside car doors and under the hood especially if the cars are not driven frequently. A relatively new, non-native, species of paper wasp in the US, the European paper wasp, is notorious for constructing nests in car door frames. Cleaning alone, of course, won't get rid of bees and wasps so one of the next steps may be necessary.

Heat and cold

One of the best and safest ways to eliminate an insect infestation is with heat or cold. Most insects will die at 20 degrees Fahrenheit (home freezer temperature) or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (hot, but not scalding water). For example, freezing in a standard home freezer will kill all stages of most stored product insect pests like meal moths, and high temperatures will do likewise.

What about the insects that hibernate through cold winters, you say? Insects like meal moths and cockroaches are not adapted to survive low winter temperatures like some species that are native in cold climates. Virtually any freezing temperature will kill stored product type insect pests, most of which originated in the tropics.

So, the trick is to find a way to safely heat or cool the car to these temperatures for at least several hours. If you live in a hot climate your problem is solved. Park the car in the sun on a summer day, close the windows (leave them cracked slightly otherwise expanding hot air might pop them off the frame!), and come back in a few hours to a completely sanitized interior. Don't leave anything in the car that you value such as pets, kids, etc.

Short of this your options are more limited. Finding a place to heat a car to 140 degrees is probably easier than cooling something this large (drive-in freezer perhaps?). One idea I had is an auto body shop that paints cars. I've not yet checked with our local car repair shop but I think these paint drying rooms are capable of heating to at least 140 degrees.

Carbon dioxide fumigation

Another option is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide gas (the stuff the makes cola fizzy and contributes to global warming) is lethal to most insects. Carbon dioxide fumigation is routinely used, for example, to dis-infest horticultural plants like fresh flowers prior to shipment. I'm not really sure how well the following might work because as far as I know it has not been tested. But, carbon dioxide is easy to get in the form of dry ice. Many ice cream stores have dry ice for sale that they use to keep ice cream frozen. It is cheap and easy to transport in an ordinary cooler. If one placed a plastic tarp over the car with the edges weighted down and put a block of dry ice (a pound or two would be a good starting point) inside the car you might be able to safely fumigate the interior in a few hours as the dry ice "melted" to carbon dioxide gas. Be sure to completely air out the interior before you get in to driving away!

Ideas? Someone must have other good ideas for applying the principal of insect control with heat, cold or carbon dioxide to a car. Leave a comment.

RIP Tommy.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

What are these BIG black ants in my house?

big black carpenter ant
carpenter ant
In early spring or late winter people often encounter these large black ants in homes. These big ants are different than the more common small, brown "nuisance ants" that plague kitchens. The big ants are called carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.) and unlike their smaller cousins, nest above ground in cavities. Nest building and cavity expansion by these large, powerful ants can cause damage if nests occur in our homes.

Most of the ants you find in homes are small, less than 1/4", and brown. There are several species of small brown ants that can nest in our home's walls or nearby soil and enter homes in search of food and water (see House Ants for identification and control). Nuisance ants are just that, a nuisance. They won't damage your home and pose no health threat of any kind.

There's another ant, however, that occasionally is found in homes that is much bigger (1/4"-5/8"), darker in color, nests in the walls, floors and ceiling and can cause significant structural damage if not treated properly. People's first reaction often is "what are these BIG black ants in my home?" These are the carpenter ants and they can destroy the materials (structural wood, insulation, sheathing and so forth) that surround their nests. Thousands of dollars in home damage can be caused by a single carpenter ant nest as it grows.

Winged (left) and wingless (right) carpenter ants
Carpenter ants normally forage outside for food and water. Foraging ants will therefore move back and forth between their nest in a house and their hunting/foraging grounds outside. Carpenter ants are scavengers and predators taking whatever food they can find. The only time they normally enter the living space of homes is in late winter and early spring before their food sources develop outside. Therefore, if you find more than a few of these big black ants indoors, especially in spring, that's a pretty sure sign that you have a nest somewhere in the home. Don't be concerned about carpenter ants you find outdoors at any time of the year unless they are trailing into your home.

You may also find carpenter ants with wings (see photo above). These are the so called "reproductives" that start new colonies. Since this stage can easily shed their wings the ants you find indoors may have actually flown in through an open window or door.

Once you confirm the workings of a carpenter ant nest in your home (see Inspecting Homes For Carpenter Ants) plan to treat the whole house (see links below). There is no need for "periodic maintenance treatments" advocated by some pest control companies, treat only when you know for sure that there's a problem.

Use the following articles to treat carpenter ant nests around your home. If you are handy you can probably do most of this work yourself, except perhaps repair of existing damage. If you are not so handy take a look at the article below about hiring pest control services.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tick bite story

This is Elizabeth's story about the evils of ticks.

Being a member of the Over-Fifty set, it's not every day that I experience something completely new.

The other day I found a tick firmly attached to my back. I had never before been bitten by a tick. Found one on my clothes once, plucked more than I care to count off our basset hound (you can really tell when the Frontline wears off), but never been bitten myself.

How did I get the tick? Our best guess is that I picked it up from our dog while grooming her. I had had my arms wrapped around her while clipping her toenails and the little bugger must have wandered onto me. We had been walking in the local park that morning, and being a good basset hound, she had her nose buried in many little rodent runs in the tall grass. She probably picked it up there. And I picked it up from her.

So what DOES it feel like to be bitten by a tick? Well, it didn't really hurt. Within a short time after grooming the dog, I started to notice a slight, dull itch and even scratched it a little. It wasn't bad so I ignored it and continued with my work. The odd feeling continued and several hours later it had grown more uncomfortable. The sensation was that of something pulling on your skin, definitely not as sharp as a pinch. Craning my neck to see, I saw a black dot where the annoying feeling was. My first thought was that I had a mole but then I got a mirror to check it better and, to my horror, I saw LEGS! Eeeek!

Presenting a pair of tweezers to my husband, I requested his immediate assistance in tick removal. This little pest had firmly embedded its mouthparts into my back, so he had to pull quite hard. The tick was not ready to leave as it had not yet started feeding (it's body had not started inflating with blood). Trying to pull the tick out, my husband eventually pulled the tick apart leaving the mouthparts embedded.

He cleaned the wound, dabbed on some antibiotic lotion and covered it with a band-aid. For several days afterward, the area around the wound was tender, but it quickly diminished and mostly healed except for a little red spot within a week. The first couple of days we kept an eye on the bite, cleaning it with antiseptic and covering it with antibiotic cream and a band-aid. At first, there was a very round white “bull's eye” around the red wound, with redness around the white spot. We wanted to make sure it didn't develop into the red-rash bull's eye symptom of Lyme disease. It's possible that the marks and the tenderness were actually caused by the trauma of the removal process and not the bite itself, it's hard to say for sure.

Whatever the case, I healed with the tick's mouthparts still embedded in my skin, and lived to tell the tale.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Air purifiers (air cleaners) for dust mite allergy relief

Dust mites are tiny, nearly microscopic mites that live in the organic debris (dust) in our homes. They normally go unnoticed unless we happen to be allergic to their droppings. Proteins in the mite's feces can cause mild to severe allergic reaction in some people. If you are affected by dust mite allergy, here are a few things you can do.

First, see your physician or allergist to confirm that dust mite allergen is the cause of your condition. Once dust mites are confirmed take steps to separate yourself from the mite allergens and to reduce overall mite numbers. Do not, however, attempt to control dust mites with insecticide as this will only make your respiratory problems worse.

See this article for ways to reduce the dust mite population by controlling indoor relative humidity, removing air-borne allergens, encasing mattresses in allergen-proof covers, and wet-cleaning rooms.

Air purifiers (air cleaners) that use HEPA filters may be another good way to reduce air-borne allergens (dust mite allergen, pollen, molds, etc.) on a room by room basis. HEPA air purifiers actively draw an airstream through a series of microscopically fine filters that scrub the air of any particulate matter. These devices can be placed in bedrooms and other rooms where you spend a lot of time. While HEPA air filtation works well to remove dust mite allergen you should first do all of the other things suggested above. See this article about HEPA air filters and dust mites for more information.

Friday, January 02, 2009

What do bed bug bites look like?

bed bug bites and hiding placesBed bug bites look a lot like bad mosquito bites. Take a look at the lower drawing (left). Bed bug bites will generally be red with local inflammation and swelling. The redness is caused by an allergic reaction to proteins in the bug's saliva; again, much like a mosquito bite. There may be multiple bites in the same area and the bites can occur anywhere on your body. Bites will usually itch as well.

Bed bug bites are self-limiting and there is very little danger of disease transmission associated with these insects (unlike mosquitoes). Bites can be treated with over-the-counter anti-itch medications or antibiotic lotions if the skin is broken by scratching.

If you encounter bed bugs in a motel/hostel/inn or other sleeping establishment you should (1) notify the management so they can take steps to control the infestation, and (2) take care not to transport bed bugs from there to your next destination. Bed bugs can travel with you on your belongings such as backpacks, bedding, sleeping bags, pillows, etc.

Notice in the upper drawing that bed bugs like to hang out in the folds and seams of the mattress and under the mattress pad (red arrows). The black specks in this drawing are bed bug droppings, mostly digested blood. Rooms that are infested with bed bugs will usually harbor this type of evidence of the bug's presence.

See the following links for information about the life cycle of bed bugs and eliminating bed bug infestations. There's also some information about checking a room for bed bugs before moving in for the night.