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.