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.
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.