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

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

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.


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.