Every rural, suburban, or urban household runs into various problems with pests or—to use the broadest possible term—nature.
Indoor and outdoor insect invasions, creatures running around inside the walls, droppings in the cupboards, tunnels in the sills or foundation beams, worms in the broccoli, bats in the attic, chirping in the chimney, mold growing on the moldings, lawn grass turning yellow and slimy, something chewing the bark off trees and shrubs, beavers felling trees and damming a wetland…
Unless you’ve met and solved the problem at hand before, your first question is probably, Whoa! What in heck is this?, followed quickly by, What can I do?, then maybe trying the first “solution” that pops into your mind.
In a former job, I helped train and support volunteers on a toll-free telephone line dedicated to answering all manner of household, home, and garden questions. Among the most memorable, a call I took myself:
(Panicky woman’s voice) Help! The gigantic spider is still coming! It has me trapped in a corner of my kitchen. I’ve sprayed it with everything I could grab along the way: Lysol, Windex, Pam, a flea spray for the dogs. Nothing works.
Setting aside her hyper-exaggerated fear that a single spider was targeting her, the caller represented one common approach people take when confronted by what they perceive as a novel threat—a rapid, scattershot attempt to take some immediate action that will ease their anxiety.
It’s rarely an emergency
Except for disasters such as floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, most “nature-caused” household problems aren’t true emergencies that demand immediate action. However serious, they allow you to take a breath, step back, make some careful observations, and seek safe, effective options.
Before you act, consider that you might not only be “solving” a problem you don’t have, but in the process even creating an entirely new problem.
Pest Problem Checklist
Here’s a checklist to consider before you act
- Can you actually see the pest you think is causing the damage (to houseplants, garden plants, shrubs, trees, foundation beams, wooden moldings, etc.)? If so, describe it in detail. If it’s tiny, use a magnifying glass.
- Take notes or close-up photos of both the alleged pest and the damage.
- If you think it’s an insect, but you can’t see it, look on the undersides of leaves, scratch around the soil at the base of the affected plants, or look for droppings.
- Before spritzing any sort of pesticide (including fungicides) indoors, check the label! Is it registered for indoor use? Pesticides intended for use outdoors can harm your health if used inside.
- Now check to see if the pesticide is registered for use against the specific pest you’ve identified.
- Check all the plumbing runs, joints and traps, around air conditioners and utility entryways, and sills for moisture and dripping water. Over time, the drips soften surrounding wood of beams and sills, inviting wood-boring insects and mold growths.
- For mammal pests running around inside the walls—rats, mice, chipmunks, squirrels—or inhabiting your attic: raccoons and bats, do a careful examination to determine where and how they’ve gotten in. Your best defense: exclusion strategies that prevent animals from getting in in the first place.
- Glue traps are gruesome and inhumane. Rodenticides (poisons) cause long, agonizing deaths of target animals, may poison children who find and ingest them, and can kill wild birds, cats and dogs that eat the dead rodents.
A Word on Live-Trapping
Many folks like the idea of live-trapping rodents or other mammal pests in your home or garden for release “a new home a few miles down the road.” Sounds like an ideal solution for wildlife lovers. However, consider:
- You may trap a non-target species such as a skunk, a porcupine, or the neighbor’s cat.
- You may trap a rabid animal. This might include a target animal. Even handling the trap could endanger you.
- You might return to find a half-trapped animal that’s chewing off its own body parts trying to escape. (This also happens with the snap-traps used to kill small rodents.)
- Even a non-rabid, frightened animal could bite you when you attempt to open the trap.
Although live traps can be a useful tool when used properly, wildlife biologists note that setting an animal free in an unfamiliar habitat is worse than being shot in the trap; the animal is subjected to slow starvation, exposure, or predation.
After reading about live-trapping household insects difficult to eradicate (e.g., bedbugs), many people choose to call an exterminator.
Pest control help
Once you’ve assembled detailed information about your problem, where can you turn for help? Some suggestions:
- Your state or county Cooperative Extension office may host a toll-free telephone line to call, or have experts on hand to answer your questions; they (and Extension operations in neighboring states) also offer a host of online fact sheets and guides to common household, lawn, and garden problems.
- You could post your question on the nationwide Cooperative Extension website’s handy Ask an Expert page that will guide you to experts in your own state that can help answer your question.
- For health concerns (e.g., Does my house contain dangerous mold?), visit the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Your state and local public health officials may help too, either with a hotline or fact sheets.
- For wildlife conflicts (beavers, birds, bats, etc.) call your state office of Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Your state department of Fish and Wildlife may also have fact sheets or personnel to help you solve your particular problem.
- Armed with your information, ask your favorite search engine. Describe the problem, its location, and (if possible) the pest in your query. (You may need to refine your terms until you get the results you’re expecting.) Avoid the obvious commercial sites that may be pitching their own product or services. Check out three or four sites offering science-based factual information to get a well-rounded understanding of ways you might manage your pest problem.
See the Almanac’s Pest and Disease Library—for all your common problems!