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Pest Control Services (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2011/Winter 2012)
 
Go to Updated Ratings of 43 Puget Sound Area Pest Control Services

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Pest Control

If you have a pest problem, before calling in the pros first learn what you can do on your own. This article describes the most common household pests and offers tips for eliminating them. Except for termites and bedbugs, you should be able to cure most pest problems with a modest amount of effort and without hiring a pest control service. 

If you need expert assistance, our ratings of area pest control services, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find it. Several were rated “superior” overall by 80 percent or more of their surveyed customers, but some received such favorable ratings from fewer than half of their surveyed customers. 

Prices for household pest treatments also vary widely. While some companies charge $150 or less for a single visit, others require customers to sign up for long-term contracts that cost $400 or more. 

Don’t assume you’ll have to pay more to get good work: our evaluation revealed no relationship between prices charged for household pest treatments and customer satisfaction. 

Of course, the biggest waste of money is paying for service you don’t need. To avoid that, don’t contract for expensive pest control work without getting at least a few inspections and proposals. If you suspect you have a termite problem, it’s especially important to get several inspections because some companies have been known to recommend treatment when there is neither an active infestation nor serious threat of one. 

Be wary of entering long-term contracts. For most household pests, a single well-done treatment should do the job. Many companies provide free re-treatments if needed within a 30-day period. You are likely to save money by buying a single treatment and taking a modest chance that you will later need to pay for a follow-up visit or two rather than contracting up front for long-term treatment. 

For termites, consider paying annually to extend your guarantee for two or three years after treatment. After that, if you have had no further evidence of infestation, you will probably save by letting the guarantee lapse. Just keep an eye out for termite signs (see description in this article) and invite a company out every couple of years for an inspection/estimate (which some companies perform for free). 

Check the guarantees offered by companies you are considering. Will the company pay for pest damages or just re-treatment? How often will the company come to inspect at no extra charge? And what do you have to do to keep the guarantee in effect? 

Ask about the safety precautions the company will employ when using pesticides, and how you can minimize your exposure to them. Although the pesticides in use today are supposed to be less dangerous to humans and the environment than older generations—for instance, some chemicals are designed to interfere with the molting process essential to insects but not humans—the less you’re exposed to pesticides the better. 

A key change in the pest control field is the increased use of poisonous baits, as opposed to spray treatments. Baits keep the poison confined, and many bait formulations work by getting the insects to take the poison back to a nest where other insects are killed. This leads to destruction of total colonies or populations, rather than only the insects that come into contact with areas you spray. 

In the termite field, however, consider carefully the pros and cons of bait systems, as compared to the traditional use of chemical barriers around a structure. Companies offering termite bait systems will want you to sign up for regular monthly or quarterly visits for as long as you want protection to continue, at considerable annual cost to you. And, of course, if any sign of infestation is found among bait stations, the company will likely urge you to pay for further work and continued monitoring. 

Whatever company you use, make sure its best technicians do your work. Ask for a “certified pest control applicator,” a technician who has successfully completed training and passed a state-required test. Many companies dispatch technicians who are not certified applicators. If you like an applicator, note his or her name so you can request the same person for future visits. 

Introduction 

Because we share our world with a mind-boggling number and variety of creepy crawlies, it’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll be sharing your home with some of them. When it happens, you’ll want them out—now! We describe strategies for getting rid of your pests and keeping them from coming back. And so that you can get the best help when you need it, we have ratings of area pest control services for quality and price. 

Know Thy Enemy 

If you have household pests, the last thing you probably want to do is to read about them. But knowing how to identify them, how they live, and how to get rid of them will help you determine what you can do yourself, choose professional help if needed, and deal with any professional you hire. 

A few general steps will help you avoid or control most pests. Cutting off access to foods, reducing or eliminating excess moisture, closing off cracks and other small entry points, and keeping your home as clean as possible significantly reduces the likelihood of a serious pest problem. These simple measures will also make you less likely to need pesticides that could be hazardous to your family or pets. 

If you must resort to chemical warfare, take proper safety precautions and find out about possible health effects. If you use a professional, find out up front about how long the house must be vacant after application, and how long the chemicals will be potent. Be skeptical about safety claims and insist that any company follows safety precautions. 

Beyond these basic guidelines, determining what needs to be done will depend on the specific pest. 

Cockroaches 

The pests least welcome in many homes are cockroaches. The four most common types of cockroaches—the German, Oriental, Brown-banded, and American—are profiled here

All types of cockroaches hide during the day in sheltered, dark places, emerging at night to forage for food and to mate. They will eat just about anything organic. 

Cockroaches lay their eggs in out-of-the-way places in leathery capsules which are relatively invulnerable to pesticides. Depending on the species and prevailing temperature, the eggs hatch in 20 to 70 days. German cockroaches carry their eggs until about a day before they’re ready to hatch. 

What Harm They Do 

For the most part, the damage from cockroaches is emotional—the revulsion at finding them in food, underfoot, on clothes, around furniture, or in appliances. But evidence also indicates that roaches may contribute to allergy problems and that microbes on cockroach legs and bodies may be deposited on food and utensils leading to food poisoning, gastrointestinal disorders, and other illnesses in humans. In addition, since they eat starch and glue, cockroaches may damage fabrics, garments, books, and other items. 

How to Stop Them 

The best approach to controlling cockroaches is sanitation—eliminating food, water, hiding places, and breeding places. Caulk cracks and crevices where cockroaches can hide. Cut off access to garbage and dry pet food. 

If you discover cockroaches, locate the infestations and focus your control efforts on those areas. Sticky traps that catch the cockroaches that enter them can be useful. If you aren’t sure where your cockroaches are coming from, find out by placing these traps around your house. But traps alone are not likely to control any but a very minor roach infestation—especially of German cockroaches, which multiply rapidly. 

Bait stations, such as the popular Combat, Maxforce, and Raid baits, are much more effective control measures. Baits have slow-acting poisons; faster-acting poisons are less effective because roaches become wary of them. The roaches feed on the bait and slowly die, in some cases passing along poisons to other roaches that eat their fecal matter. 

Since cockroaches breed in places with free-standing water, kitchens and bathrooms are good places for baits, usually next to walls along baseboards, in corners, under sinks, in cabinets, and near plumbing fixtures. Place a substantial number of baits in areas where the roaches travel or the roaches may not discover them. Some sticky traps contain pheromones that attract roaches; placing baits near such pheromone-treated traps may increase the chances that roaches will find the baits. 

Baits won’t yield immediate results; it may be a week or so before they begin to reduce populations. Also, baits are not likely to attract female cockroaches carrying eggs, because these females do little feeding and avoid open spaces. 

In addition to traps and baits, boric acid powder is also effective. This dust should be blown into cracks and crevices, or lightly spread in areas where powder will not be an appearance problem and humans will not come into contact with it. You can also apply the powder behind window and door frames, where pipes pass through walls, on closet and bookcase shelves, on and behind baseboards and molding strips, and behind loose wallpaper. In basements, remove trash and apply the powder behind and under washing machines, and in cracks in walls and floors. 

Boric acid powder kills roaches that ingest it, although it is slow-acting so it may take a week or more to be effective. Because it has a positive electrostatic charge, the powder clings to the bodies of roaches that walk through treated areas and is ingested when the roaches groom themselves. 

If it remains dry and undisturbed, boric acid powder will be effective for as long as it is left in place. If it gets wet, the area will have to be re-treated. 

If all of these methods fail to solve your cockroach problem, or if you need immediate relief of a severe infestation, you or a pest control professional can add a chemical insecticide spray or dust to your arsenal. The chemicals most commonly contain pyrethroids (such as, cypermethrin and permethrin), which tend to agitate, repel, and quickly kill roaches that come in contact with them. While these chemicals attack the insect’s nervous system and may give you a quick knockdown, some cockroaches are resistant to them and others learn to avoid them. And because the residue of pyrethroid sprays is not long-lasting, your infestation may soon return as roaches hatch from eggs which were protected in spray-resistant egg cases. 

Although spray forms of pesticides leave no visible residues, dust forms have the advantage of reaching farther into crevices and other remote hiding places, and of remaining effective longer. 

Before you or a professional uses pesticides in a kitchen area, everything should be removed from kitchen drawers, cabinets, cupboards, and closets; stacked in out-of-the-way places; and covered to prevent contamination. The insides of drawers need not be treated with pesticide if they have been cleaned, but it is important to treat the sides, backs, and bottoms of the drawers and the inside of cabinets. Don’t replace the removed items until the spray is dry. Washing treated surfaces will reduce the effectiveness of the treatment. 

Take extra care if you use a spray in an aerosol can. Turn off all gas and electric appliances before spraying. Do not use more than the amount specified on the label. Get a container that includes a plastic extension so that you can direct the spray into cracks and crevices. If you use dust, you can choose one of a variety of dusters available in hardware stores—usually operated by means of a bellows, rubber bulb, or plunger. Dusts should be blown into dry areas, since they lose effectiveness when wet. Use a mask to avoid inhaling the dust. 

Regardless of what cockroach control method you use, it may miss some areas and require re-treatment—usually just on a spot basis. In apartments, continual treatment may be necessary if all of your neighbors are not as careful as you are. But once cockroaches are completely eliminated in a detached house, you can expect to be free of the problem for good—unless a new population is introduced on bags brought from a store, packaging from shipments, luggage, or similar items. The exceptions are the Oriental and American cockroaches, which may find their way in from the outdoors. 

From an environmental and human safety standpoint, traps and baits pose few, if any, risks. Also, boric acid powder has very low toxicity to humans. 

Pyrethroid sprays appear to be safer than some of the other chemicals (like diazinon) used to control cockroaches before the Environmental Protection Agency restricted their use. From an environmental and human safety standpoint, pyrethroid sprays have the virtue of decomposing fairly rapidly—usually within a few weeks—and at the concentrations found in aerosol cans, they are not very dangerous to humans. 

But pyrethroid sprays can have powerful, immediate effects on humans if taken orally in concentrated form (for example, from a jar obtained from a hardware store with which you are supposed to mix a diluted spray). The concentrated form can also affect humans through skin contact or inhalation. Effects of mild poisoning may include dizziness, fatigue, blurred vision, nausea, and diarrhea. Severe poisoning results in unconsciousness, muscle twitches, difficulty breathing, and death, if not treated. 

Getting Professional Help 

If your efforts to improve sanitation and other tactics don’t resolve your roach problem, you can turn to a professional. Professionals have several advantages over you: greater ability to identify the pest, more knowledge of its behavior, better equipment, access to stronger chemicals, and more experience with treatment approaches. 

If you do decide to use a professional, you will have to choose between a contract for regular treatment (usually monthly or every other month) or a one-shot treatment with additional treatments if infestation continues. Some companies offer just one arrangement or the other; others offer a choice. We recommend the one-shot arrangement unless— 

  • You have a severe infestation you have had trouble getting rid of in the past. 
  • The cost of a single treatment plus one or two follow-ups (if needed) is much higher than the cost of a contract for a series of treatments. 
  • You have American or Brown-banded cockroaches, whose eggs sometimes take 60 to 70 days to hatch, making one-shot elimination especially difficult. If a pest control operator says you have one of these types of cockroaches, ask the operator to put this conclusion in writing and show you a specimen from your home. If you are not confident that you can recognize the cockroach type from the specimen, ask for a dead specimen that you can keep in a plastic bag, so the firm knows you can check on the operator’s species identification. 

Be sure your professional provides instructions on preparing the house for treatment in advance. Preparations ordinarily include removing everything from underneath sinks, emptying and washing kitchen cabinets, covering all food that is not tightly sealed, removing kitchen drawers, and, if bedrooms need treatment, removing bureau drawers and all items from closet shelves and floors. 

Termites 

While a visit from a family of cockroaches is unpleasant, termites can actually wreck your place. Fortunately, however, you usually have time to react before they do grave damage. 

Termites feed on the cellulose in wood (or, occasionally, on books and other wood products). They are social insects, living in colonies that include queen, king, soldiers, and workers. The most commonly destructive type of termite in the Puget Sound area, the subterranean termite, nests below ground to maintain adequate moisture for survival, but the workers often move above ground to gather food. To maintain the necessary moisture supply, they must move through completely enclosed corridors, which are usually in the wood they have hollowed out for food, but may be in mud tunnels, 1/4 to 1/2 inch in breadth, which they construct up foundation walls to points of entry into wood. 

Here’s how to spot termites— 

  • In the spring, usually on sunny days following rain, you may see male and female reproductive members of the colony (“swarmers”) fly out to start new colonies. These are the only members of termite society capable of flight. You may see the reproductives themselves or only their fallen wings around doors, windows, or light fixtures. 
  • You may see the termites’ mud tunnels on your foundation walls or on floor joists overhead in your basement. 
  • You (or a termite inspector) may discover hollowed-out wood by tapping and probing with a screwdriver. 

If you discover termites in your house, in soil around your house, or when you move dead branches and other debris, most will be white with soft bodies and no wings. The flying reproductives are brown to nearly black. Because termite reproductives and flying ants are similar in appearance, homeowners sometimes erroneously mistake ants for termites. To avoid needless anxiety, look for these distinguishing characteristics— 

  • An ant’s waist is narrow; a termite’s is broad. 
  • An ant’s antennae are elbowed; a termite’s are not. 
  • An ant has two wings of unequal length on each side of its body; a termite’s wings are of equal length. 

If you find an insect that you suspect is a termite, keep a sample and have it identified by a competent professional. 

How to Stop Them 

The first step to termite control is eliminating all contact between the wood in your house and the soil. If this is impossible, any wood in contact with the soil must be thoroughly treated with preservative (although termites might be able to tunnel up the center of treated wood, which the treatment might not reach). Common trouble spots include wooden steps, trellises, fences, decks, latticework, and framing around crawl space access doors. 

The second step is regular inspection—at least every few years. You can do your own inspection, but an experienced professional should have a keener eye. Many pest control services in the area offer free termite inspections. Some will charge for an inspection that you want only for your peace of mind, but inspect for free if you request an estimate for treatment or if you are concerned that there may be an infestation. 

Chemical Barriers 

The traditional approach to treating for termites has been to create a barrier between the house and the soil. Usually this is a chemical barrier made by digging trenches around a home’s foundation and pouring pesticide into them—or by pressure-injecting pesticide into the soil through a perforated rod. Depending on the nature of the infestation and type of construction, it may be necessary to drill holes through the basement floor or into foundation wall voids. Naturally, care must be taken to avoid puncturing vapor barriers, heat ducts, and pipes, and to patch up all holes when work is complete. 

For many years, the chemicals used for termite eradication were chlordane and, later, chlorpyrifos, which created barriers that were effective for 20 to 30 years or longer. But because of environmental and health concerns, these chemicals were phased out. Currently, two classes of chemicals are used: repellent and non-repellent. 

The repellent termiticides are generally pyrethroids, such as permethrin and cypermethrin. Termites detect the insecticide and are repelled by it—turning away from your house—without receiving a lethal dose. Obviously, it is important to make sure there are no gaps or breaches in the chemical barrier around your house—and to monitor adjoining structures to ensure that the repelled termites don’t infest them. 

Non-repellent termiticides that have come into use in recent years include imidacloprid and fipronil, insecticides less toxic to humans and other mammals than the older insecticides but highly toxic to insects. The termites freely move through the treated soil, coming into contact with the insecticide, which attacks their nervous system. They may begin to vibrate and may starve to death. Other termites won’t give them needed grooming. As they pick up insecticide on their bodies, they may carry it back and expose the entire colony to it. 

Although the repellent and non-repellent chemicals currently in use lack documentation of long-term effectiveness, these newer barrier chemicals had to demonstrate effectiveness for at least five years to be registered, and there is good reason to believe that they will be effective for much longer. 

Sometimes even a careful professional fails to create a complete chemical barrier because of some underground formation—for instance, a piece of wood left in the backfill at construction within which termites can pass from untreated soil to the house’s foundation, out of reach of the pesticide. Furthermore, a chemical barrier that is complete at one time can be broken by construction of a new addition, digging in the garden, or even erosion. 

The best approach with chemical barriers is to treat your entire house at once if you have a termite infestation that has never been treated before or not been treated for many years—then do spot treatments if new evidence of infestation appears. 

Baits 

Bait systems are an increasingly popular approach to termite control. The usual approach is to place termite traps every 10 or 15 feet around the perimeter of the structure to attract any termites in the area. While traps can be simple pine stakes, commercial systems usually consist of special wood-based materials formulated to be especially attractive to termites. The traps are checked periodically—monthly to every three months—to determine if termites have begun to eat the material. If so, the traps are replaced with baits that will continue to attract termites but that contain pesticides. 

The pesticides used in the baits are insect growth regulators, most commonly hexaflumuron, noviflumuron, and diflubenzuron. Termites exposed to them cannot molt, a process essential for growth. The effect is slow, so the worker termites take the bait back to the nest where it spreads throughout the colony’s foraging population before the termites notice its effects on their nestmates. As worker termites die off, the termite colony declines to where it can no longer sustain itself, ultimately leading to its collapse and elimination. 

Once the infestation is eliminated, baits are usually replaced with traps which are once again checked every one to three months for new infestations. 

The problem with bait systems lies mainly in the unscrupulous tactics used by many companies that employ them. As mentioned above, the stakes used are often specially formulated to attract termites, so it stands to reason that sticking several in the ground around the perimeter of your home will eventually attract termites. Not only will these companies have you on the hook for an expensive long-term contract to monitor the bait stations, but once the baits have done their job these companies can use the evidence of infestation to sell you a warranty against future infestations. 

Getting Professional Help 

Although some homeowners do their own termite work, most turn to professionals whose major assets are knowledge of termite living habits and of residential construction, specialized equipment, and access to chemicals. 

But keep in mind the following factors when dealing with pest control services. 

If you don’t currently have a termite problem, you will have to decide whether to take preventive steps. Based on the technical information we have reviewed, we believe the best way to save money and minimize pesticide usage is to put off treatment of existing houses unless there is evidence of active infestation. The relatively minor damage likely to occur before an infestation is discovered—assuming a homeowner is reasonably conscientious about inspection—does not justify the cost of treatment. (In contrast, preventive treatment during construction of a new house or an addition is a good idea.) Some companies will disagree with us on this question. A common view among companies we have surveyed is that preventive treatment is appropriate at least for houses that have not been treated in a number of years, show no evidence of having been treated in the past, or are located in areas where termites are prevalent. 

If a company’s inspection determines that you have a termite problem, be skeptical. If a pest control service provides an estimate and proposes to go ahead with treatment, have the company indicate in writing whether it has actually found evidence of an active infestation. If so, get inspections and estimates from at least two additional companies before going ahead with treatment. Many homeowners who have had treatment recommended by a pest control service told us they found out later that there had been no active infestation. In some cases, the companies had showed evidence of termite damage but failed to explain that the damage had occurred—and the infestation had been successfully eliminated—many years earlier. When challenged, companies may justify their actions by claiming that the treatment is preventive. Preventive treatment may be a reasonable option, but only if you know that’s what you are getting. 

On the other hand, if you doubt the thoroughness or competence of a company or inspector who says you have no problem, get another opinion. 

Although, as we’ve discussed, profit makes many companies push for the use of bait systems, used judiciously baits can still be an effective treatment program. The bait approach has the advantage of limiting the amount of pesticide released into the area of your home and the environment, and it is less disruptive than the trenching, drilling, and other measures required to create a chemical barrier. 

Another issue is what to do after a barrier treatment. Companies typically include in the initial treatment price a one-year guarantee against further infestations. If evidence of re-infestation is discovered, the guarantee obligates the company to re-treat. Some pest control services’ guarantees also oblige them to repair any structural damage that occurs after the initial treatment. The company is required to come back to your home for a checkup a year after the treatment and whenever you detect evidence of termite activity. Many companies will encourage you to pay additional annual fees to extend your guarantee. The fee is typically 10 percent to 12 percent of the initial treatment charge, but some charge a fixed annual fee regardless of the initial charge. 

Our advice, after you’ve received a complete professional treatment with a chemical barrier, is to keep the professional’s guarantee in force for two or three years. If annual inspections reveal no re-infestation during that period, you can be fairly confident that your treatment has been effective and avoid paying an annual fee to extend your guarantee. Just take advantage of a company’s free inspection services every couple of years—or any time you see possible evidence of termite activity. If a new infestation appears, it often can be eliminated without treating the entire house, although a company may believe that partial treatment is not sufficient. 

If you are considering extending a guarantee, check the language carefully—the cost, inspections the company is required to do, whether needed structural repairs will be covered, and what you have to do to keep the guarantee in force. 

Keep a record of all treatments; this will assist a firm treating subsequent infestations and be a valuable asset when you sell your house. 

Mice and Rats 

Mice will live in any protected space close to a food supply. If conditions are right, a mouse will live its entire life within a 20-foot radius. Mature mice usually weigh under an ounce and are usually less than seven inches long from tip of nose to end of tail. They can be detected from their droppings, which are dark brown or black and rod-like, usually less than 3/16-inch long. A mouse’s lifespan is about a year, during which a female usually weans about 30 to 35 young. 

Rats can also live in a variety of places—in underground burrows, under piles of lumber or debris, in spaces between walls, in attics. They are good climbers and move swiftly. Indications of rat infestation include burrows, droppings (3/4-inch long, capsule-shaped), and rub marks (caused by their bodies rubbing against walls or rafters). Mature rats generally weigh between 1/2 pound and one pound. They live about a year, during which a female usually weans about 20 young. 

Because rats and mice have poorly developed senses of sight and taste, the freshness of food is not critical to them. Although they have a keen sense of smell, they are not put off by the smell of humans since they are accustomed to it. Their sense of hearing is excellent and serves as a major protection. 

Mice are curious. They explore new objects, and are likely to be most interested in food (or bait) that is moved around from day to day. Rats, on the other hand, are suspicious. 

What Harm They Do 

Both rats and mice can spread diseases such as salmonellosis by leaving germ-carrying feces, urine, and hair in foods. Rats spread other diseases by biting humans (thousands of persons each year) and carrying fleas that bite humans. Forms of typhus and bubonic plague are spread when an infected rat flea bites a human and then defecates on the skin; the causative agent enters the body through the site of the bite when it is scratched. 

In addition to spreading diseases, rats cause fires by gnawing away insulation on electrical wires. 

How to Stop Them 

An essential step to controlling rats or mice is to eliminate places for them to live, sources of food, and sources of water. (Rats, particularly, need water, while mice often get an adequate supply directly from the food they eat.) The key, then, is sanitation—sealing off access to stored foodstuffs (including food in cardboard containers) and placing garbage in sturdy, tight containers. When the food supply grows scarce, rodents begin to kill one another and migrate to better conditions. 

A second important step is exclusion. All openings to your home more than 1/4 inch in size through foundation cracks, around or under door and window frames, and elsewhere should be closed off with sheet metal, heavy screen, cement mortar, or other barriers that the rodents cannot gnaw through. 

After you take these environmental steps, you may be able to bring a small infestation under control with traps. The wood-base snap trap is as good as any. If you want to bait your traps, peanut butter is ideal: it doesn’t spoil easily; it has an attractive smell; and, since it is sticky, it is hard for rodents to steal it without being caught. Rats are more wary of bait than are mice, which are naturally curious and like to nibble a little bit of everything. 

Place your traps perpendicular to walls, with trigger ends toward the walls so that the rats or mice will run over them as they travel. 

Although trapping may eliminate a small infestation, you will probably need poison baits for a large problem. Many poisons, such as strychnine, that were used against rats and mice for years are now banned because they represent hazards to humans and pets. The types of poisons most often used today are anticoagulants—such as warfarin, Prolin, or fumarin (also known as coumfuryl)—that work in a very different way from more traditional poisons: they cause internal hemorrhaging. The poisoned rats and mice simply bleed to death internally. Some anticoagulants have the safety advantage of requiring daily doses for several days to kill a rodent—and even more to affect a human. Thus, a single accidental dose will not be fatal. Some also have another safety feature: they contain denatonium benzoate, a substance so bitter that humans and pets can’t stand even a pinch, though rats don’t notice it. Unlike some poisons used in the past, anticoagulants do not induce bait-shyness in mice or rats. But with the multi-dose formulations, you must maintain a continual supply until the anticoagulant takes its effect. 

If you use poison baits—even the relatively safe types—place them out of reach of pets or children. Make a note of each box’s location. For maximum effectiveness, use fresh bait and smooth the bait regularly so you can see whether it is being taken. Place baits at a number of locations eight to 10 feet apart, because mice may never travel more than 10 or 20 feet and even rats rarely range more than 150 feet. 

Getting Professional Help 

You can mount the attack on rats or mice on your own; the baits and traps are available at hardware stores. The disadvantage of calling a professional is that you probably will have to pay for a series of repeat visits. But the professional is likely to be more knowledgeable about the pests’ habits than you have time to become, and knowledge is very valuable. 

Ants 

Many kinds of ants can be found in houses—including odorous house ants, pharaoh ants, pavement ants, acrobat ants, thief ants, and carpenter ants. Each species has its own preference for food and nesting areas. Some like grease, others like seeds, still others feed only on other insects. Some prefer to nest in walls; others prefer to be under flooring or a pile of papers. Knowing the particular type of ant you are dealing with obviously helps in selecting baits, applying pesticides in the proper places, and searching for nests. But identification is generally too difficult for non-professionals. The one type you will be able to identify is the carpenter ant, a large ant ranging in color from red to black that hollows out damp wood to make its home (not to eat), and thus can be spotted by the coarse sawdust debris deposited near nest openings. 

What Harm They Do 

While most ants do very little damage and are not a major factor in spreading disease, most of us don’t want them traipsing over our food or ambling up our legs. Carpenter ants occasionally do a more concrete form of damage: weakening a house by hollowing out structural elements. Even this species’ damage, however, is usually fairly limited. 

How to Stop Them 

Ants enter buildings seeking food and water, warmth and shelter, or a refuge from dry, hot weather or flooded conditions. They may appear suddenly in buildings if other food sources become unavailable or weather conditions change. 

A quick way to eliminate ants is to find their nests and blow insecticide dust or spray inside. You can often locate the nests by following the ants’ movements back and forth to food sources. Nests are often outdoors, sometimes under boards, stones, tree stumps, or plants. But nests within walls, under flooring, or in other inaccessible places will require an alternative approach. 

One key is to cut off the paths ants follow into and out of your house. Caulk cracks and crevices around foundations to prevent entry from outside. Because ants prefer to make trails along structural elements such as wires and pipes, and frequently use them to enter and travel within a structure to their destination, make sure you block these paths. 

Indoors, eliminate cracks and crevices wherever possible, especially in kitchens and other food-preparation and storage areas. Store food items such as sugar, syrup, honey, and other sweets in closed containers that have been washed to remove residues from outer surfaces. Thoroughly clean up grease and spills. Don’t store garbage indoors. Eliminate indoor nesting sites, including potted plants that appear to be used for nests. 

After taking these measures, consider using various types of baits. Liquid baits come in small tub- or disc-like bait stations; gels can be applied along ant paths in various locations; and bait granules can be broadcast. Ants are attracted to the bait and carry small portions of it back to the nest, where it is given to other workers, larvae, and reproductive forms. Place baits in many locations where ants can easily find them, but are not accessible to children and pets. 

To achieve distribution wide enough to kill an entire colony, the bait toxicant must be slow acting. Toxicants used in ant baits include hydramethylnon, boric acid, and fipronil. 

Interestingly, when baits are first applied, you might actually see an increase in ant activity; that’s because the baits seem like good food to ants, who communicate the availability of the food to the colony’s other ants, which seek it out before the poison takes effect. 

If you want a quick knockdown of ants, try one of the sprays or dusts available at a hardware store. Spray or dust insecticides will either kill the ants when they pass over them or repel them. Insecticide is usually applied in a coarse spray or painted on with a small brush. Key targets are— 

  • The lower part of window frames and around doors. 
  • Outdoor supports, pipes, posts, and pillars leading from the ground to the house. 
  • Cracks in baseboards, walls, and floors, and around sinks, bathtubs, toilets, and kitchen cupboards. 
  • Openings around electrical outlets. 

The problem with these pesticides is that they may eliminate the problem only temporarily. The nest survives and continues to produce ants to replace those you’ve killed. Sponging or mopping with soapy water, as an alternative to insecticides, may be almost as effective in temporarily removing foraging ants because it removes the ants’ scent trail. 

The above recommendations relate to ants other than carpenter ants, which are a special case. Since carpenter ants are attracted to damp wood, it is important to prevent water from accumulating on your house. Clean gutters and downspouts, and cut tree limbs and shrubs that overhang the house. 

Getting Professional Help 

You can control most household ants fairly easily without professional help. However, because their nests are often especially difficult to locate and treat, carpenter and pharaoh ants may require professional attention. 

Bedbugs 

Largely forgotten for decades, bedbugs are back with a vengeance. No one is certain why and how they made their comeback, but bedbugs are once again a serious problem in most U.S. cities, including in the Puget Sound area. 

Bedbugs are wingless, flat, reddish-brown, oval insects about the size of an apple seed. They are nocturnal and feed on the blood of warm-blooded hosts by piercing the skin with elongated beaks. In homes, they tend to live near beds so they can remain within easy transit of their food supply: in mattress seams; sheets; furniture; behind loose wallpaper, electrical wall plates, and baseboards; underneath carpet and rugs; in picture frames; and in wall and ceiling cracks. 

One reason bedbugs so often create major infestations is that they are difficult to detect early on. Since they are so small and flat, they can easily hide just about anywhere, their presence usually detected only after they’ve chewed on their landlords a bit. Like mosquito bites, bedbug bites usually aren’t painful when they occur, but often form itchy red welts the day after. These welts vary in appearance from tiny pinpricks to mosquito-bite-sized bumps to very large welts. Some people have no noticeable reaction to bedbug bites. 

Other signs of a bedbug infestation are small bloodstains on bedding (as victims roll over and squash the bugs in their sleep) and clusters of small dark brown or black dots on infested surfaces (bedbugs’ dried excrement). 

What Harm They Do 

Although bedbugs are known to be infected with many diseases, no definitive link has been established between bedbugs and the spread of those diseases (although infections can occur as a result of their bites). On the other hand, most of us would consider the stress and sleep deprivation that result from bedbug infestation a health concern. 

Except for the small stains they may leave behind on bedding, they don’t damage belongings. 

How to Stop Them 

Bedbugs are notoriously difficult to control; they are incredibly resilient and can become resistant to pesticides. Bedbugs typically feed every five to 10 days, but if no food source is available, they can survive for a year or more without feeding. They are excellent hitchhikers and multiply quickly—even one critter or egg sac transported from an infested site on an item of clothing or in a suitcase can produce a new population in your bedroom. Because they don’t live in colonies, when infestations occur, the entire area must be treated, possibly several times. Even small infestations may require calling in a pro. 

Unlike many of the pests described in this article, bedbugs won’t be deterred by keeping your home clean. Nevertheless, since clutter provides perfect bedbug hiding spots, the first step toward eliminating infestations is to clear out everything in the room but the furniture. Put everything in airtight plastic bags and seal them before you leave the room; otherwise, you’re just giving the bedbugs the chance to spread to other areas of the home. Assume that any rooms adjacent to infested rooms also have bedbug occupants, and follow this procedure in those areas. 

Once you’ve de-cluttered, thoroughly vacuum beds and carpets. Remove electrical outlet and lighting switch plates, and vacuum the dust and debris inside (make sure you’ve switched off the circuit breaker for the area). Pull carpeting off its tack strips around the perimeter of the room (one side at a time) so you can thoroughly vacuum baseboards and underneath the edges of the carpeting. Immediately dispose of the vacuum bag outdoors when you’re done. 

Wash everything that’s washable in the hottest water it can take (120°F or higher), and dry at the hottest setting possible. Have carpets and rugs professionally cleaned (tell the cleaner about the infestation so it is not spread elsewhere). If a fabric in the infested area can’t be washed, have it dry cleaned; or put it in a clothes dryer on its hottest setting for 20 minutes. 

Once you’ve cleared out the room, it’s time to take on any remaining bugs. Pest control services can use a variety of pesticides to treat bedbugs, but since they have to treat surfaces where dermal exposure occurs, they most commonly apply pyrethroids and isopropyl alcohol. Pyrethroid is the synthetic form of pyrethrin, a toxin produced by certain varieties of chrysanthemums. When properly diluted, pyrethroids are generally harmless to humans but lethal to many types of insects. They also dissipate relatively quickly—after one or two days, sunlight and air break down the compound. The problem with pyrethroid treatment is that some bedbugs have become resistant to it. 

Isopropyl alcohol is an effective bedbug remedy that kills bugs on contact and evaporates quickly, leaving minimal residue and therefore little chance of dermal exposure. The drawback is that without any residue, the agent won’t stick around long enough to kill the bedbugs that survived the previous treatment. But even one treatment should knock down a bedbug infestation to manageable levels; and since its dehydrating effect also affects bedbugs’ eggs, repeated treatments, along with washing and vacuuming, should eventually eliminate them. 

Before applying isopropyl alcohol, open windows wide for ventilation. Spray the solution on all surfaces in the room, especially mattresses, headboards, and box springs. Because isopropyl alcohol could discolor some wood stains and leathers, test it on a small out-of-sight area before applying it to wood furniture, shoes, etc. 

Since bedbug infestations are so difficult to control and destroy, many people hire professionals to tackle them. Unlike with many other pests, bedbug problems may require a contract for multiple treatments, since a single treatment—or even a couple of treatments—often will not eradicate them. 

Ask any company you consider to describe in detail what it will do and how it will do it. Request a written guarantee that lasts for at least a year and a commitment to return and re-treat as many times as is necessary to eliminate the infestation. If subsequent visits are to be billed on a per-visit basis, get the details in writing. 

Prevention 

Here’s what you can do to minimize your risk of bedbug infestations— 

  • If you spot signs of bedbugs, act right away. The faster treatment begins the better chance of quick success. 
  • Don’t buy used mattresses. Buy used upholstered furniture only from trusted sources. 
  • Reduce clutter. Doing so will eliminate hiding spots. 
  • In hotel rooms, place suitcases on luggage racks when packing and unpacking; never set luggage on hotel beds. 
  • Upon returning home from a hotel stay, unpack your clothes directly into a washing machine and inspect your luggage carefully for signs of bedbugs. 
  • Store luggage in an area of your home that is not adjacent to occupied bedrooms. 
  • If you suspect you may have a bedbug infestation, use light-colored sheets for a few days and inspect them regularly for signs of bedbugs (described above). 

Fleas 

Fleas are very small wingless insects capable of jumping seven to eight inches vertically and more than a foot horizontally. They ordinarily live on pets and suck blood for nourishment, but when large numbers are present or no animals are available, they can and do feed on people. Pets infested with fleas scratch and bite themselves constantly, producing soiled, roughened coats and skin irritations. A fleabite on humans appears as a small, hard, red itching spot with one puncture hole in the middle. Bleeding may occur, and itching may continue for as long as a week. 

Eggs are laid on the host animal. Since they are not attached, they may fall onto rugs, furniture, or bedding, where larvae stay until they reach maturity. 

What Harm They Do 

In addition to causing insufferable itching and even severe allergic reactions in some individuals, fleas are also carriers of serious diseases—both plague and typhus. 

How to Stop Them 

Frequent grooming of pets reduces the chance of a flea infestation. Medications can also be used as preventive measures or to eliminate minor flea problems or prevent new ones. 

If medication doesn’t do the job, remove pets’ bedding and wash or destroy it. Vacuum cracks and crevices, rugs, upholstery, and other areas, and immediately discard the vacuum bag outdoors. Mist upholstered furniture lightly with a non-staining flea spray, and spray floors, baseboards, carpeting, and cracks. Use a spray that contains an insect growth regulator: methoprene or pyriproxyfen. Also spray outdoor kennels and yards, where pets can be re-infested except in very cold weather. 

Sprays with insect growth regulators prevent metamorphosis in fleas (and other insects). Since metamorphosis does not occur in humans, dogs, and cats, these sprays appear to be very safe. The sprays don’t kill mature fleas, since they have already passed through metamorphosis, but they can stop the development of flea larvae. 

Pantry Moths 

Pantry moths are not dangerous, but they are a nuisance and hard to eliminate. You’ll meet them when you open a kitchen cabinet or pantry door and they flutter out and around the food—you may have imported them in grain products that contained larvae. As they breed, their larvae infest foods such as cereal, flour, and grains. 

To eliminate a pantry moth infestation, thoroughly clean the infested area. Seal food in plastic bags and discard them outside in the trash. Vacuum all cracks where grains might have spilled. If you are changing residences and have had a problem with pantry moths, be extremely careful not to introduce the pests into your new home. 

Carpenter Bees 

These large bees look alarming, but they are valuable pollinators and pose no threat to humans. Sometimes confused with bumblebees, they are about one inch long, with hairy thoraxes and legs but hairless abdomens. The males can’t sting; the females can sting, but won’t. The females, which are particularly concerned with their nests, can be seen in flowers searching for pollen or entering or emerging from large entrance holes in wood. 

To prevent carpenter bees from nesting in your home, avoid building external structures with their favorite softwoods: southern yellow pine, white pine, California redwood, cedar, Douglas fir, and cypress. Cover exposed wood in vulnerable areas with paint or varnish, or metal or fiberglass materials. You know you have carpenter bees when you see them and by telltale sawdust where they have been drilling into wood. A single bee won’t cause much damage, but the broods that follow will expand the tunnel and may cause structural damage. Because woodpeckers are attracted to carpenter bee nests, woodpecker damage may signal the presence of the bees. 

To kill the bees, carefully apply an insecticidal spray or dust designed for flying insects, complying with the safety precautions on the label. Alternatively, close off the nest or replace the damaged wood. Apply a temporary repellent such as almond oil or almond essence around the nest until you can make physical alterations. 

Mosquitoes 

With talk of West Nile Virus and the introduction of new species into many areas of the U.S., mosquitoes have been on our minds. Pesticide spraying programs are of limited and short-term effectiveness because they do not affect larvae. They also kill beneficial insects and natural mosquito predators such as dragonflies and beetles. 

The most effective personal repellents contain DEET, a commonly used but controversial chemical applied directly to human skin and clothing. However, DEET has been linked to toxic reactions ranging from skin disorders to seizures, and its use—especially on and by children—has been challenged. Insect repellents that contain 30 percent active-ingredient DEET are as effective as those with higher concentrations. In fact, Canada has banned insect repellents with DEET concentrations higher than 30 percent. Also avoid using products that mix sunscreen (which must be applied liberally and frequently for maximum effectiveness) and insect repellent (which should be applied sparingly and infrequently). 

Various products claim to eliminate or reduce the presence of mosquitoes in yards and other areas. California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program has this to say about them: 

“There is a vast array of other products marketed to repel mosquitoes, most of which are ineffective. These include wristbands that contain an aromatic repellent, ultrasonic emitters, electric grids, electronic repellers, aromatic plants (the most common one is the so-called mosquito plant, Pelargonium x citrosum), incense coils, vitamins (B1), and mixtures of brewer’s yeast and garlic. Researchers have shown that all these methods are of little or no value in repelling mosquitoes. Oil of citronella, which is extracted from Andropogon nardus, has long been claimed to repel mosquitoes. Burning citronella candles or mosquito coils works best if there is relatively little air movement, but these products are only for use outdoors, which makes them mostly worthless. Electric bug zappers that are used to kill pest insects are probably counterproductive because many of the insects caught by these traps are those that prey on mosquitoes.” 

So what should you do about the mosquitoes? 

  • Remain indoors in the early morning and evenings, when mosquitoes are most active. 
  • Consider screening in your porch or deck. 
  • Maintain window screens and doors, and close doors quickly upon entry or exit. 
  • Since mosquitoes lay their eggs in water and larvae live in the water, remove or regularly drain objects that retain water. Don’t forget to empty trash cans and saucers beneath flowerpots. Clean gutters, birdbaths, and other areas where water can pool. 

Calling for Backup 

If you have a problem you can’t handle on your own, there are many pest control services that will be glad to step in. We’ve rated Puget Sound area companies and branches of companies on our Ratings Tables. (For more information on our customer survey and other research methods, click here.) 

Checking What Their Customers Say 

Our Ratings Tables show how CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers we surveyed rated the companies on several aspects of service. As you can see, many of the companies received high ratings. At the time of our last full, published article, fifteen of the companies or branches were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by 80 percent or more of their surveyed customers. On the other hand, five of the companies were rated “superior” by 50 percent or fewer of their surveyed customers. 

The most common type of complaint we receive from pest control service customers is that companies fail to show up for appointments. But we also often get complaints such as the following— 

“Awful. Nothing they do works, problem returns. Overpriced as well.” 

“We had a maintenance contract with them. Under their supervision we had an infestation of mice which they were unable to get rid of. They came regularly but the mice population multiplied. Another exterminator came and got rid of the mice with one application. We have not had mice since.” 

 “After repeated requests, they still did not call ahead before coming and treating our house—we would just get home and find someone had stopped by and sprayed outside, when we wanted them to come inside to spray for ants and to check out back to ensure the rodent trap was in good shape. I canceled our service, and they continued to come, leaving bills each time.” 

“We had a contract with [the company] for four years. During this time, we were never informed of any termite damage and always received ‘clear’ annual inspections. When it came time to sell our home, ironically, the prospective owners hired [the same company] to conduct the inspection. It found extensive termite damage that they reported to the prospective owners.” 

“Signed a ‘lifetime’ contract for annual inspection at $100/year. After several years, [the company] all of a sudden refused to honor the contract, attempting to sell me new, very high-priced service. Extremely unethical company.” 

In addition to customer survey results, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show tallies of complaints we gathered from the Consumer Protection Division of the Washington Office of the Attorney General for a recent two-year period. Where we were able to, we have also reported on our Ratings Tables complaint rates, calculated by dividing the number of complaints by our measure of the number of full-time-equivalent technicians performing residential pest control work for the firms. The complaint rates take into account volume of work and the fact that companies that do more work are exposed to a greater risk of incurring complaints. 

Another potential source of complaint information is the Better Business Bureau (BBB) that serves the Puget Sound area. At www.bbb.org, you can search for the BBB’s report on any company. The report will show the number of complaints the BBB has received for the company during the past three years. For any company listed on our Ratings Tables, subscribers can click a link on the detailed ratings page to go directly to the BBB’s most up-to-date report on the company. 

When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Also be aware that some companies are at greater risk of incurring complaints than others because of the specific types of work they do. And remember that the measure of business volume we use in calculating complaint rates (the number of full-time-equivalent technicians performing residential pest control work) is at best a very rough indicator. 

Checking How They Approach the Problem 

As previously noted, different outfits have different strategies for treating, or preventing, pest problems—for example, baits versus sprays or long-term contracts versus one-time treatments. Some companies are flexible, but others offer one approach only. Discuss options with each service you consider, and choose one that offers an approach that makes sense for you. 

Checking Guarantees 

In pest control, as in most fields, it’s good to be able to withhold payment until work is complete. But in the case of termite jobs, some firms require partial payment prior to completion. 

Of course, any company that offers guarantees on either termite work or household pest treatment is likely to get your money before its obligations end. In these situations, the main line of protection is a written contract or receipt specifying the length and breadth of your guarantee. You should have no problem obtaining a written commitment. 

Guarantees are important variables among companies. For work with cockroaches and other household pests, many firms offer guarantees ranging from 30 days to one year, depending on what you agree to pay. For termite work, some companies offer a single one-year guarantee, but most let you pay to extend the guarantee; most companies charge a yearly premium for a year’s extension of coverage and a yearly inspection. 

For both household pests and termites, guarantees generally cover continuing service to attack old infestations and new ones while the guarantee is in force. While guarantees generally cover re-treatment but not repair or replacement of property, a number of companies offer termite guarantees that also cover the costs of structural repairs. Be sure to read and understand each company’s guarantee before you select one. 

The value of a guarantee naturally depends on the stability of the company. At the time of our last full, published article, all of the companies listed on our Ratings Tables have been in business for at least six years, and several for 25 years or more. 

Checking Qualifications of Staff 

You naturally want the company you choose to send you professionals who are well-trained in pest control. All companies must have on staff at least one employee who has taken classes and passed a state test to qualify as a certified pest control applicator. But a company may employ only one certified applicator and send out uncertified employees to do the work. To obtain some assurance that the worker you get has at least minimum qualifications, tell companies you are considering that you insist on having a certified applicator do your work—and request a certified applicator each time they send someone to your home. If you need termite service, find out whether the company will send a certified structural pest technician, who has met the training requirements and passed the test offered by the state. 

Getting a Good Price 

Since so many companies provide good service, cost can be a key consideration. Fortunately, shopping can be fairly easy. 

For household pest work, you can often get price quotes over the phone, and companies that will not quote by phone will almost always come to your house to give free estimates. 

For termites, too, most companies give free estimates, although all companies we surveyed charge a fee for the formal paperwork required for inspections for real estate transactions. A charge seems appropriate since the company may be liable for providing free termite treatment and repairs if it fails to detect an existing termite infestation. 

If your problem is cockroaches or other household pests, our ratings table provides you some idea of comparative prices. Based on telephone shopping by our researchers (who did not disclose their connection with CHECKBOOK), our Ratings Tables show companies’ quoted prices for treating cockroaches in a sample house. Our Ratings Tables report: (1) approximate price for a one-time treatment (or the smallest number of treatments the firm will offer); (2) guarantee period (length of time company will return without charge to treat recurring infestations); and (3) charge for a re-treatment after the guarantee period expires. Note that costs vary widely. For instance, one company charges $175 for initial treatment with a 90-day guarantee, while another charges $439 with no guarantee. In general, the companies that charge high prices for an initial treatment have longer periods of free follow-up service, compared to companies with low prices for an initial treatment. Some operators require customers to agree to one-year contracts that cost $400 or more. 

If your problem is termites, you will have to do your own price shopping. Termite estimates are almost always made on site and while doing the research for this article, we were unable to find homeowners with termite problems for whom we could obtain comparative estimates. Similarly, most companies are reluctant to quote prices for a bedbug treatment plan without an onsite inspection. 

A key factor affecting costs is the particular treatment plan the company offers—especially for household pests, as opposed to termites. If a company offers only one-time cockroach treatments at $175 per treatment, it will cost $350 ($175 plus $175) for a single treatment and a single follow-up. This is substantially more than you would pay another company that charges $175 for the initial treatment but only $40 or $50 for the follow-up treatment you may or may not need. 

To get the best plan for your situation, press companies to describe all the alternatives they offer. The least expensive plan is not always the first one offered and might not be the one that appears on our ratings table. 

Keep this in mind: our evaluation revealed no relationship between prices charged for household pest treatments and customer satisfaction. 

Minimizing Risks from Pesticides 

The control procedures we have described should keep pesticide dangers to a minimum—especially if sanitation and other non-chemical measures are employed as we have suggested. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned the use of certain chemicals, and allows others to be used only by professionals and only under specified conditions. If you are concerned about pesticide exposure, however, you can find information beyond what is issued by the EPA by calling the sources listed below and searching the Internet: just enter the name of the pesticide or chemical and the word “safety.” A notice that an EPA review is underway—or that researchers or citizens’ groups are urging one—is a red flag. 

If you turn to a professional, you also gain a measure of protection because of the certification and licensing standards states have set up in response to federal requirements. Every licensed company must employ at least one professional who has passed a test certifying knowledge of pests and the chemicals used to control them. 

For additional protection, observe the following important practices— 

1.    Pay close attention to pesticide labels. Labels tell you: 

  • What protective clothing and other equipment to use. 
  • How to use the pesticide safely and effectively—when to apply it, where to apply it, how much to apply, and what pests it will control. 
  • How to dispose of excess chemicals and empty containers. 
  • When you can reenter an area that has been treated with the pesticide. 
  • How exposure occurs—whether by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, or other route. 
  • How dangerous the pesticide is. There are three key words: “danger” (a taste to a teaspoonful can kill you), “warning” (a teaspoonful to a tablespoonful can kill you), and “caution” (an ounce to more than a pint can kill you). Avoid pesticides with a “danger” label. 

2.    Buy only as much pesticide as you need. If you do have to buy extra, store it out of reach of children and pets. Ideally, pesticides should be stored in a locked, fireproof place with a warning sign—and always in their original, labeled containers. 

3.    Use only the amount specified on the pesticide label. 

4.    If you hire a professional, find out exactly what chemicals they are using. You may have to call the operator’s supervisor to find out, but this information will be vital if you must contact a doctor after symptoms of poisoning later appear. Ideally, have the company give you a copy of the label for the pesticides they use. 

5.    In the event of a mishap, call a doctor and/or an ambulance immediately. If you have the pesticide label, take it with you to the doctor or hospital—it contains important information on treatment. 

For quick advice, call the poison control center at 800-222-1222. 

Are There Effective “Natural” Pest Control Remedies? 

We receive a lot of calls and emails from subscribers asking for information on “green” or “natural” pest control methods. And as you shop for a service, you’ll likely run across a number of companies that claim to practice green or natural methods. Does such a thing exist? If so, is it effective? 

To control household pests, you need to prevent them from getting what they need to live and reproduce. In this article, we discuss several steps you can take to minimize the risk of infestation for several types of pests. Most prevention methods require no pesticides: methods like maintaining clean kitchens and bathrooms, vacuuming frequently, eliminating water leaks, and sealing possible entry points. 

But if an infestation occurs, more drastic measures may be required. As discussed above, modern pesticides are quite safe if used properly. And for most pests, there are also non-chemical options. Those most commonly used by exterminators are used to control— 

  • Termites—Some pest control services have experience using microwaves to cook termites and their colonies. But microwaves are generally less effective than pesticides, and may damage your home’s structure. 
  • Cockroaches—Many pest control companies consider boric acid a natural remedy. That’s a rather dubious claim, but (as we note in this article) boric acid is quite safe to humans if used properly. Other options include sticky traps (likely to put only a small dent in a moderate or large infestation) and pyrethrum, the naturally derived form of pyrethroids. (See our section on treating cockroaches for more details on each of these options.) Some companies will vacuum infested sites to capture as many bugs and eggs as possible, and knock infestations down to levels that can be managed with traps. Peppermint and rosemary oils, which repel or kill many types of insects, also might control small infestations but have to be applied often. 
  • Rodents—Can be effectively controlled by closing off points of entry from the outside and using well-placed traps. Humane traps are available for relocating, rather than killing, rodents. 
  • Bees, wasps, and hornets—Instead of using pesticides, professionals can knock many types of nests to the ground and crush them (obviously, unless you own a bee suit, don’t try this on your own). Peppermint and rosemary oils will kill stinging insects, but, as one pest control company owner told us, “It will kill them, but not as fast as other products—not nearly fast enough if you’re the one doing the killing.” 
  • Ants—Caulking cracks and other access points and using baits should control most populations. Several effective bait products use non-synthetic pesticides. 
  • Bedbugs—As mentioned in this article, isopropyl alcohol combined with washing belongings in very hot water is highly effective. 

Thermal pest control is another pesticide-free option that will kill just about any type of insect. Companies that do this type of work encase the home in a tent and pump in hot air until the home reaches 120°F or hotter, destroying all the bugs and their eggs. But this process is incredibly expensive ($3,000 or more for an average-size house) and is disruptive (you’ll have to move out anything in the home that could be damaged by the heat and live elsewhere for a few days). Further, the amount of energy required to heat the home to 120°F seems to us to preclude this from being a “green” method. 

Don’t bother with electronic devices that claim to repel pests with high-frequency sound waves and similar technology. They don’t work. In fact, the owner of one top-rated pest control company told us he once found cockroaches nesting on top of an electronic device marketed to repel roaches. He speculated that the device actually created a nice warm spot for the roaches to nest. 

When speaking to companies about natural pest control options, be wary and skeptical of their claims. We’ve found that many companies that claim to provide natural pest control solutions employ the same pesticides and methods used in conventional treatments. We’ve even heard of companies that base their claims to being “eco-friendly” on the fact that they recycle office paper or drive hybrids—not exactly the commitment to saving Mother Nature suggested by their marketing materials. 

Even if a pest control method is labeled “natural” or “non-synthetic,” read the product safety label carefully. “Natural” is an ambiguous term, and non-synthetic pesticides still can be harmful to humans, pets, and the environment. 

Resources for More Information 

The pests discussed in this article generate the bulk of the work for professional pest control operators. If you have other pests, or additional questions about these, you can get excellent advice from the following: 

  • Cooperative Extension Services
    http://ext.wsu.edu 
  • King County—206-205-3100 
  • Kitsap County—360-337-7157 
  • Mason County—360-427-9670 
  • Pierce County—253-798-7180 
  • Skagit County—360-428-4270 
  • Snohomish County—425-338-2400 
  • Thurston County—360-867-2151 
  • Other Resources: 
  • Washington State Department of Agriculture
    Pest Management Division
    http://agr.wa.gov/pestfert/pesticides
    877-301-4555 
  • National Pest Management Association
    www.pestworld.org
    800-678-6722 
  • California’s Integrated Pest Management Program
    www.ipm.ucdavis.edu 


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