If you have a pest problem, before you call in the pros, find out 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. Some were rated
superior overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers, but
others received such favorable ratings from 60 percent or fewer of their
Prices for household pest treatments also vary widely. While some companies
charge $200 or less for a single visit, others require customers to sign
up for long-term contracts that cost $500 or more.
Dont assume youll have to pay more to get good work: Our evaluation revealed
no relationship between prices charged for pest control work and customer
Of course, the biggest waste of money is paying for service you dont need.
To avoid that, dont contract for expensive pest control work before getting
at least a few inspections and proposals. If you suspect you have a termite
problem, its 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 long-term contracts. For most household pests, a single treatment
done properly should do the trick. Many companies provide free re-treatments,
if needed, within 30 days. Rather than contracting upfront for long-term
treatment, you can save money by buying a single treatment and running
a modest risk that you will later need a follow-up visit or two.
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 they
pay for pest damages or just re-treatment? How often will they come over
to inspect at no extra charge? And what do you have to do to keep the guarantee
HD images of all creatures great and small look cool on TV nature shows,
but its less entertaining when they get off the screen. When that happens,
insects and wildlife quickly morph from fascinating to creepy and annoyingand
sometimes contaminate your food, harm your health, or damage your property.
Here are strategies for addressing household pest problems, keeping them
from returning, and, if you need help de-pesting your nest, ratings of
local professionals for quality and price.
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 necessary), and deal with any professional
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 reduce the likelihood of serious pest problems.
These simple measures also make you less likely to need pesticides that
could harm 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,
determine up front 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 they follow safety precautions.
Beyond these basic guidelines, determining what to do depends on the specific
The pests least welcome in many homes are cockroaches. There are four common
types of cockroaches: German, oriental, brown-banded, and American.
All cockroaches hide during the day in dark sheltered places, emerging
at night to forage for food and to mate. They will eat just about anything
Cockroaches lay their eggs in out-of-the-way places in leathery capsules
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 hatch.
What Harm They Do
For the most part, the damage from cockroaches is emotionalthe revulsion
at finding them in food, underfoot, on clothes, around furniture, or in
appliances. But evidence 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 strategy for controlling cockroaches is good sanitationeliminating
food, water, hiding places, and breeding places. Apply caulk to 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 them. Sticky traps that catch the cockroaches that enter them
can be useful. If you arent 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 infestationespecially
of German cockroaches, which multiply rapidly.
Popular brands of bait stations, such as Combat, Maxforce, and Raid, 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 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 find the baits.
Baits wont yield immediate results; it may be a week or so before they
begin to reduce roach 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 it wont be an appearance problem and humans wont 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.
While boric acid powder kills roaches that ingest it, it is slow-acting
and 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 insects nervous system and
may produce 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, an infestation may return when roaches hatch from
eggs that had been protected in spray-resistant egg cases.
Although spray forms of pesticides leave no visible residues, dust forms
have the advantages 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, all contents
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. Dont 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 an aerosol spray. 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, choose
one of a variety of dusters available in hardware storesusually 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-treatmentusually on only 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 goodunless 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 imposed restrictions. From an environmental and human safety standpoint,
pyrethroid sprays have the virtue of decomposing fairly rapidlyusually
within a few weeksand the concentrations found in aerosol cans are not
very dangerous to humans.
But pyrethroid sprays can have a powerful immediate effect 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 dont resolve your
roach problem, you can turn to a professional. Professionals have several
advantages over you: greater ability to identify pests, more knowledge
of their behavior, better equipment, access to stronger chemicals, and
more experience with treatment methods.
If you do decide to use a pro, 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 only one arrangement or the other; others offer a choice. We recommend
the one-shot arrangement unless
You have a severe infestation youve had trouble eliminating in the past.
The cost of a single treatment plus one or two follow-ups (if necessary)
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 either 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 certain 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 company knows you can verify the operators identification.
Make sure your professional provides instructions for preparing the house
in advance for treatment. 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.
While a visit from a clan of cockroaches is unpleasant, termites can actually
wreck your home. 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. Subterranean termites, the
most commonly destructive type of termite in the Puget Sound area, nest
below ground to maintain adequate moisture for survival, but the workers
often travel 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 that they construct up foundation walls to points
of entry into wood.
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, and 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.
Most of the termites you will discover in your house, in soil around your
house, or under dead branches and other debris are 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 ants waist is narrow; a termites is broad.
An ants antennae are elbowed; a termites are not.
An ant has two wings of unequal length on each side of its body; a termites
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 in termite control is to eliminate all contact between the
wood in your house and the soil. If this is impossible, thoroughly treat
any wood in contact with the soil with preservative (although termites
might be able to tunnel up the center of treated wood that 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 inspectionat least every few years. You can
perform your own inspection, but an experienced professional will have
a keener eye. Many pest control services in the area offer free termite
inspections. Some charge for inspections that customers want only for peace
of mind, but will inspect for free if customers request an estimate for
treatment or are concerned that there may be an infestation.
The traditional approach to termite treatment has been to create a barrier
between the house and the soil. Usually this is a chemical barrier formed
by digging trenches around a homes foundation and pouring pesticide into
themor 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 even 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 itturning
away from your housewithout receiving a lethal dose. Obviously, it is
important to make sure there are no gaps or breaches in the chemical barrier
around your houseand to monitor adjoining structures to ensure that the
repelled termites dont infest them.
Non-repellent termiticides introduced in recent years, including imidacloprid
and fipronil, are less toxic than the older insecticides to humans and
other mammals but highly toxic to insects. Freely moving through the treated
soil, termites come into contact with the insecticide, which attacks their
nervous system. They may begin to vibrate and may starve to death. Other
termites wont give them needed grooming. As their bodies pick up the insecticide,
they may carry it back and expose the entire colony to it.
Sometimes even a careful professional fails to create a complete chemical
barrier because of some underground formationfor instance, a piece of
wood left in the backfill at construction within which termites can pass
from untreated soil to the houses 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.
With chemical barriers, the best strategy is to treat your entire house
at once if you have a termite infestation that has never been treated before
or untreated for many yearsthen do spot treatments if new evidence of
Bait systems are an increasingly popular method of termite control. The
usual procedure 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 periodicallymonthly to every three monthsto determine
if termites have begun to eat the material. If so, the traps are replaced
with baits that will continue to attract termites but 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 colonys 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
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 of
many companies that sell them. As mentioned above, the stakes used are
often specially formulated to attract termites, so obviously 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 theyll 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 residential
construction, specialized equipment, and access to chemicals.
But when dealing with pest control services, keep in mind the following
If you dont 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 treating your house unless there is evidence of active
infestation. The relatively minor damage likely to occur before an infestation
is discoveredassuming youre reasonably conscientious about inspectiondoes
not justify the cost of treatment. (In contrast, preventive treatment during
construction of a new house or an addition is a good idea.) However, some
companies we have surveyed believe 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 companys inspection discovers a termite problem, be skeptical. If
a pest control service provides an estimate and proposes to proceed with
treatment, have the company statein writingwhether it has actually found
evidence of an active infestation. If so, obtain 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 occurredand the infestation successfully
eliminatedmany years earlier. When challenged, companies may justify their
actions by claiming that the treatment is preventivea reasonable option,
but only if you know thats what you are buying.
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 weve discussed, profit makes many companies push for bait
systems, when used judiciously baits can still be an effective treatment
program. The bait approach has the advantage of limiting the amount of
pesticide released around your home and in the environment, and 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 a one-year guarantee against further infestations in the initial
treatment price. 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 return to your home for a
checkup a year after the treatment and whenever you detect evidence of
termite activity. Many companies encourage you to pay an annual fee to
extend your guarantee, typically 10 percent to 12 percent of the initial
treatment charge, but some charge a fixed annual fee regardless of the
After youve received a complete professional treatment with a chemical
barrier, our advice is to keep the guarantee in force for two or three
years. If annual inspections reveal no re-infestation during that period,
you can be fairly confident that the treatment has been effective and avoid
paying additional annual fees to extend your guarantee. Just take advantage
of a companys free inspection services every couple of yearsor 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 insufficient.
If you are considering extending a guarantee, check the language carefullythe
cost, required inspections, whether essential structural repairs are covered,
and what you have to do to keep the guarantee in force.
Keep a record of all treatments; this will assist companies 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 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, and usually less than 3/16
inch long. A mouses lifespan is about a year, during which a female usually
weans about 30 to 35 young.
Rats can also live in a variety of placesin 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 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 electrical
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 sanitationsealing 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. Close off all openings to your home
more than 1/4 inch in size through foundation cracks, around or under door
and window frames, and elsewhere with sheet metal, heavy screen, cement
mortar, or other barriers that the rodents cannot gnaw through.
After taking these environmental steps, you may be able to bring a small
infestation under control with traps; a wood-base snap trap is as good
as any. Peanut butter is ideal for baiting traps: It doesnt spoil quickly;
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, large problems will
probably require poison baits. 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 anticoagulantssuch as warfarin, Prolin, and 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 rodentand even more to affect a
human. Thus a single accidental dose will not be fatal. Some also have
another safety feature: denatonium benzoate, a substance so bitter that
humans and pets cant stand even a pinch, though rats dont 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 continuous supply until the anticoagulant takes its effect.
If you use poison baitseven the relatively safe typesplace them out of
reach of pets and children. Make a note of each boxs 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, and knowledge is very valuable.
Many kinds of ants can be found in housesincluding 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 nest under flooring or a pile of papers.
Knowing the particular type of ant you are dealing with obviously helps
you select baits, apply pesticides in the proper places, and search for
nests. But identification is generally too difficult a task for non-professionals.
The one type they can 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 humans dont 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
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. Dont 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 cast broadly.
Ants are attracted to the bait and carry small portions 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.
When you first apply baits, you might see an increase in ant activity;
thats because the baits seem like good food to ants, who communicate the
availability of the food to the colonys other ants, which seek it out
before the poison takes effect.
If you want a quick knockdown of ants, try a spray or dust available at
a hardware store. Spray or dust insecticides will either kill the ants
when they pass over them or repel them. Key targets are
Lower part of window frames and around doors;
Outdoor supports, pipes, posts, and pillars leading from the ground to
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 only temporarily eliminate
the problem. The nest survives and continues to produce ants to replace
those youve 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.
No one is certain why and how they made their comeback, but bedbugs are
once again a serious problem in most U.S. cities.
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, so as to remain
within easy transit of their food supply, they tend to live near beds:
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
theyve chewed on their landlords a bit. Like mosquito bites, bedbug bites
usually arent 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
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 people would consider the stress and sleep deprivation that
result from a bedbug infestation a health concern.
Except for the small stains they may leave behind on bedding, they dont
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 quicklyeven
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 dont 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 wont 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
youre 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 youve de-cluttered, thoroughly vacuum beds and carpets. Remove electrical
outlet and lighting switch plates, and vacuum the dust and debris inside
(make sure youve 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 youre
Wash everything thats 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 cant be washed,
have it drycleaned; or put it in a clothes dryer on its hottest setting
for 20 minutes.
Once youve cleared out the room, its 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 quicklyafter
one or two days, sunlight and air break down the compound. The problem
with pyrethroid treatment is that some bedbugs have become resistant to
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
wont stick around long enough to kill the bedbugs that survived the previous
treatment. But even one treatment should knock a bedbug infestation down
to manageable levels; and since its dehydrating effect also affects bedbug
eggs, repeated treatments, along with washing and vacuuming, should eventually
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 problems with many other
pests, bedbug problems may require a contract for multiple treatments,
since a single treatmentor even a couple of treatmentsmay not eradicate
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 necessary
to eliminate the infestation. If subsequent visits are to be billed on
a per-visit basis, get the details in writing.
Heres what you can do to minimize your risk of bedbug infestations
If you spot signs of bedbugs, act right away. The sooner treatment begins,
the better the chance of quick success.
Dont buy used mattresses. Buy used upholstered furniture only from trusted
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
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
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
What Harm They Do
In addition to causing insufferable itching and even severe allergic reactions
in some individuals, fleas are also carriers of serious diseasesboth plague
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 doesnt 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 dont kill mature
fleas, since they have already passed through metamorphosis, but they can
stop the development of flea larvae.
Pantry moths are not dangerous, but they are a nuisance and hard to eliminate.
Youll meet them when you open a kitchen cabinet or pantry door, and they
flutter out and around the foodyou 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.
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 cant sting; the females can sting but wont. 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 composed of 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 wont 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.
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 useespecially on and by childrenhas 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. Californias Statewide Integrated Pest Management
Program says this 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 brewers 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 evening, when mosquitoes are most
Consider screening in your porch or deck.
Maintain window screens and doors, and close doors quickly upon entry or
Since mosquitoes lay their eggs in water and larvae live in the water,
remove or regularly drain objects that retain water. Dont forget to empty
trash cans and saucers beneath flowerpots. Clean gutters, birdbaths, and
other areas where water can pool.
If you have a problem you cant handle on your own, many pest control services
will happily step in. Weve rated Puget Sound area companies and branches
of companies on our Ratings Tables. (For information on how we collect
data for our ratings, click here.)
Ratings from Customers
Our Ratings Tables show how area consumers (primarily 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, six of the companies
or branches were rated superior for overall performance by 90 percent
or more of their surveyed customers. On the other hand, five companies
were rated superior by 60 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 about sloppily applied treatments that dont do the
trick, alarming termite inspections that lead to unnecessary work, inept
termite inspections that fail to detect infestations, and salespeople who
push expensive annual contracts.
For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our
Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the
Consumer Protection Division of the Washington Office of the Attorney General
for a recent two-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume
of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts
and rates, click here.
How They Approach the Problem
As previously noted, different outfits have different strategies for treating,
or preventing, pest problemsfor 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 makes sense for you.
In pest control, as in most fields, its desirable to be able to withhold
payment until work is complete. In the case of termite jobs, however, 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 to compare 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 years 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 structural repairs. Be sure to read and understand each
companys guarantee before you select one.
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 operator you get has at least minimum
qualifications, tell companies you are considering that you insist on having
a certified applicator do your workand 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 administered
by the state.
Since so many companies provide good service, cost can be a key consideration.
Fortunately, getting price quotes 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 some idea of comparative prices. Based on telephone shopping by
our mystery shoppers, 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 company offers); (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 $200 for initial
treatment with a 60-day guarantee, while another charges $325 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 $500 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 on-site
A key factor affecting cost is the particular treatment plan the company
offersespecially 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 + $175) for a single treatment and one follow-up. This
is substantially more than another company that charges $175 for the initial
treatment but only $40 or $50 for a follow-up treatment you may or may
To get the best plan for your situation, press companies to describe all
the available alternatives. The least expensive plan is not always the
first 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. Several
highly rated companies charge low prices, and several poorly rated companies
charge high prices. In other words, paying more doesnt necessarily produce
better critter control.
The control procedures we have described should minimize the dangers of
pesticidesespecially if sanitation and other non-chemical measures are
employed as suggested. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned
the use of certain chemicals, and allows others to be applied only by professionals
and even then 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 underwayor that researchers or citizens
groups are urging oneis a red flag.
If you turn to a professional, you also gain a measure of protection from
the certification and licensing standards established by states in response
to federal requirements. Every licensed company must employ at least one
professional who has passed a test certifying their 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 effectivelywhen to apply it, where
to apply it, how much to apply, and what pests it will control.
How to properly dispose of excess chemicals and empty containers.
When you can reenter an area that has been treated with the pesticide.
How exposure occurswhether by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, or
How harmful the pesticide can be as expressed by three key words: danger
(anything from a taste to a teaspoonful can kill humans), warning (a
teaspoonful to a tablespoonful can kill), and caution (an ounce to more
than a pint can kill). Avoid pesticides labelled danger.
2. Buy only as much pesticide as you need. If you do buy extra, store it
out of reach of children and pets. Ideally, pesticides should be stored
in a locked, fireproof place with a warning signand always in their original
3. Use only the amount specified on the pesticide label.
4. If you hire professionals, find out exactly what chemicals they are using.
You may have to call the operators supervisor to find out, but this information
is vital if you must contact a doctor after symptoms of poisoning appear.
Ideally, have the company provide a copy of the label from the pesticides
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/hospitalit
contains important information on treatment.
For quick advice, call a local poison control center at 800-222-1222.
We receive a lot of requests from subscribers for information on green
or natural pest control methods. And as you shop for a service, youll
likely run across a number of companies that claim to practice green or
natural pest control. Does such a thing exist? If so, does it work?
To control household pests, you need to prevent them from getting what
they need to live and reproduce. In this article, we recommended several
steps for minimizing the risk of infestation for several types of pests.
Most prevention methods require no pesticidesfor example, maintaining
clean kitchens and bathrooms, vacuuming frequently, eliminating water leaks,
and sealing possible entry points.
But when infestations occur, 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. The ones exterminators
most commonly use control
TermitesSome 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 homes structure.
CockroachesMany pest control companies consider boric acid a natural remedy.
Thats a rather dubious claim, but (as noted 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 they must be applied
RodentsCan be effectively controlled by closing off points of entry from
the outside and placing traps in strategic locations. Humane traps are
available for relocating, rather than killing, rodents.
Bees, wasps, and hornetsInstead of using pesticides, professionals can
knock many types of nests to the ground and crush them (but unless you
own a bee suit, dont 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 productsnot nearly fast
enough if youre the one doing the killing.
AntsCaulking cracks and other access points and setting out baits should
control most populations. Several effective bait products use non-synthetic
BedbugsAs 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 kills 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 temperature reaches at least 120°F,
destroying all the bugs and their eggs. But this process is incredibly
expensive (upwards of $3,000 for an average-size house) and disruptive
(residents have to remove anything 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 would seem to disqualify this procedure from
Dont bother with electronic devices that claim to repel pests with high-frequency
sound waves and the like: They dont 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, speculating that the device
actually created a nice warm spot for nesting.
When inquiring about natural pest control options, be wary and skeptical
of the companys claims. Weve found that many companies that claim to
provide natural solutions employ the same pesticides and methods used in
conventional treatments. Weve even heard of companies that claim to be
eco-friendly because they recycle office paper or drive hybrids.
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 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 pests, you can get excellent advice from the following:
Washington State University Extension
Washington State Department of Agriculture, Pesticide Management Division
National Pest Management Association
University of California Integrated Pest Management Program