Pesticides are designed to kill. That's why people use them. But researchers are increasingly finding that their effects aren't limited to the pests they're intended to wipe out. Aside from poisonings, synthetic chemical insect repellents have been linked to prostate cancer and other men's health problems, a common birth defect, nervous-system disruption, asthma attacks, seizures, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and childhood brain tumors, among other ailments. The good news is you can prevent bug bites and control other pest problems without poisoning the environment, yourself, or your family.
Here, 5 common pests that rear their ugly little heads this time of year, and some natural solutions.
Ticks are tiny—some as small as a pepper flake—but the diseases the blood-sucking creatures can transmit to humans, such as Lyme disease can take a huge toll on people's health. Your best defense:
1. Take a shower or bath within two hours of being outside in areas where ticks may be present.
2. Perform a whole-body tick check within 36 hours of being in your yard. Sooner, if you've been out in the woods.
3. Install a deer fence around your property, to keep out the critters that ticks latch on to.
4. Keep your grass mowed.
5. Install a gravel barrier between your yard and wooded areas, which helps keep tick-carrying mice out of your yard, and keep woodpiles neatly stacked so they don't become hiding places for ticks.
6. Use plant-based repellents that work. BiteBlocker is a safer alternative to DEET, and protects against ticks for two hours.
Carpenter bees provide the invaluable service of pollinating plants; but the bees can cause damage to your home or deck. To prevent them from drilling holes into your home (they do this to rear their young), apply a thick coat of low- or no-VOC paint or varnish to wood that's exposed to the outdoors, including windowsills and eaves; this makes the wood less appealing to the bees.
If you're already noticing holes in a piece of wood, you can remove that piece and replace it with painted or varnished wood, or else stuff steel wool into the holes (after the bees have emerged in the spring). There's no need to be afraid of them. Males—the ones you generally see buzzing around your head—don't sting, and the females rarely do.
According to Maryann Frazier, a honeybee extension associate at Pennsylvania State University, you can kill the larvae or pupa by inserting a hanger into a carpenter bee hole and ramming it around, and then sealing the hole. This should be done in late summer or early fall. The technique isn't perfect, though. "Sometimes, they make galleries [holes] that aren't just linear, but shoot off on sides," Frazier explains. "So you can't get them all if they go off at an angle."
Ants in an organic garden aren't a problem, but inside the home is a different story. Here's what Organic Gardening magazine suggests:
1. Make a solution of 1 percent boric acid (available at any drugstore) and 20 percent sugar by thoroughly dissolving 1 teaspoon of boric acid and 6 tablespoons of sugar in 2 cups of water. Soak cotton balls in this bait solution. (Boric acid is a low-toxicity mineral, but do keep it away from children and pets because it can cause skin, mouth, stomach, and eye irritation.)
2. Make bait dispensers out of old plastic containers with lids. Punch holes in them so the ants can get inside, then put the soaked cotton balls into the containers and cover with the lid.
3. Place the bait containers wherever you see ant trails, inside or outside the house.
4. Clean the containers and use fresh bait solution at least once a week. Be patient! The key is to get worker ants to continually carry low doses of boric acid back to feed the ants in their nest.
These wood-chewing intruders could do enough damage to completely wreck your home, so proper eradication is a must. Since the standard chemical treatment, sulfuryl fluoride, is a potent greenhouse gas, avoid fumigation if possible. Spot treatment with safer methods is sufficient 70 percent of the time. Here are some points to consider:
1. Hire a pest-control specialist to set underground trap, half-buried metal or plastic bait stations placed around the perimeter of your home. Use pine wood as bait, and check monthly. Once they are attracted, replace the wood with a boric acid solution.
2. Avoid placing mulch up against your house—termites use it for cover. Make sure no wooden part of your house, especially structural wood, touches bare soil.
3. If you're already infested, check with integrated pest-management specialists who might use natural orange oil or salts of boric acid instead of harmful chemicals. For large infestations, heat or microwave treatments are available as nonchemical options, although they are expensive.
Once bedbugs find their way into your home, it's hard to fully get rid of them without the help of an expert. But there are ways to prevent getting them in the first place, and to cut down their population in your home so fewer chemicals are required for total annihilation.
1. To avoid bringing hitchhiking bedbugs into your home following a vacation, be sure to keep your suitcase on a rack or shelf in your room. As an added measure, when you return home from a place that may have been infested, you can tie your suitcase up in two garbage bags and let it sit in the sun for three days to kill any unwanted hitchhikers.
2. To reduce the severity of an infestation in your home, clear out clutter under your bed; take your bed frame apart and scour it to kill eggs; seal up cracks in walls and floors so the bugs can't migrate from room to room, or apartment to apartment; pull your bed away from the wall, keep your sheets from touching the floor, and ditch your bedskirt. For more tips on dealing with bedbugs in a natural way, read 5 Ways to Beat Bedbugs.