If your home feels like a giant Roach Motel, it's tempting to
reach for the Raid and call it a night. After all, bugs can be
real pests: They eat through your pantry, clothes, and home,
and can bite, sting, and even spread disease.
But many pesticides contain ingredients you should avoid.
According to Andrew Lopez, author of Natural Pest Control
and founder of
OrganicDataBank.info, synthetic ingredients
in many bug sprays don't break down readily, so they can
linger, harming the environment beyond their initial target.
Lopez's rule? "If you can't pronounce it, don't buy it."
Permethrin, for example, is a synthetic chemical found
in many flea dips, termite solutions, and insect-resistant
clothing. While it kills bugs, it's also toxic to fish.
Or take DEET, the chemical found in most insect repellents.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers
products containing DEET safe and effective "when applied
according to the instructions on the label," but the agency
recommends a host of discomfiting precautions for their use:
avoiding eyes, mouth, ears, cuts, and irritated skin; not letting
kids apply it; using low concentrations only where sleeves, socks, and pants can't reach; and washing it off once you're back indoors.
Even boric acid, common in insecticides,
isn't as harmless as you might think. While it occurs naturally in the environment and the EPA calls it a
minimal risk to birds, fi sh, and wildlife,
it is mildly toxic to people and pets if
ingested. And if you're more interested in
deterring than destroying, know that
boric acid kills insects rather than simply
keeping them away.
So how can you stop bugs from
bugging you? For general pest control,
Lopez recommends buying essential oils
from health food stores or catalog
retailers like Arbico
(arbico-organics.com) or Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden
Supply (groworganic.com). "Pick your
creature—hard shell, soft shell, you
name it—essential oils will work for all
of them," he says. But they aren't the
only weapon in your natural bug control
arsenal. Here, a guide to the safest ways
to control all kinds of creepy crawlies.
Myles H. Bader, DrPH, author of 1,001
All-Natural Secrets to a Pest-Free Property,
suggests placing fresh, whole bay leaves
in drawers, cupboards, flour containers—wherever you see ants. He also
recommends cinnamon, ground cayenne
pepper, baby powder, garlic, or crushed
mint; place any of these in ants' paths,
and they won't cross them.
To keep your pets flea free, Diane Gow
McDilda, author of The Everything Green
Living Book, advises putting dishes of
soapy water under warm lights to catch
the critters. As you brush fleas out of
your pet's fur, dip the comb in a bowl of
soapy water to trap them. To combat an
infestation, says Ellen Sandbeck, author
of Green Housekeeping, sprinkle salt on
carpets and vacuum daily. Be sure to
empty your vacuum bag thoroughly each
time—fleas can survive being vacuumed
up and may hop out of the bag and back
into your living area.
Flies and their offspring, maggots, are
drawn to garbage, pet excrement, and
small dead animals, such as rodents, says
Peter Jentsch, a Cornell University
entomologist. So first eliminate these
attractors. Scrub and tightly seal garbage
cans, clean up after pets, and make
sure there isn't a dead mouse in your
house. You can repel flies with oil of
lavender, peppermint, or clove soaked
into a sponge, says Bader. Set the
sponge near you to keep flies at bay,
or place it near a window or doorway
to discourage them from entering
Try using lemon eucalyptus oil
(available in Herbaria Citronella Mist
at herbariasoap.com) instead of harsher
chemical repellents. The Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention have
found it to be as effective against
mosquitoes as repellents containing low
concentrations of DEET. And don't discount prevention: Mosquitoes are
master intruders, hate wind and clothes,
and love standing water. So repair
screens and shut doors; use fans to
create cross-breezes; wear pants, socks,
and sleeves; and banish still water from
birdbaths, rain gutters, buckets, and the
bases of potted plants.
Cockroaches can carry diseases and love
food, water, and dark places. To deter
them from your residence, keep your
home clean, seal wall and baseboard
cracks with caulk, fix leaky faucets and
pipes, wash dishes after each meal, and
keep pets' food bowls clean. Add a
capful of liquid peppermint Dr.
Bronner's Pure Castile Soap to a quart
of warm water and spray it around
problem areas in your home.
To deal with pantry moths, Allison
Vieira of Hearts Pest Management, an
insect control company, recommends
replacing grain-based items that may be
affected by moths (flour, pancake mix,
cereal, pasta, etc.), and cleaning the area
with soap and water. To keep new
grains safe, store them in well-sealed
canisters or bags. Indian meal moth
larvae often hitch a ride home in bags
of birdseed or pet food, so keep those
items well sealed and out of the kitchen.
As for moths that munch on clothes,
vegetarians are in luck. Moth larvae love
wool, feathers, fur, and leather, which
many of us don't have in our closets.
Keep moths away by cleaning garments
frequently and storing them in a tightly
sealed chest, drawer, or closet scented
with cedar, lavender, rosemary, or bay
leaves, says Sandbeck. Just stay away
from mothballs, which are poisonous to
humans as well as moths.
Are termites (which are tough to
tackle on your own) or other severe pest
infestations thwarting your do-it-yourself
efforts? If you do need a professional,
can guide you toward exterminators who
practice integrated pest management, an
approach that "seeks to eradicate pests
with the least amount of—or no—
chemicals," says Vieira.
But for most bug problems, careful
prevention and natural methods can do
wonders. "Why bring out the big guns,"
asks Jentsch, "when most insects can be
taken care of with much less drastic
measures?" Bugs can be beastly enough—getting rid of them shouldn't have to be.