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Bug Off!

Keep pests at bay the natural way

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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
, 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

( or Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden

Supply ( “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

your home.


Try using lemon eucalyptus oil

(available in Herbaria Citronella Mist

at 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, and

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.