Creepy crawlies and things that go bump or squeak in the night are a homeowner’s (or renter’s) worst nightmare. Luckily, there are proven methods to prevent, discourage, and treat home infestations that don’t involve spraying the whole shebang with toxic chemicals.
Although often effective against home invaders, artificial pest repellants, sprays, baits, and poisons can be dangerous if not lethal when accidentally ingested or touched. Exposure to pesticides can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system, disrupt hormones, and even cause cancer Household pesticides and risk of pediatric brain tumors. Pogoda JM, Preston-Martin S. Statology, Truckee, CA, USA. Environmental Health Perspectives. 1997 Nov;105(11):1214-20. Cancer health effects of pesticides: systematic review. Bassil KL, Vakil C, Sanborn M, Cole DC, Kaur JS, Kerr KJ. Family Medicine Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON. Canadian Family Physician. 2007 Oct; 53(10):1704-11.. Even relatively benign pesticides can be dangerous if they’re handled or operated incorrectly.[AD]
Household chemicals have damaging side effects for the environment, too. Pesticides can find their way into groundwater or a river, lake, or ocean and contaminate the water sources for people and animals Pesticides in surface water runoff in south-eastern New York State, USA: seasonal and stormflow effects on concentrations. Phillips PJ, Bode RW. US Geological Survey, Troy, NY, USA. Pest Management Science. 2004 Jun;60(6):531-43.. Once in the environment, pesticides can cause damage to plants and animals, as well as unsuspecting humans.
Good thing there are alternative ways to de-bug a home, right? From essential oils to non-toxic household cleaning products, here’s everything you need to know about keeping pests away in a more humane, environmentally-friendly, and healthy way.
Step One: Keep 'Em Out
A buggy infestation can’t ruin your life if it never happens. Here are a few basic tips to deter critters of all kinds from setting up camp anywhere in your home.
Pests love a good snack, so keep food under wraps to prevent your home from turning into the next trendy spot in the buggy club scene.
- Store flour, sugar, and other dry ingredients in sealed bags or glass or plastic containers.
- Take out the trash often and store outdoor garbage cans (with secure lids) far from the door.
- Don’t leave pet food out overnight.
- Clean up spills and crumbs right away.
- Wash dishes right after a meal, and don’t let food-encrusted plates and bowls hang out throughout the house.
- Regularly recycle old newspaper, cardboard, and boxes. Bugs and rodents love to burrow in these warm and cozy materials.
Mosquitoes and cockroaches are particularly drawn to bodies of water, so keep the house dry whenever possible.
- A full sink is basically a cockroach swimming pool, so drain water as soon as the dishes are done.
- Wipe puddles or spills that form pools of water. Plus, nobody will slip and hurt themselves!
- Fix leaky pipes, sinks, appliances, and bathroom fixtures so they don’t drip water.
Be Mr. or Ms. Fix-It
Remember when you said you’d repair that hole in the wall or door? It’s time to make good on that promise. A tiny hole or rip is an open invitation for pests of all shapes and sizes to come strolling in.
- Patch or replace holes in screens and walls, especially around windows and doors.
- Get out the caulking gun and seal up cracks and openings around baseboards, windows, and pipes.
- Store firewood and mulch piles far away from the house’s foundation. Bugs and rodents can easily travel between the two environments. Try to keep at least 30 feet between pile and house, if possible.
Step Two: Know Your Pests
While every geographical region has its own pesky pests, here are 16 of the most common home invaders. This list is arranged in alphabetical order to make browsing easiest. For each pest entry, we’ve included info about what they look like, where they reside, what they eat, what dangers they present, and how to get rid of them. If these simple solutions don’t work (sometimes those unwanted houseguests can be stubborn), it’s probably time to call in the professionals.
What they look like: Segmented black-brown body, three legs (plus two long antennae that can look like legs).
Typical ‘hood: Pretty much everywhere.
Home headquarters: Nesting in soil next to or under buildings, along sidewalks, or near trees or plants. Ants also love warm, damp locations (think between walls, under floors, or near heating system components).
Fave Snacks: Fruits, seeds, nuts, other insects, sweets.
Danger Zone: Some ants can bite or sting, although most species that dwell in homes do not.
How to Ditch ‘Em: First, find entry points and seal them with caulk or petroleum jelly. Natural ant repellants include cream of tartar, pure cinnamon, coffee grinds, garlic, chili pepper, paprika, cloves, or dried peppermint. Leave a sprinkling of one or more spice at entrances where ants enter the house to deter the critters from crossing into your home. Lemon juice and peel are also useful. The commercial non-toxic ant repellant Orange Guard is harmless to humans and other animals, and drives ants away without harming them.
2. Bed Bugs
What They Look Like: Flat oval body with six legs, about the size of an apple seed that can be either brown or reddish brown.
Typical ‘Hood: Can be found around the world, but recent outbreaks have centered in the United States, Canada, the UK, and other parts of Europe. Bed bugs are found in environments where many people cycle through on a given day — this includes apartments, hostels and hotels, trains, buses, and dorm rooms. Some theorists suggest that recent bed bug outbreaks are due to an upswell in international travel, since the bugs can easily hide in luggage, bags, clothing, or bedding.
Home Headquarters: Unsurprisingly, these pests love to hang out in and around the bed. Bed bugs’ small, flat bodies allow them to hide quite easily in seams of mattresses, bed frames, headboards, other bedroom furniture, behind wallpaper, in clothing, or any other household clutter.
Fave Snacks: Blood. Bed bugs can live for up to a year in between “meals.”
Danger Zone: Bed bugs don’t transmit diseases and are not considered a public health hazard. Bites cause itching, and dealing with an infestation can cause anxiety and insomnia. In some cases, bites can trigger a serious allergic reaction, but this is fairly rare.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Unfortunately, getting rid of these little critters is hardly a walk in the park. First, all surfaces where bed bugs might dwell (sheets, pillows, towels, clothing, curtains, etc.) need to be washed in hot water and dried at the hottest setting for at least 30 minutes. Next, scrub the mattress with a stiff brush and vacuum it and the surrounding room thoroughly, disposing of the vacuum cleaner bags immediately. Cover the mattress in a bed bug cover (available at most home goods stores) or toss it if it’s really been infested. Be careful when trashing bed-buggy items — wrap anything in heavy plastic and packing tape and label it clearly so others know it contains bed bugs. Seal up peeling wallpaper and cracks in floorboards to remove future hiding spots, and clear up any household clutter around the bedroom. Pure essential oils (cinnamon, lemongrass, clove, peppermint, lavender, thyme, tea tree, and eucalyptus) can repel bed bugs from setting up shop in the first place, so spray ‘em in your suitcase before heading out on a trip and before coming home again.
3. Bees and wasps
What They Look Like: Bees are ½ inch to 1 inch long and oval-shaped, with six legs, wings, and antennae. They are usually golden yellow with brown or black stripes, although carpenter bees are blue-black with a yellow furry patch on their backs. Hornets have much larger bodies and are usually black and brown with some orange-yellow. Wasps are thinner, with long legs and jagged yellow and black stripes.
Typical ‘Hood: Bees, wasps, and hornets dig temperate climates, although they’ve adapted to thrive in pretty much all habitats. They can be found around the world.
Home Headquarters: These arthropods are creative house-hunters! Bees, wasps, and hornets often build nests underground, in trees, in empty man-made structures (barns, cars, attics, etc.), or even chimneys. They also love sweet stuff and hang out near fruit trees and garbage cans.
Fave Snacks: Bees love to munch on pollen and nectar from flowers. Hornets and wasps are omnivorous and eat smaller flies and insects as well as fruit, sap, and human garbage.
Danger Zone: Many people are allergic to bee, hornet, and wasp stings. For those with allergies, a single sting can be deadly. For those without serious allergies, the venom from stings can result in painful, itchy, and swollen areas.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Bees, wasps, and yellowjackets are actually quite important for ecosystems (they pollinate plants and crops and manage other pests by preying on them), so avoid removing them unless they’ve infested a home or are a direct threat to someone with an allergy. To remove an active nest, wait for the queen to leave (she’s the big gal) and then fill the nest with dirt to discourage a new queen from setting up shop. You can use non-toxic essential oil sprays and containment traps (with bait) to discourage all kinds of flying, stinging creatures. Fun fact: Since wasps are extremely territorial and will not set up near another nest, hanging a “fake nest” near your home can keep actual wasps from moving in nearby. Simply removing a nest or drowning it in soapy water can be effective, but can be dangerous (as insects — especially wasps — don’t go down without a fight).
Typical ‘Hood: Across the United States, Canada UK, Europe, and other temperate climates. Many species of birds are migratory, although some that live in more temperate areas do not move from place to place depending on the season.
Home Headquarters: On flat roofs and ledges, in house eaves, near bodies of water, on athletic fields.
Fave Snacks: Birds eat small insects and fish, grains, and green vegetation (usually grasses). Species used to living in close quarters with humans eat food scraps and garbage.
Danger Zone: Geese, pigeons, and other pests can carry H1N1 or other strains of avian flu, which are dangerous to humans. Birds (usually those that dwell in a flock) can attack humans when threatened or provoked.
How to Ditch ‘Em: The best way to discourage our avian friends is to make roosting spaces unavailable. If installing metal bird spikes (and turning those friendly pigeons into shish-kebabs) sounds unpleasant, there are cruelty-free solutions. Install nets to close off certain areas (courtyards, for example) and place plastic or metal “bird slides” on ledges so birds can’t hang out there. The best way to keep geese away is “persistent harassment” — dogs trained to chase geese are an excellent solution. In a pinch, try a fake dog cutout on the lawn! Most importantly, don’t feed birds (or any wildlife), as this makes them more likely to treat your yard like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
What They Look Like: Extremely tiny (smaller than a period at the end of a sentence) and red.
Typical ‘Hood: In the United States, chiggers are typically found in the Southeast or Midwest regions.
Home Headquarters: Damp wooded areas or pastures and fields with lots of tall grasses. Chiggers often attach themselves to the tops of socks or waistbands.
Fave Snacks: Animal blood. Chiggers are actually the larvae of harvest mites, which are vegetarian when full-grown but parasitic in this specific stage.
Danger Zone: Chigger bites are extremely itchy but carry no serious health risks (except an infection derived from scratching).
How to Ditch ‘Em: Prevent chiggers from attaching to clothing or skin by wearing long layers, using buy spray, and avoiding areas known to contain chiggers. After walking in a chigger-infested area, take a hot shower with lots of soap and dry clothing with hot water.
What They Look Like: Red-brown body, about 1/8 inch long with a narrow body and long claws on all six long legs.
Typical ‘Hood: All over the world.
Home Headquarters: Hair or fur of humans or animals.
Fave Snacks: Human and animal blood.
Danger Zone: Fleabites are itchy and can trigger allergic reactions. Fleas can be dangerous (in addition to simply annoying) in the house because they transmit serious diseases like typhus and tapeworms.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Using special pet preventative medications can stop fleas from latching on in the first place. Once they’ve made it indoors, though, fleas are difficult to remove. Start by vacuuming frequently (especially in areas where pets hang out) and discard the bag after each session. Wash pets frequently with soap and hot water. Use traps that attract bugs by emitting light and heat. Natural herbs and aromatics like lemon, citronella, wormwood, and rosemary can also deter fleas from sticking around. Mix a few drops of oil with water in a spray bottle and spritz dogs every other day.
What They Look Like: Dark grey or black body, six legs, wings, and an oval body about ¼ inch long.
Typical ‘Hood: Everywhere
Home Headquarters: Where people are — homes, barns, dumps, etc.
Fave Snacks: Garbage, animal excrement, rotting ickiness of all varieties.
Danger Zone: Houseflies can spread bacteria and diseases like food poisoning and dysentery. Some kinds of biting flies can transmit illnesses through the spread of human blood.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Clean up garbage, take out the trash, and mop up spills ASAP. Put screens on windows and sliding doors to prevent bugs from getting in from outside. Fashion some homemade traps (sans harmful chemicals) to control flies inside the house.
What They Look Like: Grey-white bugs the size of a sesame seed. Nits (lice eggs, which are more commonly seen than full-grown adults) appear as yellow, tan, or brown dots.
Typical ‘Hood: All over the world.
Home Headquarters: Lice usually hang out on the scalp, although some varieties can infest the rest of the body.
Fave Snacks: Human and animal blood.
Danger Zone: Itching, insomnia, and infected sores due to itching are the worst side effects.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Lather, rinse, repeat. The best (and most environmentally-friendly) way to ditch lice is by washing all clothes in hot water and soap. Use tea tree oil shampoo and then follow with a rinse made with equal parts vinegar and water. Use a special nit comb to go through the hair and remove nits. Sprinkle an essential oil like peppermint or tea tree on the comb before combing and in hair afterwards.
What They Look Like: Invisibility cloak — these little guys are too small to spot with a naked eye.
Typical ‘Hood: All humid environments.
Home Headquarters: Where people and animals spend a lot of time — particularly in the bedroom and pet bed areas.
Fave Snacks: Dust mites are omnivorous but not parasitic. They chow down on shedded human skin flakes, pollen, fungi, bacteria, and pet dander.
Danger Zone: While mites themselves aren’t dangerous, many people are allergic to them (most people allergic to “dust” are actually reacting to mite feces and body parts).
How to Ditch ‘Em: Getting rid of mites can be tricky, given that they’re invisible. Step one should be reducing humidity by grabbing a dehumidifier. After that, a little bit of elbow grease is the best way to rid a home of mites. Vacuum and mop human and pet sleeping areas often to reduce dust. Regularly wash bedding, curtains, and any other textiles in bedrooms. Consider zipping the mattress and/or pillows into bug-proof covers. And consider the mite situation before buying new stuff — choose washable or non-fabric furniture, décor, and floor coverings that make dust management easy.
What They Look Like: Brown body with thin wings and six long, thin legs.
Typical ‘Hood: All around the world.
Home Headquarters: Mosquitoes typically lay eggs in still water (although some species have adapted past this requirement), so they’re often found near lakes, swamps, ponds, marshes, and tidal areas. They’re especially active during spring and summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
Fave Snacks: Female mosquitoes bite humans and animals and consume blood to provide nutrients for laying eggs. Adult males snack on nectar from flowers.
Danger Zone: Nearly everyone’s experienced the most common mosquito side effect — a red, itchy bite. The swelling and itchiness are actually due to the body’s reaction to mosquito saliva. Skeeters are infamous for carrying and transmitting diseases like malaria, encephalitis, West Nile Virus, yellow fever, and heartworm, a serious disease for dogs.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Yes, it is possible to manage mosquitoes without pouring on the DEET. First, make the house an inhospitable environment for the insects — keep windows closed and install screens, drain any standing water (to prevent breeding), and keep yard grass short. Before hanging out outdoors during the spring or summer, put on long sleeves and pants and apply a natural repellant like lemon eucalyptus oil or another essential oil like lavender, peppermint, or citronella. Since mosquitoes are weak fliers, positioning an oscillating fan in outdoor areas can keep the bugs away without using chemicals.
11. Meal moths
What They Look Like: Meal moth larvae are ½ inch long and off-white. Adult moths are about the same length, but grey and reddish-brown colored with long wings.
Typical ‘Hood: All around the world.
Home Headquarters: In cupboards and pantries, especially in and around packages of grains, pet food, candy, and dried fruit.
Fave Snacks: Rice, pasta, cake mixes, granola, dried fruit, birdseed, cereal, dog and cat food, flour, crackers, nuts, powdered milk, popcorn, spices, and any other dry goods.
Danger Zone: Bugs’ waste and secretions contaminate food, and some people experience allergic reactions as a result. In humid climates, food bugs can secrete compounds that are carcinogenic.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Luckily, pantry and meal bugs are fairly easy to get rid of. Once an infestation’s been detected, put on the rubber gloves and start cleaning. Toss any packages with bugs and carefully inspect even unopened packages for larvae or adult bugs — meal moths are more than willing to chew through cardboard or aluminum foil to get to the goodies. After everything’s been cleared, vacuum crevices of cabinets and wash them with hot, soapy water. If bugs are a recurring problem in your kitchen, consider storing non-perishables in the refrigerator or in glass, metal, or plastic canisters. Clean the kitchen regularly to prevent future infestations.
12. Rats and mice
What They Look Like: Rodents of the household pest variety hardly look like Mickey. Rats can be up to a foot long (not including the tail), while mice are smaller (three to five inches long). Both types of rodents usually have brown, grey, or black fur.
Typical ‘Hood: All around the world. The house mouse, the roof rat, and the Norway rat are the most common rodent species that live amongst people.
Home Headquarters: Wherever people (and their garbage) live. Rats and mice like to make nests or burrows in sheltered indoor and outdoor locations like basements, attics, and tool sheds.
Fave Snacks: Almost anything. Rats are partial to meat and grains (and tasty trash), while mice particularly enjoy dining on cereals.
Danger Zone: Rats are historic transmitters of epidemic diseases (bubonic plague, anyone?). They regularly harbor and spread potential life-threatening infections like typhus, hantavirus, and Lyme disease (via ticks). Rodents can also contaminate home surfaces and food through feces and other diseases they carry.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Once again, the best way to get rid of rodents is to control the environment. Seal up holes between outdoors and indoors (including window screens — rats and mice are excellent climbers), store garbage and food in tightly sealed containers, and clear out woodpiles or any other debris (including boxes and indoor clutter) that could function as a rodent roadhouse. If rodents are particularly attracted to a certain area, spray it with a solution of horseradish, garlic, and cayenne pepper to deter mice and rats. Other no-chemical solutions include getting a pet (cat and rat terriers are natural rat and mouse predators) and setting “catch and release” traps that don’t harm the animals.
What They Look Like: ½ inch to 1 ½ inch long, with six legs and long antennae. Roaches are brown with light colored or black markings on the back of the head (depending on which specific species it is).
Typical ‘Hood: All over the world, particularly in densely populated cities.
Home Headquarters: Warm, humid areas like bathrooms, kitchens, and basements; also heating pipes and drains.
Fave Snacks: Pretty much everything, but they particularly love to chow down on starches and will eat paper, cardboard, boxes, and any food scraps.
Danger Zone: Roach saliva, feces, and body parts can cause allergic reactions, particularly in children. People with asthma are especially susceptible to cockroach allergies. The creepy-crawlies can also transmit bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, parasitic worms, and other pathogens.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Since roaches are largely nocturnal, they often crawl around unseen — spotting one roach, unfortunately, usually means that its buddies are hiding around somewhere. They’re stubborn (it takes some chutzpah to survive nuclear war, after all), but not impossible to get rid of. Prevent an infestation by keeping counters clean (wipe ‘em down with white vinegar), draining sinks, and storing food in the fridge or in sealed glass or metal containers. Seal any big gaps in walls and floors with caulk and plug up sinks with drains. Roaches hate boric acid, so use borax to thinly line the perimeters of rooms and existing cracks. Whole bay leaves can also deter cockroaches.
What They Look Like: Eight legs; bodies can be brown, black, grey, yellow, or beige.
Typical ‘Hood: All over the world.
Home Headquarters: Spiders live pretty much everywhere, so it’s hard to generalize. Spiders in houses tend to hang out in nooks and crannies, in cupboards, closets, chests, woodpiles, and under furniture.
Fave Snacks: Other insects, smaller spiders, and various tiny invertebrates. Spiders are carnivores, but their teeny-tiny mouths can’t harm humans or other large mammals.
Danger Zone: Although many people are afraid of spiders, they’re usually largely beneficial. The creepy-crawly arachnids eat other insects, including other spiders, roaches, earwigs, flies, moths, and mosquitoes. Black widow spiders and brown recluse spiders are the only poisonous species in the US.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Most of the time, spiders keep to themselves and can actually reduce populations of other pests. If you’re concerned about poisonous spiders, call a local pest control organization, since they can be dangerous when disturbed. Clear away clutter in the house, trim long grass or vegetation outside, and get in the habit of cleaning and vacuuming storage areas regularly. Discourage regular spider populations from getting out of hand by spraying nests with saline solution. A spray made with crushed chestnuts or essential oils can also be effective in getting rid of arachnids.
What They Look Like: Eight legs with a small, round, reddish-brown body between ¼ inch and 1 inch long.
Typical ‘Hood: All around the world; in the US they’re particularly prevalent throughout the East Coast and California.
Home Headquarters: Ticks can’t fly but are great jumpers, so hang out on shrubs and in tall grasses, where they can hop onto passing mammalian hosts. They usually live in wooded areas with plenty of grass and natural debris on the ground.
Fave Snacks: Human and animal blood.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Ticks can’t get in a house without jumping onto a host, so the best way to get rid of them is to prevent them from entering in the first place. When walking through areas known to have ticks (forests, fields, etc.), wear long pants tucked into tall, light-colored socks. Avoid yard ticks by keeping grass and shrubs trimmed. After outdoor activities, do a thorough tick check (and be sure to check children and pets, too!) and carefully remove any little suckers.
What They Look Like: Between ½ and 3/8-inch long, with four long wings and a brown, black, or yellow body. Termites are often confused for ants because they look quite similar.
Typical ‘Hood: The United States, South America, Africa, Australia, and Southern Asia. Drywood termites live in climates where the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, but subterranean termites can survive pretty much anywhere.
Home Headquarters: Piles of mulch, decomposing trees, stumps, and houses or other wooden buildings.
Fave Snacks: Dead wood, stumps, roots, and mulch.
Danger Zone: While they don’t carry any diseases, termites are voracious eaters. In the US, termite prevention and treatment costs about $2 billion per year.
How to Ditch ‘Em: Prevent termites by keeping mulch piles and woodpiles far from a house’s foundation (30 feet if possible). Don’t build wooden structures against the foundation or near a crawl space, and keep plant material to a minimum. Borax, orange oil, and neem tree oil are effective but non-toxic (to humans and pets, at least) chemical treatments. Introducing a harmless predatory species, like nematodes, to your yard can also keep termite populations in check.
What’s your go-to method for getting rid of household pests? Share in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @SophBreene.
Illustrations by Kim Steinhilber.