Bug Off

Pest free without pesticides

Elizabeth and Paul Patterson of San Jose play outside their orange-oil treated home with daughter Elizabeth Grace and son Flynn. Below: Freddy Howell of Los Gatos Bird Watchers says pesticides cause harm to wildlife.

Photograph by Lane Johnson. Below: Photograph by Allison Shea Malone

A line of ants appears on the kitchen counter. Moths flutter out of a favorite wool sweater. Yellow jackets descend on a playground, scattering children. It’s enough to make most people reach for the bug spray. But no pesticides are completely safe. Most chemicals designed to kill insects have other serious effects. They can lead to the evolution of “superbugs” that have developed resistance to insecticides, kill pests’ natural enemies, and harm the health of reptiles, birds, and humans. Even a small amount of pesticide can harm wildlife, says Freddy Howell of Los Gatos Bird Watchers (formerly Wild Bird Center of Los Gatos). “The northern flicker, a relative of the woodpecker, is very prevalent this winter. Ants are its favorite food,” she says. Any pesticide applied to ants will find its way into the flickers’ bodies.

Californians used at least 162 million pounds of pesticides in 2008, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. Use by agriculture and pest-control businesses is included in the numbers, but household and industrial use is not. And while 162 million pounds may sound like an enormous amount, it actually represents a steady decline in overall pesticide use since peak usage of 200 million pounds in 1992.

“California experienced another dry winter and spring in 2008,” which decreased the use of fungicides, said Mary-Ann Warmerdam, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The agency said fewer pounds of insecticide were used, but more total acres were treated with such chemicals, a change that the agency’s scientists said reflected crop-growers shifting from broad-based insecticides to newer products that are more specific to the pest and less toxic to people and the environment.

One such approach to less toxic pest control is Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. IPM practitioners attempt to harness insects’ natural enemies, use specific plants to lure insects away from their favorite foods, and employ chemical pesticides only as a last resort. To combat common Argentine ants indoors, for example, IPM methods say to sponge away ants and their trails with soapy water, plug up their entry points with caulk or petroleum jelly, and remove any ant-infested houseplants as well as any sugary food-spills that may be attracting the insects. “Indoor sprays are not usually necessary,” according to guidelines from the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.

For those with pest problems in the house or garden, a solution begins with identifying the pest correctly. If you aren’t sure what kind of insects you’re dealing with, visit the UC’s Integrated Pest Management Program website at ucdavis.edu, or consult your local University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension office (go to ucanr.org to find the location nearest you). Researching the basic facts about the insect’s lifecycle, feeding habits, and environment takes more time than grabbing a can of Raid, but those who do their homework will be able to choose a much less toxic way of controlling pests.

Even those who have switched to IPM methods may still have toxic products in their garages and sheds, however. A pamphlet from Audubon called Guide for a Healthy Yard and Beyond advises consumers to check “the stuff on your shelves” for the following pesticides: acephate, bendiocarb, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and dimethoate. Some of these common ingredients carry a toxicity warning from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the federal government is phasing them out. Environmentally friendly alternatives include utilizing “good” insects such as lacewings and ladybugs (available by mail order and at well-equipped garden stores), sticky traps, insecticidal soaps for aphids and caterpillars, and boric acid baits for fleas and cockroaches.

Ideally, the first step in dealing with insects in your home consists of keeping them from entering in the first place. Check for openings where insects can enter, and caulk around windows, doors, and air vents. Vacuum often, and store food in sealed containers or in the refrigerator. Keep tree limbs pruned away from the house so that they don’t create a bridge for invaders to cross.

Nathan Cocozza of Planet Orange, a Bay Area pest control company, says non-toxic pest control is effective even on termites, which are a common plague among California’s wood-framed homes. “The state of California is mandating the removal of toxic pesticides,” he says. “Our company uses orange oil left over from crushing oranges for juice. Orange peel has a natural substance that repels insects, but is completely safe for humans and the environment.” Planet Orange’s workers spray the orange oil into infested walls, where it works its way through the house, smothering termites, Cocozza says. 

To prevent termite infestation, wooden porches, decks, sheds, and decorative elements should not be in direct contact with soil. Concrete footings should be employed, and homeowners should avoid over-watering landscape plants, as wet soil harbors termites. For newer homes, termite shields, mesh barriers, and waterproofing membranes keep termites out.

Adding compost and organic material to the soil can help keep termites away from the house, and using termite-repelling plants such as garlic, aloe, and sweet basil can help, too. Frogs, reptiles, birds, bats, and ants are termites’ natural enemies. Mosquitoes, another annoying pest, also can carry diseases such as encephalitis and West Nile virus. Luckily, natural mosquito control is fairly easy. Repellents containing citronella or soybean oil—such as Natrapel or BiteBlocker—are effective, and wearing long sleeves and long pants when spending time outdoors in mosquito-prone areas can help keep bites to a minimum. 

Homeowners with decorative ponds, which are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, can obtain mosquito-eating fish from Santa Clara County’s Vector Control District. Those who want to encourage local brown bats to eat their fill of the pesky insects may opt to install wooden bat houses in their yards. The houses should be 10 to 20 feet above the ground so bats can swoop in and out easily. Much as they can annoy humans, insects play a vital role in our ecosystems. Fortunately we can reduce and even eliminate most insect pest problems without harming the environment.

For more information from Audubon’s Guide for a Healthy Yard and Beyond, visit Audubon.org, and click on “Audubon at Home,” and then “Creating a Healthy Yard.”