As summer sets in, so do the hordes of bugs, mostly mosquitoes and flies but also lots of moths, beetles and many other creeping and flying insects. We take a look at some natural bug control measures that don’t involve heavy-duty toxins.
Humans and bugs have a long and trying relationship with each other. For one thing, without bugs – and there really are a lot of them as insects and their kind are the most successful non-plant species – we would likely not have evolved as we have. On the other hand, mosquitoes alone account for a million human deaths a year, by far the single biggest killer of people aside from germs, motor vehicles and a handful of the most common serious diseases.
And bugs can really, well, bug us. So keeping them at bay in and earth – and human-friendly fashion should be top of our list of easy ways to improve the quality of our lives without spending a lot of money and without running the risk of serious health effects.
The most obvious and old-school methods for keeping the majority of bugs out of any place, home or office, is the window screen. You won’t see many of the latter in Cape Town, for example, except on some older buildings, mostly homes. But it is an oversight.
Perhaps in the modern age we get more bugs for a longer time than in the past, given how climate change has driven distribution of pests and other creatures into environments where previously they were absent or rare. But even so, the standard bug screen on windows and even doors that are common mostly on farms, but also present in many homes can be found almost anywhere from the rural Cape on up north and eastwards almost throughout the rest of the country.
There is a good reason not to go screen route, aside from some cost involved – as long as you are prepared to put up with, or be inventive about, the aesthetics of screens on building apertures. Most people living in suburban modern homes would likely shudder at the thought of ugly old screen in their windows, but smart design can effectively hide these in winter, when not needed and blend them into the exterior design so that when in use in summer months, they are not an eyesore.
The great thing about screens, aside from the fact that it will cost a bit to install them, is that they work all the time and they keep out pretty much everything except some dust and fresh air.
But screens aren’t for everyone and so other options need to be looked at too.
Generally insect repelling plants would be found in the garden, but some can be grown indoors in window mini-gardens where they are going to have the most effect in keeping bugs from getting into your home. Among the best plants for this approach are: basil, which has a strong-smelling oil in its leaves that apparently kills mosquito eggs but also puts off other flying insects (though some crawlers might like to chow down on your lovely basil leaves, so check them before inclusion in a salad), petunias, marigolds, peppermint, alliums (which are defined as small-growing herbs such as chives and garlic chives, leeks and shallots, and which will protect any of your sensitive indoor plants from aphids), rosemary, sage, lavender, chrysanthemums (a member of the daisy family along with khakibos, the latter containing even more pyrethrum, the original active ingredient in many indoor insect sprays), lemongrass (which has citronella oil in the leaves, a long known insect repellent) and, perhaps surprisingly, nasturtiums.
Some of these plants are not really suited for window gardens but can be placed in pots around, for example, a family entertainment or braai area for effective relief from most bothersome ‘noo-noos’, or grown along walls where conditions are appropriate, reducing insect influx through any nearby doors or windows. We shall explore the use of these plants and other approaches in our next issue when we focus on insect repelling solutions for outdoor environments.
SPRAYS, POWDERS & POTIONS
The variety of anti-bug solutions used by humans through history is surprisingly long and varied. But over the centuries many tried and tested methods have evolved. One of the most effective and cost-efficient methods of keeping away more or less any sort of bug is to use khakibos, which grows abundantly as a weed throughout Southern Africa.
It contains a potent insect repellent and killer, pyrethrum, from which many more dangerous (to human and pets) commercial insecticides have been synthesised to be yet more deadly to flying and crawling beasties. For this reason alone, caution needs to be used if you go for this option. To make an effective spray khakibos must be picked fresh, leaves stripped from stems (using gloves) and then left to simmer for some minutes in water just short of boiling, then left to cool. Mixed with peppermint, which is also an insect repellent, the resultant spray will not exactly smell of roses but won’t chase your guests away, as it will the great majority of insects.
Sprayed directly onto insects, it will kill them, even cockroaches which are notoriously hard to take out.But it has a drawback in that the pyrethrum will quickly break down from even indirect UV light and so surfaces frequented by bugs will have to be sprayed regularly – and these surfaces, though they will become safe in a matter of a day or so as the active phyto-ingredients break down, will still be toxic to the unwary who touch them or use them to prepare food. Sufficient dosage or exposure to pyrethrum can lead to death, especially in infants and in pets, so it is important to note that while this approach may be ‘natural’, one cannot assume that this means necessarily ‘safe’ under all conditions for people and pets.
Also, khakibos is not exactly the most attractive of odours, so the use of this particular anti-bug spray may well be outdoors around window frames, beneath lintels and around doorsteps.
Peppermint oil on its own is also a good repellent and has the added advantage over khakibos of not being outright toxic in ordinary quantities of use. It is largely intolerable to most bugs, so they keep their distance. Mix 8-10 drops of peppermint essential oil with a little water. Spray the liquid in the corners of your house, along window ledges, external and internal, door steps and other places where bugs tend to hang out. For stronger effects, merely increase the peppermint oil dosage. Also, you can add vinegar to the mix and get even more effective results – but remember that as far as visiting human noses are concerned (or even those of the people living in the home so treated) there will very likely by someone wrinkling up their proboscis and complaining that your home smells ‘like a fish and chips shop’ since the vinegar smell will likely overwhelm even the peppermint odour and will outlast it too.
While vinegar alone can be truly effective where insects are concerned, it is simply smelly. Using it with peppermint leaves (this must be by decoction and not using peppermint oil since oil and water don’t mix) once can ameliorate the smelliness, but not cover it up entirely. But if you wish to use this combo, begin by combining one part vinegar with two parts water, the latter being the cooled water in which bruised or chopped and ground peppermint leaves have been placed when the water was at boiling temperature and left to cool down and steep for an hour or two. Spray this liquid around the house for best results, but once again maybe if you can’t take the vinegar pong, do your spraying around the outside of doors and windows rather than on the inside of the home.
Baking soda, again potentially surprising to many, turns out to be another natural bug killer, since it absorbs the moisture from organisms. Just place baking soda around the house, especially in the corners and cracks of the floor. After a few days, vacuum baking soda and repeat once more. If you have a flea infestation, this solution will eventually work but you cannot leave the flea eggs to hatch, mature and rebreed – you must treat and vacuum every three days for at least three weeks to ensure you have got all the little blighters’ eggs, and you must simultaneously treat your pets with a natural flea repellent at the same time or they will simply keep on breeding on your pets and dropping eggs between your floorboards or into your carpets and your problem will never go away.
LAVENDER, ROSEMARY, EUCALYPTUS & MORE
These three well-known plants all destroy bugs – or drive them away – very quickly and effectively. Combine a few drops of the essential oil of each and add water. Spray liquid around the house, especially in the sleeping areas. But as you are mixing oil and water, you must shake up your spray container vigorously before each spray to ensure the mix is evenly spread. The upsides of this particular approach are that it smells great, is easily made (though the essential oils might be a bit costly) and it goes a long way, with no danger to pets or little ones crawling about the place and putting toys or whatever in their mouths Mint leaves, it may not be too surprising, given the effect of another of the mint family, peppermint, on bugs, turns out to also be intolerable to most bugs. Spearmint can also be used, and for the same reasons. Crush a few mint leaves and leave them around the corners of your house and around the mattresses. Also you can use it against moths. Keep a little bouquet garni bundle of various mints, a smidge of crysanthanthemum, with some lavender, rosemary and sage for a fresh, clean smell and you can put it into cupboards, clothes storage bins or anywhere fabrics are kept.
CAYENNE PEPPER & SILICA GEL
Yet another bug repellent is cayenne pepper. This substance, in powdered form, doesn’t actually kill bugs but it does drive them away as its odour is intolerable to them. Just sprinkle a little on mostly affected areas and say goodbye to bugs forever.
Silica gel, placed in your bedroom, is also claimed to very effective against bugs, though it is not necessarily clear whether those bugs include mosquitoes and flies, our main problem insects in this part of the world.
DON’T USE “CHEMICALS”
Humans (and their pets) are being exposed to something like 80 000 widely used entirely new (since the end of World War II) man-made chemicals that are everywhere and in everything, especially bug sprays – and some of them are real human killers. The rule should be that unless you are literally down to no other alternatives, don’t use commercial chemical sprays. There are some options involving natural substances (such as a natural pyrethroid which breaks down quickly and less toxic to higher order creatures) but they must still be used with caution and good common sense.
And there are plenty of other options for common problems, like an invasion into the kitchen or any other area of the house. So, for ants, spray their routes with apple cider vinegar to cover their invisible pheromone tracks so they can’t find their way back to foraging sites. Alternatively, pour equal parts baking soda and powder sugar into a bowl and blend thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to a cheese or salt shaker and apply directly to ant hills and trails. Finally, if all else fails, shake diatomaceous earth (the type used in swimming pool filters) into areas when the insects invade. When ants climb over it, their bodies become desiccated. Know that if you do this at the ant colony nest, you are dooming all its occupants to death, so if you are a creature lover, even of bothersome ones like insects, and you don’t want to actually kill or harm the ants, then don’t use this option.
Finally, use your common sense. When insects make an unwelcome arrival in your home, don’t just reach for the most toxic and ‘effective’ insecticide you can get your hands on (always read the labels when buying anything of this sort and avoid any that have anything other than pyrethroids in them, though these analogues of natural pyrethrum are also potentially harmful if wrongly utilized) and consider a gentler approach which might achieve the same end, without toxifying you and your family.