In the air, carpet, on the counter or in the cupboard, every home shares its resources with a horrifyingly huge number and variety of tiny, often unseen, invaders. Pesticides are available for most common household insect pests, but these potent chemical compounds may be as harmful to you and the environment as it is to the pests. We take a look at some natural, gentler (to humans, pets and our eco-systems) ways to deal with nasty noonoos.
Let’s begin where few expect to. If using a filtration system with water, for of us that means a pool filter, we’re also likely to know about the specialised ‘sand’ that goes into the filter. This is technically called diatomaceous earth (DE). The name refers to the fact that it is material rich in the exoskeletons of diatoms, which are tiny entities not visible to the human eye, but hugely useful as a general water purifier because their lattice-work remnants are the perfect size and form to capture bits of microscopic detritus. But that is not all that DE is good for. It turns out to be an excellent, broad-spectrum treatment for many of the more difficult house pests, and one which is not very expensive and entirely non-toxic. It works by attracting and trapping the little intruders in the same micro-frameworks that trap soil and other organic particles floating about in your pool water and making it cloudy. DE does not work for some bigger, flying creatures, so for each type of creepy-crawly invader you are dealing with there is a relevant course of action that does not involve turning your home into a toxic inter-species war-zone.
As with all invaders attracted indoors by odours, food and other goodies, the first step is to remove the attractants. Ants often go for sugar, as well as other sweet things like jam, as well as water in the sink, when the heat is on and water is scarce. So keeping counters free of bread crumbs, jam knives and blobs of peanut butter, jam or sugar granules, all of which contribute to drawing in bugs on the look-out for an easy meal. Clean sticky spots and keep surfaces clean using a damp cloth with, at most, a natural non-toxic general cleaner lightly sprayed onto the cloth. Cover the sugar and put the honey or jam jar in a plastic baggie, if not in the fridge. Cut off water sources such as drips or dishes left soaking overnight.
These steps alone will resolve something like eight out of 10 ant issues. But if the ant invaders persist, try these simple measures:
• Keep a small spray bottle handy, and spray the ants with a bit of soapy water;
• Set out cucumber peels or slices in the kitchen or at the ants’ point of entry. Many ants have a natural aversion to cucumber (as do some people). Bitter cucumbers work best (but less so for people).
• Leave a few tea bags of mint tea near areas where the ants seem most active. Dry, crushed mint leaves or cloves also work as ant deterrents.
• Trace the ant column back to its point of access. Set any of the following items at the entry area in a small line, which ants will not cross: cayenne pepper, citrus oil (can be soaked into a piece of string), lemon juice, cinnamon or coffee grounds. If your efforts still fall short of a complete resolution of the problem, then you must move to the lowest level of more aggressive ways to put ants off. Such steps almost always involve something which needs to be watched carefully and from which children and pets must be protected – but it does not have be the literal ‘can of doom’ solution.
Should all else fail, use the following method:mix one litre of water, one teaspoon of borax and a cup of sugar. Soak cotton balls in the solution and place them in a small yogurt container with holes punched in the lid to allow the ants access. Place the container(s) in a location where ants are present. Ants will carry the bait back to their colonies where it will eventually kill the colony. Importantly: use this system indoors only; and the bait must be kept away from pets and children as some toxicity is involved. Another option is to leave a small, low-wattage night light on for a few nights in the area of highest ant activity. The change in light can disrupt the ant’s circadian rhythms and help discourage their foraging patterns. If you have ants on the deck or between floorboards, slip a few cut-up cloves of garlic between the cracks. For long-term non-toxic control of ants, sprinkle diatomaceous earth where ants congregate – though not captured by the DE, ants seem to loathe walking over it and after a few attempts they give up and go round if they can, or if not, turn back the way they have come.
Microscopic dust mites are everywhere in the home – in our beds, clothing, furniture, book shelves and stuffed animals – and they are a real and growing problem. It is well known that for people with allergies or asthma, dust mites are a problem, but it turns out that they may even be a foundational cause in many modern people developing earlier onset general allergic responses whereby the afflicted become ever-more sensitive to a growing list of allergens. The issue is that if you are susceptible then constant exposure to dust mites turns your immune system into a runaway train, attacking any protein – including some in your food – as another assault on your health and well-being, thereby making your system hyper-reactive. Any small additional irritant then becomes a secondary allergen. People with multi-allergen allergies find that over time that the number of allergens to which they are reactive grows, as does the severity of their reactions.
For the most unfortunate things becomes so bad that there is literally a laundry list of super-allergens, any one of which or in combo could kill them through anaphylactic shock. So dealing with dust mites is important, even if you can’t see them.
• Vacuum mattresses and pillows. For people with sensitivities to dust mite allergens, dust mite bedding is available with zippered, allergen- impermeable encasings designed to block dust mites.
• Wash bedding at 55ºC (130ºF) or higher. Detergents and commercial laundry products have no effect on these tough little blighters unless the water temperature is high.
• Keep books, stuffed animals, throw rugs and laundry hampers out of the bedroom of allergy sufferers. Wash stuffed animals occasionally in hot water (as per previous point).
• Tannic acid neutralises the allergens in dust mite and animal dander. Dust problem areas with tannic acid powder, available at some health food stores and pet centres. Otherwise, search on the web for suppliers.
• Cover mattress and pillows with laminated covers which prevent penetration by dust mites (not necessarily the most comfortable but definitely efficacious). Avoid fabric-covered headboards.
• Cover heating ducts with a filter which can trap tiny dust particles smaller than 10 microns.
• Avoid using humidifiers. Dust mites thrive on warmth and humidity.
Cockroaches are the much despised monsters of the kitchen and bathroom, apparently capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust – of the chemical equivalent thrown at them in many a household –and which, once ensconced, are nearly impossible to get rid of without literally smoking the entire house out over a weekend with deathly fumes. This last step would have to be have to be a last-ditch decision because everything in the home will have a fine coating of highly toxic fallout after such a chemical attack and all surfaces would need at least one thorough cleaning to be safe for little hands and feet, as well as paws and tongues. The best defence against hated roaches is a clean kitchen and bathroom – actually, a clean everywhere. If roaches have managed to gain a foothold in your home or apartment, vacuum well and wash the area with a strong (disinfectant) soap. Dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag in a sealed container.
You can also try one of the following options:
• Diatomaceous earth is a safe alternative which can be sprinkled in areas where roaches congregate, especially hidden areas such a cabinet tops and behind appliances. Harmless to people, the tiny but sharp particles cut the insects’ waxy exoskeleton and kills them within 48 hours. For a week or so after the treatment, the dehydrating insects will search more actively for water. So don’t be surprised if you see roaches more often after the treatment. Most roaches should be killed within two weeks of application. Catnip is a natural repellent to cockroaches. The active ingredient is nepetalactone, which is non-toxic to humans and pets. Small sachets of catnip can be left in areas of cockroach activity. Catnip can also be simmered in a small amount of water to make a ‘catnip tea’ which can be used as a spray to apply around baseboards and behind counters. This natural repellent should only be used in homes without cats, however, otherwise moggie will likely go nuts and start tearing in furniture, non-moving dogs and humans, among other things. Cats get ‘high’ or ‘crazy’ on catnip, though most love it, so be considerate when using this solution around them.
Keep a spray bottle of soapy water on hand. Spraying roaches directly with soapy water will kill them, perhaps surprisingly given that they are so notorious hard to kill. In an empty coffee can, place a couple pieces of bread which have been soaked thoroughly with beer. Set a ramp leading up to the top and line the inside top edge with vaseline or a similar slippery lubricant. Place in areas known to have roach infestations. It is a little known fact that roaches like high places. If you put boric acid on top of your kitchen cabinets (not inside), and if space allows between ceiling and cabinets, the roaches will take the boric acid to their nests, killing all of them. Boric acid is toxic by mouth, so keep away from children and pets. Leave bay leaves, cucumber slices or garlic in the affected area as deterrents.
No-one loves fleas, not even the ones that perform at mythical flea circuses. William Blake hated them so much that he painted a scary sci-fi-ish impression of the soul of a flea. The bearers of many diseases, including the infamous and terrifying bubonic plague, fleas usually gain entry to your home through your pet or visitors’ pets, or your visitors with pets. For every flea on your pet, there may be as many as 30 more in the pet’s environment.
But before reaching for pesticides, try these much safer choices:
• Bathe and comb your pet regularly. Use mild soap, not insecticides. If fleas are found on the comb, dip the comb in a glass of soapy water.
• Citrus is a natural flea deterrent. Pour a cup of boiling water over a sliced lemon. Include the lemon skin, scored to release more citrus oil. Let this mixture soak overnight, and sponge on your dog to kill fleas instantly. Do not use citrus oil on cats. Firstly, they hate it and will likely claw you and secondly, they are hyper-affected by the volatile oils and will likely end up in a corner drooling and blinking back the cat equivalent of tears, while giving you looks of hatred and disgust.
• Add brewer’s yeast and garlic, or apple cider vinegar, to your pets’ food. It is not advisable to use raw garlic as a food supplement for cats (see previous point – much the same applies, and cats can’t properly metabolise the volatile oils in garlic, so endangering their organs, especially the liver and kidneys).
• Cedar shampoo, cedar oil and cedar-filled sleeping mats are commercially available, though mainly overseas (you may have to revert to the web on this one). Cedar repels many insects including fleas, and is one of the pleasant ways of dealing with fleas for humans and animals.
• Fleas in the carpet are best dealt with by thoroughly vacuuming, especially in low traffic areas, under furniture, etc. Put flea powder in the vacuum cleaner bag to kill any fleas that you vacuum up, and put the bag in an outdoor garbage bin. Dispose of this bag in locations equipped to handle toxic waste. Inquire with your local authority as to where such a facility may be. This is a hassle but necessary – flea powder is actually quite dangerous stuff if ingested.
• Trap fleas in your home using a wide, shallow pan half-filled with soapy water. Place it on the floor and shine a lamp over the water. Fleas will jump to the heat of the lamp and land in the water. The detergent breaks the surface tension, preventing the flea from bouncing out. They drown. Shame. In the yard or garden, plant fleabane (Fleabane Daisy Erigeron speciosus) to repel fleas. This is an annual growing 40-60cm tall with violet, daisy-like flowers.
• Nontoxic flea traps are available commercially, again mainly overseas. These traps are inexpensive and very effective. So much for crawling bugs (though roaches can and do fly, they are mainly surface dwellers and rarely use their wings in adulthood). The flying bugs are entirely different ball of wax in that they must be dealt with not in just two but three dimensions.
Ubiquitous mosquitos are found in virtually ever environment on earth from the Arctic tundra regions, through the equatorial zones and certainly throughout most habitable regions around the planet. They are not merely annoying, they are a primary vector for a whole range of disease, most notable malaria but including Nile Fever, Dengue Fever and many others. The first line of defence against mosquitos is to prevent entry into the home. Lots of South African rural homes have screens on doors and windows to deal with mossies and flies
(they come next). If you don’t have screens then you must keep windows and doors closed as much as possible when they are at their most active, which is in the early morning and early evening. They seek areas of still air because they are hampered by breezes, tracking their prey (that’s you) through a combo of infra-red and carbon dioxide sensors and the traces of both are disrupted by wind eddies.
Close windows and doors on the side of your house which are opposite the breeze. Then try the following:
• Remove all standing water sources. Change birdbaths, wading pools and pet’s water bowl twice a week. Keep your eaves-troughs clean and well-draining. Remove yard items that collect water.
Campers often report that the very best mosquito repellent is Herbal Armor, a nontoxic DEET-free repellent which is also recommended by National Geographic. For small areas such as decks or patios, citronella beeswax and soy candles can be effective. These candles are most effective when placed low to the floor and in areas where there is little breeze. If you’re using the braai (barbeque or grill for Aussie and American readers), throw a bit of sage or rosemary on the coals to repel mosquitos. This obviously only works for as long as the pungent herbs are smoking. A longer-lasting effect is to get some dried herbs smouldering and pull them to one side of the braai and let them smoke away, adding a little bit more every now and then to keep up a constant stream of their smoke which mossies can’t stand. An effective natural bug repellent is made by mixing one part garlic juice with five or six parts water in a small spray bottle. Shake well before using. Spray lightly on exposed body parts for an effective repellent lasting up to 5-6 hours. Strips of cotton cloth can also be dipped in this mixture and hung in areas, such as patios, as a localised deterrent. Commercially available garlic-based, all-natural mosquito repellent and larvae killer will repel mosquitoes up to four weeks – again if you live in South Africa you may find yourself ordering via the web, though there are some DEET-free local alternatives. Neem oil is a natural vegetable oil extracted from the Neem tree in India. The leaves, seeds and seed oil of the Neem tree contain sallanin, a compound which has effective mosquito-repelling properties. Neem oil is a natural product, is safe to use and is excellent for skin.
Planting marigolds around your yard works as a natural bug repellent because the flowers give off a fragrance bugs and flying insects do not like. These plants are part of the same family as khakibos and both produce aerial traces of pyrethrum. Though natural, this substance is toxic to both human and pets, especially the very young and old, so must be used with care and caution.
Safe, nontoxic pheromone-based mosquito traps are now commercially available, but again mainly on the international market. For outdoor mosquito control, bat houses are effective, supposing the thought of bats flitting about the braai does not freak you and your guests out more than the bothersome mossies do. Some bat species can eat 500-1000 mosquitoes each per night, so this approach definitely works, but obviously not for everyone. Thai lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a natural and effective mosquito repellent. It contains the natural oil citronella, which is safe and effective. Lemon grass citronella is considered more effective than true citronella as an insect repellent. You can buy Thai lemon grass at garden centres and supermarkets, and it grows readily into a clump about 40cm across and about 60cm tall. To use as a mosquito repellent, break a stalk off from the clump, peel off the outer leaves until you find the scallion-like stem at the base. Bend the stem between your fingers, loosening it, then rub it vigorously between your palms – it will soon become a pulpy, juicy mass. Rub this over all exposed skin, covering thoroughly at least once. You can also make a tincture using alcohol, for spray applications. Plantings around the patio will also help repel mosquitoes.
Every bit as bothersome and perhaps a lot more unhygeinic are flies, one of the planet’s most successful species and literally found just about everywhere except parts of Antarctica.
Here are some tips for dealing with flies:
• Use mint as a fly repellent. Small sachets of crushed mint can be placed around the home to discourage flies.
• Bay leaves, cloves and eucalyptus wrapped in small cheesecloth squares can be hung by open windows or doors.
• Place a small, open container of sweet basil and clover near pet food or any open food in the house.
• A few drops of eucalyptus oil on a scrap of absorbent cloth will deter flies. Leave in areas where flies are a problem.
• You can make your own flypaper with this simple recipe: Mix 1/4 cup syrup, 15ml granulated sugar and 15ml brown sugar in a small bowl. Cut strips of brown kraft paper and soak in this mixture. Let dry overnight. To hang, poke a small hole at the top of each strip and hang with string or thread.
• Safe, nontoxic, pheromone-based outdoor and indoor fly traps are available, but once again mainly from international sources. Check your local outdoors specialists though – they may have what you are looking for.
Finally we come to bed bugs which, despite being shy, slow-moving and seemingly delicate, have ruined sleep for billions of humans since humanity could be called that. The best defence against bed bugs by far is prevention, and this is easily achieved in rooms which have not yet been infected. If there is presence of bed bugs in a room, then a thorough cleaning and vacuuming is required, followed by preventive measures. Frequent travellers should be especially alert to early signs of bed bugs in the home.
Here are some measures to help:
• The first step in controlling bed bugs is to determine if there are bed bugs present in your home or hotel room. Non-toxic bed bug traps use heat, CO2, and a pheromone lure to attract bed bugs to a sticky glue surface. These traps are safe for air travel and can go in your luggage or carry-on bags.
• The best preventive measure against bed bugs is to apply non-toxic diatomaceous earth in the vicinity of bed bug activity. Be sure to use food-grade diatomaceous earth. Do not use pool-grade diatomaceous earth.
• Wash all bedding in hot water (120ºF or about 70ºC). This will kill any bedbugs in the bedding.
• If you are sleeping in rooms where you suspect bed bug activity, non-toxic bed bug spray can be applied which kills bed bugs and their eggs on contact. It also acts to prevent bed bug activity for up to two weeks. This spray can be applied to mattresses, furniture, luggage and clothing.
• If there is a bed bug infestation, a thorough cleaning and vacuuming of the room is necessary. The most likely hiding places for bed bugs will be small cracks and crevices closest to where you sleep. The mattress and box spring should be lifted from the frame, and after vacuuming, sprinkle diatomaceous earth along the edges of the frame which holds the box spring. Personal items such as stuffed animals, blankets, etc should be vacuumed and placed in plastic bags for several weeks. The bed bugs will die of hunger and not lay new eggs. Above all, and regardless of which particular bug or bugs have infested your home, do not panic and reach for the hyper-toxic ‘kills 99% of everything’ spray because you, your kids and the animals in your home are included in that 99%. Going safer and natural is always the best and first option and resorting to slightly more aggressive measures only comes as the non-toxic ones prove ineffectual.
In the end, in you have a persistently stubborn bug problem, you may have to refer to professionals and fortunately there is a growing number of such outfits which offer non-traditional and largely non-toxic forms of relief from virtually any sort of known bug infestation. S G