Food, water, and shelter, these are all vital things for us and for many other living things on this planet. That also includes the smaller creatures that live around us. But as humans spread across the globe and began building more and more homes and communities, it’s easy for nature to clash with humanity. Whether it’s insects, rodents, or any other kind of small animal—if pests can find an easy place to nest, grow, and breed, they’ll take advantage of it. That’s where your home comes into play: an already-made place of safety, food sources, and of course, water and moisture.
When we think of pests, we often think of the common offenders such as ants, termites, dust mites, and rats. But depending on your area of the United States, the list of pests in your area could be quite expansive, and they all have their reasons for wanting to invade your home. Aside from being unwanted guests and making for an unsightly presence in the house, pests can do a variety of damages to both your health and to your home itself. The key to conquering a pest problem is to understand the pest, its behavior, and how to counteract their methods of invasion.
Let’s take a deep dive into some of the most common pests you may encounter, what their presence can do to you and your home, and how to keep them out of your house…
Types of Pests
What Are They?
From the family Formicidae, ants are a colony-based insect that exists on almost every part of our Earth. While an individual ant may be nothing much to consider, it is the organized performance of the colony as a whole that makes them a smart and formidable pest in the house. It’s why an ant colony can sometimes be referred to as a superorganism—they can carry out actions and react to threats in a seemingly unified manner, as if it were a single entity. A colony is typically managed by a single queen, though there are species that can have multiple queens to form a joint super colony, and other species have been known to willfully cohabitate with a separate colony. Here are some species of ants that live in the Eastern US, for example:
- Carpenter Ants
- Black House Ants
- Fire Ants
- Pharaoh Ants
How a Colony Begins
Ants in your area may either be indigenous or invasive, but they all follow roughly the same protocols when invading your home. After a queen has mated, it will attempt to find a place that’s safe to start its brood. This could be outside of your home, or it may find a crack or a crevice in which to enter your home, such as through a foundation crack leading to your basement. Once it has found a place with comfortable humidity levels, made of suitable material such as wood, where a colony can properly tunnel and branch out, it will begin producing eggs and nurturing its first generation of workers. These workers will tend to the queen and scout for food. This is where ants become a proper pest.
How Do Ants Become a Pest?
As soon as a scouting worker has found food or water, it will consume some for itself, store some in its social stomach, and return to the colony while leaving a pheromone trail. This trail alerts the colony that there’s food if they should follow that trail, and the queen will be informed of that food when the worker returns to share food with her. This will encourage more workers to set out, and the queen will likely be encouraged to produce more brood as it has found a place to grow her colony and survive. This is when the ants transition into becoming a real pest. Property damage is a real possibility, especially when colonies grow larger. Some species like Carpenter Ants are prone to seeking out wooden structures within a home to build their tunnels and grow their colony, causing damage to your home’s walls and supports.
Trying to physically root out their colony can also be hazardous as the workers and soldiers of the colony are willing to bite an intruder, no matter their size. Some species of ants are also capable of stinging or spraying formic acid. But fortunately, there are multiple ways in which to deal with them without risking your own safety.
Keeping the Ants Out of Your Home
When many think of ants or other insects, their first reaction may be to use the insecticide spray and go for the quick and easy kill. But as the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture mentions, “The mistake most people make when attempting to control ants is only spraying the ones they see. This approach usually fails because the ants seen foraging over exposed surfaces is only a small portion of the colony.”
Killing the ants that you see on the kitchen floor is only a temporary solution. On any given day, an ant queen can produce around 800 eggs, and those eggs can become full grown adult workers within 38 to 60 days depending on the species. Once a colony has reached a mature stage, it’s akin to facing a situation of 800 new ants per day that you’d have to kill just to stop the colony from growing larger.
Bringing Out the Ant Bait
That’s where ant bait comes in. Ant bait may contain varying formulations of insecticide that is mixed into a kind of food material that will attract the ants. The bait only works if it happens to be in the path of foraging workers. But when a foraging worker discovers the bait, typically they will consume some of the bait and return to the colony to share it. From there, the insecticide is shared from the worker’s social stomach to other workers and even the queen. This creates the possibility of crippling an ant colony and even getting rid of it entirely. Here are some tips on how to effectively use ant bait:
- Ensure proper placement of your ant bait. Place the ant bait in an area that you suspect or have spotted ants foraging. Make sure you keep the ant bait away from any spaces where food is typically prepared and handled, such as kitchen countertops.
- Make sure you place enough ant bait to encourage repeatedly foraging in the same area. Should your ant bait run out, the ants will likely stop foraging in that area and move on to forage elsewhere, giving them time to replenish their numbers and leaving you to have to find them again.
- Make sure the baited area is clean.
- Eventually your ant baits will begin to expire and lose their efficacy. If you think one of your ant baits has aged or been rendered ineffective, promptly replace it.
Unlike an insecticide spray, the process of controlling ant populations in or around your home with ant bait is a slow process. As advised in a publication by the NC Cooperative Extension, “Patience is important to successful baiting. Most ant baits are slow-acting and do not kill the ants quickly. Therefore, you may continue to see ants for a week or more after baiting.” It is a part of the ant bait’s design because the bait is meant to be consumed and shared around the colony before the ants start dying off—this is to ensure maximum effect.
What Are They?
Microscopic in size, dust mites are incredibly hard to spot, and they can be found virtually anywhere where people live except the continent of Antarctica. When observed under a microscope, they look white and translucent, with an appearance that might be described as almost spider-like since they have eight legs. We typically know them to eat our dead skin cells, which is why they are so prevalent in the homes of people. But they also feed on dead skin cells of animals and even some forms of mold. There are over 20 species of dust mites that we are aware of.
It is likely that there are millions of dust mites present in your home. For a sense of scale, on average, you will shed as much as 1.5 grams of skin in a single day. That’s enough to feed one million dust mites, giving them a chance to breed and further propagate throughout your home.
How Do Dust Mites Become a Pest?
Dust mites are innumerable, and they can live on average around 65-100 days. When a female dust mite has mated, it can lay as many as 100 eggs within five weeks. What’s more, during the course of a dust mite’s life, it will produce around 2,000 particles of fecal matter, which in turn can cause allergic reactions. As stated by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), “Both the body parts and the waste of dust mites are allergens for many people. Most dust mites die in low humidity levels or extreme temperatures. But they leave their dead bodies and waste behind. These can continue to cause allergic reactions. In a warm, humid house, dust mites can survive all year.”
What Can Dust Mites Do To You?
Here is a list of allergy symptoms that dust mites can cause:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy and red eyes
- Postnasal drip
- Itchy throat
- Swollen, bluish skin under the eyes
For those who have asthma, dust mites may also cause the following symptoms:
- Wheezing in your breathing, particularly when you exhale
- Difficulty sleeping due to a shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing
- Difficulty with breathing
- Chest pains
- Chest tightness
Dust mites can also cause eczema flare-ups and exasperate asthma symptoms that you may already be experiencing. The AAFA also believes that dust mites, due to their prevalence, may possibly be one of the most common triggers of both year-round allergies as well as asthma. This is why it is important to take measures to keep dust mite populations in check. It’s likely impossible to be completely free of dust mites, but the fewer the better.
How to Fight Back Against Dust Mites in Your Home
As the Mayo Clinic advises, “Avoiding exposure to dust mites is the best strategy for controlling dust mite allergy. While you can’t completely eliminate dust mites from your home, you can significantly reduce their number.” By controlling the presence of dust mites in your home, you can reduce the frequency of allergic reactions that can be caused and help control your asthma if you have it.
Here are some ways that you can adjust your lifestyle to counter the presence of dust mites:
- Change your bed covers to ones that are dustproof or allergen-blocking. They are designed with more tightly woven fabric, which helps prevent dust mite infestations.
- Keep your home humidity low. Dust mites prefer humid environments. Use a dehumidifier or your air conditioner to keep things cool and dry.
- Remove dust from surfaces as best as possible. It’s recommended to use a damp rag so that the dust is not thrown up into the air. Dust mites can potentially be sent airborne temporarily and trigger an allergic reaction.
- Vacuum your home regularly. While a vacuum won’t necessarily get rid of the dust mites, it can help reduce the amount of dust. If you can, use a vacuum cleaner that is equipped with a HEPA filter.
- Declutter your home as best as you can. Excess clutter means more surfaces for dust to collect.
- Try to wash your bed weekly. From your bed sheets and blankets to your pillowcases, wash them in hot water to help kill dust mites and wash out allergens.
- Upgrade your filter in your furnace and air conditioning unit to a MERV rating of at least 11 or 12. Make sure to follow the instructions on the filter and exchange it for a new one every three months.
Rats and Mice
What Are They?
Across the North American continent there are over 70 species of native rodents living in the wild. But when “rodents” and “pests” come up in the same sentence, it’s often referring to three species of rodents in particular: the black rat, Norway rat, and the house mouse.
- Black rats have also been called roof rats, house rats, or ship rats. They are characterized by their black fur (which can also be brown) and have long been a pest to farmers as well as homeowners.
- Norway rats are sometimes called brown rats, common rats, Hanover rats, or sewer rats. They are characterized by their brown fur (which can also be dark grey) and they are known for being good swimmers and climbers, making it easy for them to reach places to find food.
- House mice are one of the most common species of their genus and they’ve become well-integrated into human population centers because of the opportunity for shelter and food sources. They have pointed snouts, large and rounded ears, and they have long tails that may have a thin layer of fur.
A Small Critter with a Big Impact
These creatures may look small and not threatening. But the EPA warns that as pests they can “infest houses, threaten public health, and destroy property. They can damage or destroy critical habitats, native plants and animals, crops, property, and food supplies.” That’s why it is crucial to know how they can be a pest and what to do about them.
How Do Rats and Mice Become a Pest?
Whether they are rats or mice, they both follow similar goals, which are to seek shelter, find near food sources, and breed. Human population centers and dwellings provide ample amounts of shelter from the elements and predators, meanwhile our pantries and food stores provide plenty of nutrition for the rodents to feed themselves and provide for their young. But it’s not just their presence that makes them a pest, it’s what they leave behind as they wander your home: feces, urine, and the potential to transport fleas, ticks, and mites into your home. They can also contaminate food or water that they’ve come into contact with, and their waste products can even contaminate the dust that you may breathe.
It is important to address rodent problems promptly to prevent the spread of disease in your home. Rodent feces, urine, blood, and saliva are all ways that diseases can be transmitted to human beings. There are around 35 diseases that rats, and mice can spread to humans. Here are just a few of the diseases that are known to be transmitted directly or indirectly by rodents to humans:
- Rat-Bite Fever
- Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome
By taking proper measures, you can keep rodent pests out of your home and maintain a safe and healthy environment for you and your loved ones.
How to Keep the Rodents Out
Rodents invade our homes because they’re looking for a means to survive. A human household is perfect for shelter, food, and a place to breed without natural predators. As the CDC advises, “The primary strategy for preventing human exposure to rodent diseases is effective rodent control in and around the home.” The measures required to make this strategy successful can be summarized in three steps: Seal, Trap, and Clean.
- Seal up any potential points of entry that rodents could possibly use. Even a hole the size of a nickel is small enough for a mouse to squeeze through. Search in areas such as around your pipes, doors, vents, attics, basements, and the outside perimeter of your home.
- Place baited traps in areas that do not have much human traffic such as attics, basements, and crawlspaces. Rodents will want to avoid humans, so they will stick to these areas until they feel it’s safe to venture out to where your food may be. There are different traps for mice and rats, so be sure to get the right one for the right pest.
- Make sure to keep your home clean so that there is little to tempt rodents into staying around. Store your food safely in thick plastic or metal containers that have lids. Clean up any spilled food or pet food that may be around and clean your used dishes promptly so that there are no scraps to draw rodents. Also keep your garbage cans secure with a lid that remains tight.
What Are They?
Termites are an insect that lives in colonies much like ants, bees, and wasps do. While they have earned the nickname of “white ants”, they are not related to ants at all and belong in the same order as cockroaches. With the support of workers and soldiers, a termite colony grows with a king and a queen at its head. Termites are generally small, with the queen being the biggest in a colony.
Termites Have An Important Job…But Keep Them Outside the House
In nature, termites play an important role. They’re an organized species of decomposers. Termites are known as detritivores, which means they live off consuming dead plant matter, whether it’s dead wood, woodland plants, or even feces containing plant matter. Some species of termites are also known to cultivate “gardens” of particular fungi as food. Meanwhile, other species of termites prefer to eat grass, leaves, and plant roots instead. But what many of these termites all enjoy is darkness, warmth, and humidity, even if it’s the wooden support structures of your home. But that doesn’t mean they should be welcome guests. According to the EPA, “Every year termites cause billions of dollars in structural damage, and property owners spend over two billion dollars to treat them.”
How Do Termites Becomes Pests?
In North America, there are at least 18 species of termites that count as pests. Termites also come in three varieties depending on their preference for dwelling: drywood, dampwood, and subterranean. But for many of them the wooden structures within people’s homes provides both bountiful amounts of food and shelter from predators and the elements. Once termites have moved into a home, they will begin tunneling through the wooden structures within your home. They tend to stay away from the surface of the wooden structures, creating their tunnels and galleries hidden from prying eyes. This can make detection difficult until much damage has already been done. But for every tunnel or gallery they create, they add to the further weakening of that wooden structure, which can lead to a compromising of your home’s structural integrity.
There are ways to detect possible infestations, however, especially when a termite mating season comes around. As the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture explains, “Spring typically is when large numbers of winged termites, known as ‘swarmers,’ emerge inside homes. In nature, termites swarm to disperse and start new colonies. Triggered by warmer temperatures and rainfall, the winged termites emerge from the colony and fly into the air.” If you happen to notice swarms of winged termites in or around your home, there’s a good chance that an infestation is already happening and requires professional assistance.
But there are other ways that you can detect a termite infestation without having to wait until Spring arrives. Here are some signs in your home that can indicate an infestation of termites:
- Look for termite mud tubes. When inspecting your foundation walls, wooden floor joists, or wooden support columns, you may notice earthy tubes of a mud-like material running down the surface of the structure. These are made by termites to provide them shelter, contain moisture to prevent termite dehydration, and create paths to other locations such as for foraging.
- Termites tend to tunnel through wood by digging along the grain of the wooden structure. Upon inspection, you may notice that in a termite-damaged piece of wood there are tunnels that seem to run almost parallel to each other, and always travel in the direction of the grain. These tunnels will usually be lined with mud or soil.
- Look for holes in your drywall—if you see tiny holes in your drywall that are rimmed with a muddy dirt looking substance, it’s likely an entrance created by termites.
If you notice termites flying out from woodpiles or tree stumps in your yard, be cautious and on the lookout. If swarmers are emerging near your home’s foundation, such as around your wooden porch, there might be an infestation.
How to Get Rid of Termites in Your Home
For prevention, it is important to keep trees, wood piles, and other sources of wood away from the sides of your home. The more distance the better because it will reduce the chances of termites wandering into your home. Termites are not just drawn to wood—they also require a source of moisture. If there is lingering excess moisture in your home, the termites will see it as a favorable place to colonize.
Here are some measures you can take to control moisture in your home and prevent termites from wanting to invade:
- Check your home for leaks in your plumbing and have them repaired.
- Check your foundation for cracks to prevent groundwater intrusion. This will also prevent termites from using it as an entrance into your lower level. Repair any cracks found.
- Basement waterproofing or crawl space encapsulation can keep moisture out and discourage termites from considering it as a place to colonize. Moisture control is effective because termites need a damp environment to survive.
But if you should have an infestation, there are termite baits which may be used to slowly kill off a termite colony, much like ant baits. There are also liquid termiticides which may be placed into the soil surrounding your home. These can either repel termites or outright kill them as they tunnel through the affected soil area. Consult with a pest control professional about these options.
Creating a Pest Resistant Home with Moisture Control
From insects to rodents, pests are like all other living things—they’re seeking shelter, food, and water. When a home is having a moisture problem, pests see it as a place that satisfies their living requirements. But moisture control can keep the pests at bay. If the moisture isn’t present, pests will feel discouraged and will search elsewhere to live or forage.
Prevention Is Better Than the Cure
There are many ways to get rid of pests. But efforts should be made to prevent the pests from invading your home in the first place. As Building Science explains, “Pests inside homes can lead to allergic reactions. Pests often lead to the use of pesticides that are not good for people to breathe or ingest (eat). Pests can damage or destroy building materials.”
Things You Can Do To Defend Against Pests
Some of these may sound familiar from the pest descriptions above. But here are some ways that you can make your home more pest resistant:
- Check the ground around your home’s perimeter. Make sure the ground is sloped away from your home to keep water from moving towards your foundation.
- Clean your gutters and extend your downspouts to move rainwater further from home.
- Move trees and vegetation at least 3 feet away from your home. Move further away if you suspect termites in the area. None of the vegetation should be in direct contact with your home.
- Consider creating a perimeter of pea gravel or crushed stone around your home. The perimeter should be at least 2 feet wide and 4 inches deep. You can also create a perimeter of basalt particles, concrete skirts, or concrete paver.
- If termites live in your area, consider a termite shield. Also consider borate treated lumber materials for construction.
- Make sure that your indoor humidity remains below 60%. Dust mites need humidity levels of 70% or higher to survive. Termites also require enough moisture to prevent dehydration. Using a dehumidifier to keep your indoor humidity within 30%-50% will make the environment inhospitable to dust mites and discourage termites.
- Keep dust to a minimum in your home. It will help reduce allergic reactions and keep the dust mites away.
- Clean any food debris from your counters, tables, and floors. Pests like ants and rodents will take advantage of any bits of food they can find. Finding a food source will encourage them to stay.
Moisture Control Means “Goodbye Pests” and “Hello, Happy Home!”
All pests are living creatures trying to survive. But it’s important to discourage them from using your home as their means of survival. Moisture control is a crucial factor in defending your home from pests. Measures such as basement waterproofing or crawlspace encapsulation can help you manage the water or moisture in your lower level. A dry home also means enjoying your home while nature remains outdoors where it belongs. Moisture control and the other pest prevention methods mentioned in this article can save you from having to use more invasive pest control measures. Invasive pest control solutions can involve the use of harmful chemicals in your home. By understanding these pests and how they behave, you can deflect their attempts to make your home into their own.
Sources for Links:
Ant Control for Householders
Tips for Effective Ant Baiting
AAFA: Dust Mite Allergy
Mayo Clinic: Dust Mite Allergy
EPA: About Rats and Mice
Termite Control: Answers for Homeowners
Termites: How to Identify and Control Them
BSI-127: Pests Can Really Bug You