Preventing Problems With Pests

A buzzword, or perhaps buzz-phrase, circulates throughout the pest management industries, and that phrase is "Integrated Pest Management", thankfully abbreviated as IPM. I would like to discuss the use of IPM for the prevention of many kinds of pests that you may be concerned with in your yards and homes, and the ways that you can put Integrated Pest Management to work for you.

There is no magic in IPM. It is simply the common sense approach that says that any organism, pests included, looks for certain conditions that ensure its survival, and that if one or more of those conditions cannot be met on a property that pest will look and live elsewhere. The professional pest control technician tries to employ IPM each time he inspects a property where a pest problem exists, and identifies the things that invited that critter onto the property and are now supporting its existence. I shouldn't limit this to "critters" for a pest is any organism that is found in a place where it is not wanted. This could include plants and plant pathogens as well as animals, so we do include weeds and plant diseases within our broad definition of "pest".

Generally speaking, the things that any pest needs in order to survive will be an appropriate supply of food, a proper amount of moisture, and an appropriate place to live, which we call harborage. All pests need these three things, and to completely eliminate any one of them means the pest will be eliminated too. You may not be able to eliminate - 100% - all of one of these needs, but you can make great strides in reducing what is available to pest organisms.

Integrated Pest Management refers to the use of several steps for resolving a pest problem. One of those steps may be the discreet use of pest control chemicals, such as herbicides, rodenticides, or insecticides, but it is not our intent on BugInfo to coach the general public on the use of pesticides. We believe that this is best left in the hands of the licensed professional pest management industry, which receives extensive training on the use of toxic materials. When used correctly these products pose little to no risk. However, the other steps in IPM are just as important, and it would not be unusual for you to be able to completely eliminate a pest problem in a non-chemical way. Even if some amount of pesticide is deemed necessary to finish off the problem, performing the other steps first will give you much greater and longer term satisfaction.

IPM relates to the use of:

  • Sanitation - cleaning up the spills of food and liquids that insects and rodents live on
  • Physical Repairs - sealing a structure so that pests cannot enter the home
  • Cultural Controls - changing bad habits, such as leaving doors and windows open and allowing flies to enter the home, or over-watering and encouraging plant fungus problems.
  • Physical Controls - the use of traps, for example, to capture a pest for removal
  • Identification - properly identifying the pest so that you know best how to proceed

Many licensed pest control companies will perform a Sanitation Inspection before proceeding with pest control work on a property, particularly if the account is a commercial establishment such as a restaurant. In this inspection they identify all the conditions that encourage the presence of the pest and make recommendations for the changes that are needed. This work is generally left in the hands of the customer to perform, and if it is done correctly the customer will be much happier with the results. As one pest control professional stated it you want to "give people the advantage over the enemy in the "Bug Wars".

What can you yourself do in each of these IPM steps? Let's give some examples, and apply them to a diverse group of kinds of pests. First, Sanitation. Let's choose cockroaches as our first pest example, and imagine the cockroach that has found its way into a home. The first thing it will try to do is to find a hiding place, but this will be covered more as we discuss Physical Repairs. Once the cockroach is comfortable in its new abode it will venture out to see what kinds of meals are available, and if it is the very common German Cockroach it also will be looking for water, for this species needs to take an occasional drink. So, the roach sneaks out at night, when you've turned off the lights, and starts poking around on the counters, under the fridge, inside the stove, along the edges of the kitchen linoleum, inside the cupboards, and just about everywhere in the kitchen and dining areas, and even beyond. Roaches will eat just about ANYTHING, and it doesn't take a lot to keep them happy. However, if you are really thorough about your cleaning and food storage that roach is going to find zero to eat, and quickly either will die or go somewhere else.

Preventing Problems With Pests

Sanitation also refers to all that clutter that provides pests with places to hide. Most of the bugs and rodents that get into our homes are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night. The bugs often enter in order to hide once the sun begins to come up again, and rodents enter to seek food or shelter. There also can be a great many hiding places out in the yard, and much of this is unnecessary. If you have piled household trash outside, such as old cardboard boxes or other junk, this evolves to provide a cozy, damp, dark hiding place for the creepy-crawly bugs that may be there, and greatly encourages their ability to remain and create more of their kind. If you have old tires in the yard these will fill with water and provide a wonderful place for mosquitoes to breed. If these are junk tires get rid of them, or at least drill holes in them to keep the water out.

On the topic of mosquitoes, since these are so very important now with West Nile Virus occurring throughout the country, try to identify ALL the sources of standing water that you are providing, and get rid of it. It only takes one week for a mosquito to lay eggs and have those eggs turn into new biting mosquitoes, capable of spreading diseases. Some of the places you may not think about are holes in trunks of trees and rain gutters. Plugged rain gutters filled with leaves are the absolutely PERFECT breeding place for mosquitoes, and thousands of them can be produced in this easily drained environment. Old buckets, jars, cans, etc. in the yard should be emptied and removed, and tarps on boats or yard furniture need to be kept from holding pools of water. These simple steps are part of the IPM program for preventing the pest problem rather than dealing with it once it develops.

It sounds like a huge task to accomplish, but another very important part of pest prevention is making sure your home is sealed off so they cannot get in. This is going to take a sharp eye and a careful inspection, for bugs can squeeze through very tiny cracks and holes. The house mouse can squeeze its body down and make it through a gap only ¼ inch wide, and rats can get through a ½ inch wide gap. This seems impossible, but it's true, and these kinds of potential access points occur at the foundation screens if they are not in good repair, at the opening to the crawlspace beneath the house if that door is poorly fitted, or vent screens leading to the attic. There can be gaps under doors, especially outside garage doors, and these can be closed off with brush strips that attach to the bottom of the door.

Other gaps occur around doors and windows and weather stripping will seal them off. Look for where electrical wires, TV cables, phone lines, and other utilities enter the home from a service point. There often are large holes that are more than wide enough to let bugs, rodents, and bats into the wall voids of your home, and from here into attics or even the interior living areas. You can use caulking, wood, metal flashing, or some other appropriate material to permanently seal off these openings and never allow another critter through them. You also should take a good look at the base of the house on the outside, and make sure there is at least a few inches of concrete foundation showing between the soil outside and the wood siding above. This helps prevent the intrusion of termites, ants, and other pests that don't like to have to cross over that open concrete area. If the soil touches the wood siding you should quickly shovel it away to reestablish that barrier.

Take a good look at your plants, and try to think like a bug or rodent. These are animals that want to stay in hiding throughout the daytime, and if you are growing thick groundcovers right up against the home's foundation you are letting the bugs and rodents get THAT close to your home, and from there they will find a way in. If you have shrubs against the house or tree branches that touch the roof line, you are providing pathways for ants, scorpions, rats, mice, and other unwanted guests to get right to the structure and find the openings along the eaves or the roof. Plants should be trimmed away from the structure, and the benefit to moving tree branches back is that you get less of a problem with their leaves plugging up the rain gutters each fall.

If you are in an area where raccoons, opossum, or skunks are prevalent you are susceptible to having them trying to live under your house, and this is a problem you really want to avoid. These animals carry large quantities of fleas, and their fleas carry disease, so while we may really love our wildlife it is not a good idea to cohabit with them in our homes. These larger mammals also will seek refuge under sheds and other out buildings, under decks, or within any hidden cavities they can find. For these kinds of areas you need to close off the gaps that exist that lead under them, preventing the animals from finding their way in. This will be a permanent fix that may take time to do initially, but which remains in place for many years to prevent - let's stress that word "PREVENT" - the problem rather than waiting for it to happen.

On this topic of raccoons, possum, and skunks, or even stray cats in the area and rats, you may be offering a nightly meal to them if you leave pet foods exposed and available outside. Many times they also enter garages through pet doors and steal the pets' foods you leave there for your own dog or cat, and since these wild and feral animals are not particularly clean you may be allowing your pets to be exposed to parasites and diseases they should not get. If the cat spends the night in the garage either close the pet door or bring the food in for the night. Pets generally can survive for a few hours without eating. Again, this all relates to prevention by removing the attractions.

So, enough on the concept of exclusion and keeping the pests out. Let's focus a bit on Cultural Controls, meaning changing our ways of doing things if those habits are encouraging a pest problem. We haven't talked too much about landscape pests, but one of these is fungus problems like powdery mildew and rust on lawns or shrubs. One of the most common ways we encourage these plant diseases is by providing a nice, damp leaf surface in the early evenings of warm summer nights. With automatic watering systems in place we tend to be able to forget all about the watering, and when the sprinklers come on in the evening and cover the leaves of the roses with water that sits there all night, it provides the perfect environment for fungus to grow. Watering should be done earlier in the day so it has the chance to dry in the sun.

Automatic watering may also be creating soggy areas in the lawn, leading to fungus problems there as well, and rather than dosing the lawn heavily with a fungicide we would be better off correcting the improper watering, and giving the turf the best chance possible to grow in a healthy manner. Of course, we can give plants too little water too, and quite often the suffering a plant is showing that we might mistake for a fungus or bug problem is instead related to moisture needs, and a change in how we water can fix it. Another cultural control could have to do with how you mow your lawn. The most recent advice from our universities is to leave the grass clippings on the lawn when you mow, which of course very few people are going to do because it doesn't look as tidy. However, if the clippings are just the blades of grass this is about 98% water and nutrients, and it decomposes quickly to provide sustenance to the lawn.

However, if you wait too long between mowings you end up with a lot of grass STEMS in there too, and these often translate to "thatch", that buildup of dead lawn materials on the soil below the grass. Too much thatch can result in bigger problems with turf-eating bugs, like white grubs, cutworms, or weevils, as these insects are able to hide in the thatch and feed on your lawn at night. The thatch may be more likely to harbor fungus spores that can affect the lawn, and if the buildup gets too dense can affect the proper distribution of the water you put on the lawn. Our "cultural" controls, then, could be to mow the lawn frequently enough to prevent excessive stem waste in the clippings, to remove the clippings as we mow, or to rake away the thatch buildup regularly. All of these steps ultimately can lead to prevention of the pests we don't want in the lawn. Away from the lawn we might look at how and where we stack firewood or lumber. If it is up against the house it should be moved further away, and is best stacked off the soil so that an air gap is underneath. These steps eliminate harborage for rodents, spiders, centipedes, and other ground dwelling pests.

We talked briefly about other cultural controls, such as keeping doors closed and windows screened to keep out mosquitoes and flies. We could also push the idea of washing our meal dishes each evening, rather than leave dirty dishes and the food on them to sit on the counter all night. This simply attracts ants and flies and provides cockroaches with their needed food supply. So many of the annoying bugs we find inside are there because of the conditions we have provided, and the control for them is to stop providing that condition. Good examples are moisture loving, fungus-eating bugs like springtails, booklice, fungus gnats, or mold mites. All of these tiny bugs are drawn to moist surfaces and feed on the tiny bits of mildew and mold that grow because of the moisture. If you have dripping faucets or other water leaks in the house it can lead to the presence of the bugs, and fixing the water leaks eliminates the pests without firing a drop of pesticide.

So, rather than go on and on and on (anymore than I already have) I hope this puts some thoughts in your head. There are so many common areas of good household sanitation and maintenance that you can do that will prevent and eliminate pests, that it would pay to take that critical look at your home. This seems like an overwhelming chore, but if you take it one room at a time, and one outside wall of the house at a time, it becomes manageable. The benefit will be the joy of keeping pests out for many years to come, and when you seal all the openings to keep pests out, you keep your winter heat and summer cooling IN at the same time. A double benefit.