Avoid toxic chemicals with DIY extermination


I’m not saying it’s for everyone, and I can’t guarantee it will work for you. I can just tell you what worked for me.

I hate what toxic chemicals do to groundwater, bees, birds, and the health of the planet. Having said that, I will not be judged if you decide to go this route. You do what you have to do. But if you want to try less toxic methods, here’s my experience, which is limited to wasps, yellow jackets, regular ants, and carpenter ants.

In general, I am quite tolerant of insects. A paper wasp nest above my patio was a cause for low level anxiety but no alarm, and it sat there all last summer, wasps shuttling above me, without a single bite. Wasps are pollinators and some species feed on other insects.

When wasps nest behind the shutters a few years earlier, a handyman friend agreed to fix my sagging gutters, but only if I got rid of the wasps. I found a natural insecticide recipe online that consisted of white vinegar, vodka, liquid soap, and tea tree oil, which I combined in a spray bottle. When the wasps were laid down for the night, I got out and (after apologizing profusely to them) sprayed the mixture through and behind the shutters. I also poured the liquid behind the shutters from above.

The next day, a few individuals, presumably having spent the night in the field, returned to the bridge, crawled behind the shutters, then emerged, looking confused. (I don’t know what the confusion in a wasp looks like, but the lack of purpose of their agitated flight could have represented disorientation.) They flew away and the wasp situation was resolved. The gutters were repaired without incident.

The recipe came in handy again when I saw yellow vests (the pretty black and yellow striped hornets that would be more aggressive than wasps) coming in and out of a hole in my lawn. They didn’t bother us, but at the time we were renting out our house on weekends and I felt we owed our guests a hornet-free lawn as they could walk through it and goof on the nest.

I poured the solution into the hole one night. The next day, seeing no activity, I dug up the nest, and a night ghost stung me. I repeated the treatment that night, and the creatures were gone.

Three weeks ago, I was finishing mowing the lawn when I ran the mower over a new nest of yellow jackets. Although I received four bites, they did not bother me until I physically threatened the nest. We don’t rent our house anymore, so I just put a circle of wire mesh around the hole to mark it. There were no other assaults.

Spring often brings a trail of little ants into the kitchen. They are easily processed. I place sprigs of fresh mint or tansy leaves from the garden, placed in strategic places along the path of the anrs. (Note: Tansy is not good for cats or small children.) Apparently, the strong scent of these plants disturbs the sense of smell of ants, which drives their wanderings. Ants may crawl on the leaves at first, but by the end of the day, they’re still gone.

Carpenter ants are more alarming because they tunnel into wood for nesting and can ultimately undermine the structure of a house. They are also more difficult to eliminate. Their presence was signaled by a plume of sawdust on the living room window sill each morning. I would sometimes see a wandering ant on the ground, but never a column of ants foraging for food, which sometimes tilts owners into an infestation.

A neighbor helped me trace the sawdust to a long, narrow crack in the woodwork above the bay window. I removed the crown molding from the top of the window and found that the ants had also chewed up a gap along the edge of the plasterboard. When I sprayed my homemade insecticide through the cracks, ants emerged and ran in agitated circles.

I never understood what happened to these ants. They did not die on the floor or on the windowsill. I tried to watch them to see where they were going, but they kept going around in circles. I left for a few minutes and when I returned they were gone.

I also couldn’t understand how the ants came out of their nests to find food. Despite analyzing the exterior wall of the house, I never found a row of ants venturing out to feed.

By the morning after spraying, more sawdust had settled in the living room. In the garage, I found a not-so-toxic commercial product, Maggie’s Farm Home Bug Spray, which contained thyme, rosemary, and wintergreen oils. This caused more ants to emerge, this time even faster through the window and the floor, so I guess it’s more potent than my homemade solution. It also smells more pungent and not totally unpleasant.

A bottle of diatomaceous earth (DE) also appeared in the garage, along with an old mustard dispenser, one of those squeezable bottles you could find in restaurants. I filled it with DE, a powdery substance that kills bugs by cutting and drying them. I know it sounds painful, and I don’t like to use it, but I was getting nervous about my house collapsing. When professional exterminators attack carpenter ants, I have learned, they drill holes and inject insecticides. So I drilled a series of holes in the wall panel and pressed the DE through the holes.

After a few daily ED and spray treatments, the sawdust no longer appeared. However, three or four weeks later, a few particles of sawdust drifted down. Spraying the cracks caused a small number of ants and I repeated the treatment for three days. Even the pros make two or three visits, spaced several weeks apart, to complete a painstaking job.

Did I completely get rid of the ants? Or have they retreated to another part of the house where they will be drilling in secret? Maybe I should call a pro, but I’m too stubborn. DIY rules!

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