How to identify, treat & prevent insect infestation.
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Ants: General, Argentine, Carpenter, Odorous, Pavement, Pharaoh & Thief
Ants, Fire: European, RIFA & Bull
Bees: General, Social & Solitary
Beetles: Carpet, Varied & Black
Beetles (& weevils): Pantry
Centipedes, Millipedes, Pill & Sow bugs
Moths: General, Clothes & Pantry
Silverfish & Firebrats
Spiders, Venomous: Funnel-webs, Recluses &Widows
Spider Bites (non-venomous & venomous)
Stings & Bites (ants, bees & wasps)
Termites: Dampwood, Drywood & Subterranean
Wasps & Hornets
Pesticides 101: Industrial, Residential & Residential Pest-Control Companies
Boric acid: best practices for ant control
Diatomaceous earth: best practices for insect control
Preventative Measures & Insect Trapping
Every pest-control company’s website wants us to believe that even the common house spider requires a systematic plan to eradicate them from our homes before life as we know it ends. This, of course, is nonsense. As my understanding and knowledge grew during the writing of this book, I learnt that with few exceptions insect infestations can be handily dealt with by us without a lot of money spent or toxic chemicals.
It doesn’t take much for an infestation to start. All living beings need the same necessities: water, food and shelter. And keeping insects outside where they belong requires us to determine whether we are providing or depriving these essentials to them.
Keeping them out of our homes is an important job not to be overlooked and the chapter on preventative measures lists the common areas indoors and out that require attention to reduce your chances of an infestation.
It’s important to understand that no matter what we do, nature will do what nature does. We’ll never have bug-free gardens nor should that be a goal. Insects help us, plants, birds and other insects. And we all need to get along… outside.
While there may be more insects that enter homes, this book is limited to those commonly found in our gardens that somehow enter our homes or those that have adapted to living with us, notably bed bugs and cockroaches.
Globally, we have hundreds to thousands of species for just about all the insects referenced here. However, most are going to look fairly close to the chosen photos with perhaps slight variations depending on where in the world you live. Insect families and genera have been included to aid identification. Polar Regions are excluded from worldwide statistics.
To reduce repetitiveness the ants, bees, moths, venomous spiders and wasps & hornet chapters begin with general information the multiple species share.
Collecting correct information was a challenge. If you wish to do further research skip past any websites that have a financial incentive for having you stop by. The bibliography lists many publications by those who make their living studying insects. Government websites along with university community extension papers are unbiased resources. And, of course, your local book store or library.
Care has been taken to provide informative and practical guidance in treating infestations. Nevertheless, this book should not be considered authoritative or comprehensive.
Depending on sources there are 150,000 – 190,000 species spread across 54 families, 13 superfamilies and 1 suborder: Apocrita, all in Order: Hymenoptera. Impressive.
Okay, that’s not precisely true. Symphyta is another suborder that includes sawflies, wood wasps and their many relatives. These solitary insects damage plants and trees by laying eggs in leaves or wood but are excluded because there’s no evidence they infest houses.
Hymenoptera is where we find ants, bees and wasps. Wasps encompass the majority of families compared to just one for ants: Formicidae. Ants evolved from wasps a very long time ago. These pictures of a ceraphronid and dryinid are wasps yet look quite ant-like. The tiniest hymenopteran is 1mm / 0.04in and the largest is 50mm / 2in.
Larvae undergo complete metamorphosis (holometabolism), meaning they have a pupation stage, changing from one organism to another. Most of their lives are spent getting to adulthood compared to the relatively short life they have being an adult.
Except for worker ants and some solitary wasps, for example the velvet ant all have 2 pairs of thin veiny-looking wings which interlock with as many hooks as their size demands to keep them working in unison during flights.
While the majority of hymenopterans are solitary the remainder excelled aeons ago at the social game with overlapping generations sharing quarters and the assignment of specific duties amongst colony members, collectively known as eusocial. (Termites are eusocial but aren’t hymenopterans.)
Eusocial insects feed each other by way of trophallaxis which, essentially, is the exchange of solids or liquids from one body to another. This can be done via mouth-to-mouth (stomodeal) or anus-to-mouth (proctodeal).
Stomodeal feeding is simple regurgitation of solids or the exchange of liquids although some species deliver liquids proctodeally. Proctodeal exchange happens when solids are fed to larvae that in turn excrete a liquid, much the way aphids produce honeydew, which contains nutrients the adults consume. But trophallaxis is so much more.
Beyond simple nutrients there’s also the transfer of antimicrobial matter that increases immunity throughout the colony. It’s also believed that foragers exchange samples of newly found food to other foragers as a reward for learning where they must go to collect more.
While all insects use pheromones (scents) for varying reasons though most often for mating purposes, eusocial insects use them to identify nest mates, colony, signal where food is and alarm others of danger. Messages from queens that affect behaviour, development and reproduction are also passed throughout the colony in this exchange.
Overall, we’ve got to give hymenopterans credit for their incredible diverseness and intellect.
Some ants are as tiny as 1mm / 0.04in while some tropical species are as large as 30mm /1.18in, but the average is around 3mm / 0.6in. They’re predominantly black, brown, yellowish or reddish.
Ants belong to the Formicidae family and, except for a few – hot and cold – islands, are worldwide. More than 12,000 species have been identified and it’s estimated there may be another 10,000 nameless species wandering about.
The commonest house-infesting ant species are listed alphabetically, but the most common are: carpenter, odorous, pharaoh and thief. It’s the black carpenter that’s able to cause structural damage. The others are considered mere nuisances.
While a fair portion of this book involves learning how to get rid of them inside your house, there are benefits of having ants in your garden: their labyrinthine tunnels aerate soil allowing water and nutrients to reach plant roots; they steal other insects’ eggs to feed the queen(s) and larvae; and they themselves are a food source for beetles, birds, flies and spiders. And other ants. So we want some around for what they offer, we just need to keep them in balance with the rest of the inhabitants.
Ants live in eusocial (think nuclear family) colonies with populations of hundreds or thousands or millions. Most nests are found in soil; the carpenter ants tunnel into soft wet wood to create nesting chambers.
Many ant colonies are monogynous meaning one queen, but some species are polygynous (more than one). Most species’ colonies consist of three social castes.
Queens determine offspring as: wingless sterile female workers (some do lay eggs, which could become fertile, but it’s a complicated game of thrones story) that divide the labours of food foraging and tending to eggs and larvae; or winged reproduction-capable (alates) males and females.
As mentioned above, queens determine who’s who by controlling via pheromones how much food larvae receive. She won’t lay any alates until comfortable with the size of her colony.
After alates mate in late summer or thereabouts the males die and fertilised females fly off to find a place to overwinter. Queens mate only once.
Workers have two stomachs. One is a communal stomach (crop) used to collect protein- and fat-based food for the larvae and queen(s). Because a worker’s growth is complete all they require is carbohydrates, typically from a sugary substance (honeydew) excreted from aphids and other scale insects to get them through their busy days.
Most everything we consume attracts ants. Scouts gain entry to homes and buildings through cracks or gaps in foundation walls, doors or windows. If food is found, they’ll leave a pheromone trail on the return trip for their sisters to follow.
In temperate climates most ants will dig down below the frost line where internal temperature and humidity can be maintained. Queens stop laying eggs, mature larvae and pupae stop developing (diapause) and workers that in autumn built up fat reserves slow down. In tropical climates they may temporarily cease activities when temperatures run too high or during the wet season.
If ants are coming in from outdoors take some time to watch them. How are they getting in? Can you follow them to the outdoor nest? Are they most active during the day or at night?
Here’s a great tip from Entomologist Michael Merchant to help identify an ant: take a small jar or container with a lid and using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol pick up a few ants; deposit them and swab into the container, then close the lid. The alcohol will soon kill them. Depending on their size a magnifier of some sort may be needed to help with identification.
Spraying insecticides indoors will kill only what gets caught under the spray. The rest scatter throughout the home exacerbating the problem, helping them build up immunity. And there’re a whole heap of reasons for not spraying outdoors; killing beneficial insects in your garden is just one.
Moisture attracts all ants therefore leaky faucets or pipes, outside or inside, clogged eavestroughs / gutters and downspouts and possibly lot grading should be seen to.
Baiting, indoors and outdoors, is the most reliable way to eliminate the colony. Size of colony and species will determine which bait to use. Refer to Boric Acid for details on making and using baits.
Argentine ants, courtesy Matthew Townsend CC2.0
Within the genus Linepithema Argentine ants are 2mm / 0.08in and light to dark brown. It’s an invasive aka tramp species making new homes in warm climates the world over.
In their native homeland these ants are genetically different to other Argentine species resulting in smaller colony sizes. Being unrelated they aren’t as friendly to each other. Natural predators, such as parasitoid flies keep numbers in check by laying eggs inside the ants. They also seem to get along with other ant species, which maintains biological diversity. These ants are good neighbours.
Away from home, however, they’re taking full advantage of being higher up the food chain with infamous super-sized colonies; annihilating native ants; and destroying the biological diversity by killing the small animals other animals require for their survival.
Each colony may house millions. Unlike most ants, this species does not establish new nests via swarming, but rather by buddying up to the main colony, meaning they’re related. New queens with a few workers in tow simply move next door and get down to business. The most consistent statistic on how many eggs a queen will lay is up to 60 per day, which require 2-3 months to reach adulthood.
Argentine ants like to nest in a wide variety of places, moist and dry: underneath sidewalks, wood, debris or mulch and in cavities at the base of shrubs and trees. Above all, they nest near water and food sources. Workers forage 24/7.
We don’t know much regarding how often these ants invade homes, but they will enter houses when outside conditions are either particularly dry or wet.
Researchers are working hard for better treatments, such as hydrogels using seaweed but, until perfected, diligence on our parts is required to keep populations in check.
The black, brownish, reddish, orangey, yellowy carpenter ant of the genus Camponotus ranges 6-13mm / 0.2-0.5in. They don’t sting but can give a good bite with their sizeable jaws (mandibles).
Carpenter ants live worldwide in relatively small colonies consisting of perhaps only hundreds.
Nests can have one or more queens who can live more than 10 years; workers live from a couple of months to 7+ years. Estimates are 6-12 weeks for this ant to go from egg to adult.
Workers forage at night, often alone. Natural food sources are small invertebrates and honeydew secretions from aphids, mealybugs, and other scale insects although proteins and sugary foods found in our homes are a welcome change of diet.
Outdoors, nests are channels called galleries in wet decaying wood. The wood is not eaten, but rather discarded from the nest as borings. When colonies mature they start satellite nests of workers, larvae and pupae, often indoors.
They’ll tunnel through moist structural timbers, which may be a sign that your home has serious moisture issues. Investigate window and door frames or wherever moisture accumulates. They may have entered through foundation gaps or via vegetation coming in contact with your house. Or perhaps on firewood brought indoors.
They’re known to nest in ceilings, walls or floors, places that aren’t readily visible to us. A lack of borings evidence, therefore, doesn’t mean you don’t have an infestation. Listen for rustling noises that can be beast heard after sunset, when they’re most active and many of us aren’t.
If your infestation is inside, eliminating the parent and satellite nest is required as workers travel between them. Follow the ants as they turn to leave, which will tell you 2 things: how they’re getting in and where the mothership is. Baiting at both locations is essential.
Outdoor colonies may be massive, but controlling them should always be undertaken with consideration to the beneficial insects in your yard, especially if frequented by birds that feed on what’s living in or on the lawn and garden.
ODOROUS HOUSE ANT
Odorous house ant, courtesy Katja Shulz CC2.0
Odorous house aka stink or coconut ants belong to the Tapinoma genus with approximately 63 known species worldwide. Workers range 2-3mm / 0.08-0.1in, are brownish-black to black, and if you squish one you’ll understand their moniker: they smell like bleu cheese, rotten coconut or turpentine.
These ants usually have polygynous and polydomous colonies that may house more than 10,000 members with hundreds of queens. Workers forage around the clock for honeydew; dead insects and spiders are preferred sources of protein.
It takes 34-79 days for eggs to reach adulthood. Lifespans are not fully known, but it’s believed the queens live approximately 8+ months and workers less. Exhaustion is the likely cause of death.
Outdoors, shallow nests can be located beneath stones, boards, mulch, debris, and such. Indoors, they’ll nest in warm places with access to water: around hot water pipes, under sinks and behind dishwashers.
Pavement ant, with permission Tom Murray
Pavement ants from the genus Tetramorium are aptly named because they’re often found under pavement cracks or stones, are 3mm / 0.1in and black-brown to black. They do have a stinger, but rarely use it on humans.
Approximately 600 species are known worldwide although there are a few global pockets with none.
Colonies can be quite large due to multiple queens. It takes about 40 days to go from egg to adulthood. Workers live up to 5 years, queens about 8 years.
Foraging trails can stretch up to 9m / 30ft, from the nest and best spotted at night when they’re active.
Outside, look for colonies around your home’s foundation. Inside, check skirting boards / baseboards, plumbing areas and along carpet edges. And sometimes found behind walls, insulation and under floors.
Pharaoh ant, with permission Luigi Pontieri
Monomorium genus originates from the tropics where they nest outdoors. If they’ve made themselves comfortable indoors outside the tropics, it’s probable they somehow hitched a ride. Yellowy to light-brown with dark abdomens and 1.5-2.5mm / 0.06-0.1in, this ant is a particularly invasive species.
Nests are usually polygynous with new queens buddying or splitting colonies allowing for quick increases in populations. Eggs reach adulthood in about 45 days.
Detecting an indoor infestation is often easy enough, but locating nests is harder as these insects tend to colonise in narrow, dark, warm, humid areas near furnaces, drains or pipes (kitchens and bathrooms). Or in clothing or linens, voids in walls and floors.
Fearless foragers will travel more than 30m / 100ft making it tricky to locate the nest, but doing so is important. Spotting one or more walking in a line could indicate foraging or a new colony on the move. Depending on colony size, the process of controlling an infestation of pharaoh ants may take months due to the heavy network of nests. Nonetheless, it is doable.
Strategic baiting remains the best way to eliminate ant infestations. However, these ants are known to change food preferences frequently so keep an eye on the bait station(s) to make sure they’re still interested in it. Slow-acting bait is best for these ants. Read also thief ants below.
Thief aka grease or sugar ants of the genus Solenopsis are easily mistaken for pharaoh ants (above, read also) due to similar colouring (yellowy-brown) and size: 2mm/ 0.08in. Though native to the United States, they’re steadily marching north to Canada and south to Mexico.
Stealing larvae and pupae from other ant colonies for food provides their moniker. Colony size tends to be smaller than other ant species yet they support multiple queens.
Egg to fully developed adult takes about 50 days. Mating swarms/flights appear between early and late summer.
Outdoors, they’ll nest in rotting wood, soil or under rocks. Indoors, they’ll often nest in small spaces, such as cupboards, under countertops or behind skirting boards / baseboards: all hidden yet close to food and water sources. Set bait traps inside and outside your home.
Beyond feeding on live insects at various stages of life, they also bring home dead insects and animals (carrion). Indoors, pharaoh and thief ants have higher preferences for greasy protein-based foods; cheese and peanut butter are notable favourites.
FIRE ANTS & BULL ANTS
Thankfully, there are few fire ants relative to the vast numbers of ants as a whole. And fire ants in their native lands are kept in check and usually not a problem.
European, native, tropical and the infamous Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) are a few names for the subfamily Myrmicinae. Some belong to the genus Solenopsis and others to Myrmica. Count these ants as members of imported insects / plants / aquatic life that’ve taken full advantage of having moved up the pecking order in new countries.
In North America, RIFA has journeyed into Mexico, most of the southern United States and has begun its migration into Canada. It’s also making its way via the transport of goods around the world to Australia, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the list grows.
The European fire ant (EFA) aka common fire ant in its homeland is found throughout most of North America and Asia and also emigrating globally.
Both are adapting relatively swiftly to different climates. Both are devastating the native equilibrium. Intolerance from both towards other ants has resulted in native populations plunging. Their fierce nature is also killing off not only the food sources for small ground-nesting animals and birds but those same animals, which are food sources for larger wildlife. Consummate gate crashers.
The sting of a European fire ant is closer to that of a wasp, whereas RIFA take stinging to another level. Refer to Stings & Bites for more information.
EUROPEAN FIRE ANTS
European fire ant, with permission Gary D Alpert
The European fire ant (EFA), genus Myrmica, is reddish-brown and about 4mm / 0.2in. It’s an invasive species that is indeed a nuisance.
They don’t usually enter homes; nevertheless, an infestation in your backyard could restrict its full enjoyment due to its aggressive nature and stinging ability.
Hatched egg to egg production takes about 2 years, which is also the approximate lifespan for workers and queens.
Using the buddying system, colonies are able to obtain high populations. Nests can be hard to find because they’re level with the ground, but are known to be in moist, shaded, naturalised areas, along fence lines, in tall vegetation, underneath stones, in yard waste or your potted plants.
Generally speaking, EFA prefer being active in the warm days of late spring and summer to the cooler nights and months. They safeguard plant-sucking insects, namely aphids, thus increasing those insects’ numbers to maintain a supply of carbohydrates found in the excreted honeydew. Queens and larvae need protein, most often invertebrates.
Best practices are to mow tall grass and look for ways to decrease moisture, including watering gardens and lawns less, and increase sun exposure in your yard. Reducing nesting sites will force the ants to march on. These methods may not eliminate them, but should help keep numbers low. Beyond this, set out bait.
If you have an infestation on your property, it’s best to discuss the issue with neighbours as treatments will be more successful when everyone in the immediate vicinity is involved. Refer to Preventative Measures for more guidance.
RED IMPORTED FIRE ANTS
RIFA, with permission Mario Bazan
In the genus Solenopsis, the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) is reddish to dark-brown. They range 2-5mm / 0.08-0.2in, with geography and food sources contributing to size variation.
Workers can live up to 60+ days and queens from 2-6 years. The life cycle from egg to adult is 20-40 days.
Sunny open spaces near a water source are ideal spots for their dome-shaped mounds whereas urban nests are found in the same places as most other ants: under debris, leaves, logs and such. Like the EFA, most colonies are polygynous and polydomous. Indoor infestations are rare, however, if you’ve got them they’ll likely nest within wall cavities.
Workers search for carbohydrates and dead invertebrates. During extremely hot temperatures, they’ll forage deeper in the soil or wait for more temperate times of day to leave the nest.
New infestations are spread by humans via the movement of infested soil, mulch and plants. No effective insecticides exist. Known treatments kill beneficial insects and negatively impact wildlife and our food chain.
Best practices is to ask your local nursery if they have an action plan for keeping fire ants, particularly RIFA, out of their plant pots. Look for signs before purchase and pass on any that have little red ants crawling around in the soil. And be sure to tell someone why they’ve lost a sale.
If you’ve already purchased the plant(s) and see ants once you’re home, it’s best to treat the infestation before putting the plant into the garden. The most effective treatment is bait, but Wikihow offers several suggestions for ants, fire or otherwise, in potted plants.
Humans are RIFA’s only predator so we and our neighbours should plan a collective pest management strategy to control this insect for our own and biological diversity’s sake. Management and control involves limiting nesting opportunities, avoid spreading them to new areas and bait.
Beyond making your yard less hospitable, baiting is the only other viable option for control. If baits are placed around your garden where RIFA are actively foraging during spring and summer, you have a strong chance of controlling their numbers. Always use fresh bait; a good reason to make your own.
It’s possible to purchase baits containing insect growth regulator (IGR) in some countries. If that’s not yours, consult a pest-control professional. The chemical(s) mess with egg development causing sterility and/or inhibits the hormone required for larvae to moult. But first refer to Residential Pest-Control Companies.
Red bull ant, courtesy Patrick Kavanagh CC2.0
The Australian Museum lists bull ants as members of the superfamily Vespoidea, which is where we find wasps & hornets. And it makes sense since the larvae pupate in paper cocoons, something that appears unique to the ant world, but certainly not for wasps.
While all ants are members of the Formicidae family, bull ants have their own subfamily: Myrmeciinae (not to be confused with Myrmicinae). This is because while once worldwide the approximate remaining 90 species are now found exclusively in Australia. (Well, there’s a lone species that calls New Caledonia – French isles off the east coast of Australia – home.) It stands to reason that they also enjoy their own genus: Myrmecia (not to be confused with Myrmica).
Bull ants are a diverse group but common species include the bulldogs and the jack jumpers. High populations are found in the lower eastern half and up its coastline as well as the south western tip. And peppered throughout the rest of the country.
These ants are Australia’s largest, 8-40mm / 0.3-1.6in, with males in the lower ranges. Colouring varies from black to red, depending on species; the red ones are usually located in the drier regions. Large compound eyes afford them excellent vision. Egg to adult takes a few months. And they seem to enjoy a longer life than most.
They collect nectar, fruit juices and protein often in the form of soil-nesting / dwelling bees, beetles and other ants. Unlike more highly social ants that designate scouts, bull ants usually forage alone.
Rather than going through the bother of establishing her own colony, new queens of some species will – just as historic wanton humans did – simply invade another species’ nest, execute the queen and reign supreme.
Colony members are normally in the few hundreds, though some may swell to a few thousand. Nests are commonly built deep-down underground in urban and forested areas. Some, though, make nests in rotted wood and at least one species chooses to live above ground in trees.
For the most part, they go about their busy routines unbothered by us. But, while they don’t go looking for trouble, neither do they back away from it: colonies are aggressively defended. The appropriately named jack jumper when agitated can reach heights of 76-102mm /3-4in.
As with RIFA, bull ants have long mandibles to latch on to skin or clothing and sting repeatedly.
Bull ant venom is comparable to bees and wasps. However, because of their size, they’re able to deliver more of it. According to Tim Low’s fascinating blog Australia’s native bull ants are really just wingless wasps the large ones can deliver six times the quantity than that of a bee. He refers to them as ants with attitude. Its venom is highly allergenic and is responsible for numerous deaths. Refer to Stings & Bites for more information.