Common Home Pests

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Although your home may have passed inspection when you bought it, household pests can move in anytime. Learn how to either prevent their arrival or recognize the signs early on, and how to deal with any problems before they literally fall on your head.

Here's a summary of the various pests and critters you're most likely to meet.

Termites

These winged, ant-like insects may appear in your house, most likely in springtime, when the "swarmers" search for mates.

  • The signs: Termite tubes, about pencil-width, most likely leading up walls; damaged areas in walls or ceilings. Check your basement, crawl space, patio, garage, and attic, and anywhere plumbing or utility pipes enter the foundation or flooring.
  • Potential damage: Termites eat wood and other cellulose-containing material (like paper or dried leaves) and tunnel through non-wood (like foam insulation or plaster board) in search of wood.
  • Preventive measures: Get rid of any wood that touches both soil and your foundation (such as mulch, trellises, firewood, or debris). Don't let moisture accumulate near your foundation (most termites need water for survival), and don't let humidity build up in your crawl space. You need at least one square foot of vent opening per 150 square feet of crawl space. Cut away plants covering the vents.
  • Solutions: Brush down tunnels, remove debris and other likely food sources, then call a structural pest control specialist. For larger infestations, the specialist may recommend fumigation or heating the entire house (heating avoids chemical exposure) -- but get more than one opinion. For a swarm, get out your vacuum cleaner, and remove and dispose of the bag when you're done.

Rodents

You probably won't have too much trouble recognizing rats and mice if you see them -- they're furry, long-tailed, and hopefully smaller than your cat.

  • The signs: Look for droppings or urine stains; sounds of scrabbling and scratching in walls.
  • Potential damage: They may chew through walls, wiring (potentially causing fires), and your personal possessions and they may leave droppings and bacteria.
  • Preventive measures: Seal up holes or cracks in your floors, walls, and areas under built-in cabinets, using wood sealant, nailed-down mesh, and steel wool. Some mice can crawl through a space as small as a pencil. Don't leave pet food bowls outdoors, and don't leave your food on counters overnight.
  • Solutions: Lay traps or poison, and double check that all entry points to your house are sealed off. Snap traps are the least cruel, most environmentally friendly option. If self-help doesn't work, call a pest control professional. Some will come and remove the trapped or dead rodents, too.

Carpenter Ants

Think big ants -- very big, red or black, from 1/4" to 5/8" long.

  • The signs: Look for small piles of sawdust, insulation, and insect body parts under a hole in a wooden part of your house.
  • Potential damage: They drill through wood or foam to hollow out Swiss-cheese-like nest galleries.
  • Preventive measures: Close entry points to your home by following prevention methods for termites and rodents, keeping wet wood away from your house, and trimming back tree limbs that touch your home.
  • Solutions: You'll have to find the nest and kill the queen (not just ants you see), most likely with pesticides. It's best to call a professional.

Powderpost Beetles

These beetles are reddish-brown, with narrow, flat bodies between 1/8" and 1/4" long. They may fly around at night, especially near lights.

  • The signs: Wood surfaces in your home will have pinhead-sized, round exit holes, and powder.
  • Potential damage: Beetles make tunnels in unwaxed, unvarnished wood or bamboo to lay their eggs.
  • Preventive measures: Examine wood before you let it in the door -- especially wood less than five years old.
  • Solutions: For minor, localized infestations, replace the board or wooden item. After cleaning up, keep an eye out for new powder. For slightly larger infestations, a pest control professional can treat the wood surface with virtually nontoxic borate formulations. If beetles have spread into your walls or floors, you may have to have your property fumigated.

Carpenter Bees

These are large bees, with stomachs more black than yellow.

  • The signs: Near-perfect holes, about ½" in diameter, in wooden portions of your home exterior.
  • Potential damage: Carpenter bees drill through wood to create galleries of nesting areas, usually in eaves, wood siding, soffits, decks, overhangs, fence posts, and window frames.
  • Preventive measures: There's not much you can do to prevent these bees. Because they prefer weathered and unpainted woods, keeping up your exterior paint job may offer some protection.
  • Solutions: Call a professional: The extermination requires injecting pesticide into each individual bee gallery, usually from a high ladder.

Dry Rot

Despite its name, this is actually a fungus, which may be powdery white and dusty, cottony, or like the skin atop a mushroom.

  • The signs: In dark areas of your house, you may see weak, brittle, cracked, and chunky-looking wood (a sign that the fungus is digesting the parts of it that give it strength).
  • Potential damage: Left untreated, dry rot can cause your home to become structurally unstable or even collapse.
  • Preventive measures: As with termites, reduce or eliminate excess moisture around wood, and remove wood that touches both soil and your home.
  • Solutions: Small areas of rot can be cut out and filled with wood putty or Bondo. For larger problems, call a pest control professional.

Tip For more information on these and other aspects of owning and maintaining a house, see: Essential Guide for First-Time Homeowners, by Ilona Bray and Alayna Schroeder (Nolo).

by: , J.D.

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