How did our ancestors from 200,000 years ago deal with pests that invaded their caves? "Probably much the same way we do," says Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the University of California, Davis department of entomology. "They stomped on them."
Heydon says not much has changed in the millenia since man used real rock for sheetrock walls. "We basically live in architecturally nicer caves now, but they're still much like caves. They're closed spaces that we hope protect us from nature and the elements and we're shocked when some little creature is able to invade our home."
Most of the pests we face around our homes are well known to us: house ants, mosquitoes, and cockroaches. But what about those weird creatures that look like they've dropped in from another universe, or at least from another continent? Here's a list of six of the creepiest critters you may find on your property and what you can do about them:
As their name implies, they're ready to work on your wood and they don't have a contractor's license. Carpenter ants are found in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, and are especially attracted to moist, soft woods. Unlike termites though, they don't actually eat wood. They just enjoy biting through it and creating channels through a beam or two. Once they've found a home, carpenter ants can be difficult to get rid of by yourself. Your best bet is to clear out any damp wood piles around your property line and, if in Florida, be careful. There's a species there that can give you a painful bite.
It's hard to picture one of these gentle, orange little bugs as an exotic pest, but they can be. "The problem is that in winter they'll swarm inside of an attic and hibernate during the cold weather," says Ron Harrison, director of technical services for Orkin Pest Control in Atlanta. "Then in the spring they'll start dropping down through holes in the ceiling onto people's heads or into their food. Then they're not so cute." If it's a serious infestation a professional probably needs to be called. However, you can prevent infestations by making sure the attic vents are screened off and any conduits going into the space are secured.
It seems these pests have been making a comeback, and travelers everywhere are pulling down the covers of their hotel beds before jumping in, looking for the tell-tale little brown insects. Why the sudden resurgence, like a bad Broadway musical? "One reason is that the chemicals we use in pest control are safer today," says Heydon. "They break down more quickly. But that also gives the pests more time to get away and thrive. So to be effective, you need to increase the number of treatments."
Heydon is all for alternative, "organic" pest controls, within reason. "Remember some things that are labeled natural are just as harmful to humans as a chemical pesticide. You've got to follow the directions carefully."
The Formosan is also called the Super Termite by pest control pros, primarily because a mature colony can eat more than 13 ounces of wood per day. If they latch onto a wood structure they like in May, they can turn it into sawdust by August. Originally from Asia, they're generally found in structures in the Southwest and Southeast U.S. You can make your house less of a termite target by keeping firewood piles away from the house and making sure any wood siding or eaves are well primed and painted.
Brown recluse spider
This small spider, which is found in the lower Midwest and South, packs a wallop with its bite. Its venom can create skin necrosis, a serious condition where healthy skin rapidly dies off. However, the brown recluse is also painfully shy and is also reluctant to bite. "It's a creature that a great many urban legends have formed around," says Heydon. "It's not some blood thirsty monster. Most people who have them in their house don't even know they're there." To keep out the recluse or other spiders like the black widow, clean up cluttered corners of your yard and garage, try using a yellow-tinted outdoor light to repel the bugs that spiders like to feed on and make sure your door sweeps are intact.
Hard to believe, but yes, in parts of Florida, monkeys are a pest. "They're not native of course, but there are areas where you've got groups of them and you don't want one of them getting into your yard or your house," says Harrison. "They might seem like a lot of fun, but they can break a lot of stuff."
To prevent a monkey raid--or to make your property less homey to more common pests like rats and possums, make sure to pick any ripe fruit from your trees as soon as possible and clean up fallen fruit regularly; don't let pet food stay out all night and keep garbage containers tightly closed. "Much of pest control is about making the creature look for food and shelter elsewhere," says Harrison.