NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- In 14th century Europe, rats were responsible for spreading the Black Death, a plague that killed tens of millions of people. And while we now have a cure for the bubonic plague and other bacterial illnesses, vermin such as mice, rats and bugs continue to infest houses and apartments in the developed world. They can still spread disease if allowed to roam free, and even if they don't get you sick it's still unnerving to have a pest problem. No one wants to find mouse droppings in the cupboard or see roaches scatter every time they turn on the lights.
The obvious solution is to call a professional, but exterminators can be pricey, and many of the weapons they use can be found at your local hardware store -- or even under your kitchen sink. We talked to the experts to find out which do-it-yourself pest control techniques do and don't work.
Exterminators can be pricey, and many of the weapons they use can be found at your local hardware store -- or even under your kitchen sink.
The tricky business of bedbugs
City-dwellers live in fear of bedbugs, knowing an infestation may mean junking your mattress, washing all of your clothes, paying a professional to de-bug your home and possibly ending up a social pariah. But preventing this nightmare scenario is easier said than done. While you can buy a bug-proof mattress cover to keep bugs out (and starve any that are already inside), there's little you can do to prevent a bug from hitching a ride home on your clothes or shoes and setting up shop at your place.
"There's no true prevention, other than knowing how not to bring them in in the first place," says Jeffrey White, a research entomologist for
, a pest control information Web site.
Still, there are a few guidelines for effectively dealing with the pests on your own. White says that if you suspect bedbugs have entered your home, you can get bedbug interceptors -- small traps that surround the legs of your bed and furniture to catch any bugs that try to crawl up. And if you think bedbugs may have already taken up residence in your bed, he advises against spraying pesticides directly on your bed - these will repel but not kill the bugs, which means you may just succeed in spreading them across your home.
One of the most effective store-bought chemicals for dealing with cockroaches is boric acid, which is poisonous to roaches. You can buy a bottle of the powder for a few dollars, and it often comes in a "puffer" bottle that blows it into cracks and crevices where roaches dwell.
"They pick it up on their bodies as they crawl through it, and in the process of grooming themselves they ingest it," explains Phil Koehler, an entomologist at the University of Florida who specializes in pest control.
>>More Help for Homeowners: HARP 2.0
But buyer beware: Koehler says to follow the instructions on the label carefully, noting that many people who ignore the instructions will simply sprinkle the powder around the house, which often leads to a call to the poison control center if it's accidentally eaten by a pet or small child. Koehler adds that people who try to create DIY poison pellets by mixing the powder with globs of peanut butter or other food usually screw it up, so it's best not to risk it.
"Most people don't know how to measure out the correct amounts, and cockroaches won't eat it in the wrong concentration," he says.
A line in the sand
Don't like the idea of having a chemical poison such as boric acid lying around the house? As an alternative, some people recommend pouring a thin layer of powder such as chalk, flour or Comet cleaner around cracks and crevices, the idea being that a bug will refuse to cross it. White says that there's some scientific truth to this, but that it's not fool-proof.
"Any of these dusts, even baby powder, are creating a very dry environment, and many insects have moisture regulation issues," he says. "The problem is, it's not going to be a line in the sand. Many insects will go through the pile of dust to get to the food they need to survive."
You catch more flies with ... vinegar?
When people say that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, they mean you'll get further in life if you're nice to people. But if you're actually trying to catch flies, pest experts recommend vinegar.
One common DIY fly trap is to put some vinegar (apple cider vinegar is a common suggestion) in a cup and cover it with a lid or plastic wrap with holes poked in it. The flies will enter through the holes and get stuck in the vinegar. White says that he tends to use a mix of fruit and vinegar to attract flies.
We've seen a similar tactic used at barbecues to deal with wasps: Open a can of soda and leave it somewhere far from the action, and it will eventually be swarmed with wasps. Some will fall in and get stuck, but even those smart enough not to land directly in the soda will still be too enthralled by the sugar to bother the rest of your guests. Just be careful that no one knocks it over or tries to drink from it.
Koehler adds that the can of soda can also be used to pinpoint the location of the wasps' hive: Crack it open, then watch for the first wasp to land and survey the situation. In all likelihood it will fly back to its hive to report its find, so you can follow it and use an over-the-counter product to spray the hive.
Fruit flies like a banana
Want to avoid mice and bugs? Keep a clean house.
OK, bedbugs dine on your flesh, so keeping your place clean won't keep them away. But virtually every other pest, from mice to roaches to fruit flies, are attracted by unclean conditions. If you want to keep them out, don't leave food out.
A clean kitchen won't hold much interest for roaches, and while mice can chew through boxes to get the food inside, they're less likely to come around in the first place if you keep food containers sealed and crumbs swept up. And true to their name, fruit flies generally only come around if you've got fruit ripening or rotting out in the open.
"As soon as you see a few fruit flies, it's all about finding the source," says White. "If you can eliminate the source, you can eliminate your fly problem."
Cleanliness also goes a long way in dealing with outdoor pests: If you want to keep mosquitos out of your yard, start by getting rid of any standing water on your property. An upside-down trash can lid filled with rainwater might as well be a written invitation to the bloodsuckers.
Farmers have long recognized the benefits of keeping certain bugs around to feed on crop-killing pests -- ladybugs, for instance, helped ensure their status as America's favorite bug by devouring the aphids that otherwise gobble up plants. The same principle can be applied in the home to deal with domestic pests.
The classic example is getting a "mouser" -- that is, a cat intended to catch mice. But the actual success of this all-natural technique is spotty. Larry, a mouser cat hired by the British government to address the rodent problem at No. 10 Downing Street, reportedly caught a few mice, but
after a rat appeared at a prime minister's dinner. And some experts point out that getting a cat
: By leaving a bowl of food on the floor for your new pet, you're practically laying out dinner for the mice in your building.
But bugs have other natural predators, and some people recommend a pet lizard of some kind and giving it the run of the house. Others will deliberately let household spiders live so they'll catch any bugs that get too close to their webs. Whether these tactics are right for you depends a lot on how you feel about lizards and spiders running around the house. Regardless, they're generally not as effective as more conventional pest control methods.
"If you like having an ecosystem in your house that's fine, but most people aren't interested in having a spider or a gecko in their house," says Koehler. "Plus, most pests are able to out-reproduce the predators."
Most of the pest control methods we've talked about consist of laying some sort of booby trap for the pests and hoping they blunder into it. The ideal solution would be to take the fight to the pests by stomping on them, vacuuming them up or spraying them with roach killer (which only works on direct contact and is more or less useless once it dries up).
There's just one big problem with this approach: Roaches come out at night, and scatter as soon as you flip the lights on. The solution is to use light the roaches can't see.
Koehler says that he and his colleagues found that placing a yellow filter on a flashlight allows you to see them without alerting them to your presence. That allows you to sneak up on the bugs and dispose of them with whatever method you choose.
As for the best method of killing the bugs, Koehler also debunks a common myth we'd heard about cockroaches: That stepping on them will cause their microscopic eggs to disperse, making your pest problem even worse.
"The most common cockroach, the German cockroach, will carry the eggs until they're ready to hatch, because the eggs need the moisture
of the parent," he explains. "If you squish it, they're not going to hatch."
Build a better mousetrap
Store-bought mousetraps are fairly cheap, and they run the gamut from humane (no-kill traps that allow you to release your pest outside) to the inhumane (sticky traps that give mice a slow death). But you can build a mousetrap of your own with some basic household goods.
One DIY technique we're fond of is to balance a cardboard tube off the edge of the counter or cabinet your mouse is known to frequent, and at the far end of the tube put a bit of bait (peanut butter works) -- and below that, a barrel or bucket. Your mouse will crawl through the tube in search of the treat, and its weight will tip the tube off the ledge and into the bucket.
If you can't stomach killing a living thing, you can take your catch out to the woods and wish it luck fending for itself in the wild. If you can, just fill the bucket with the water and the problem should solve itself.
>To submit a news tip, email:
and become a fan on