EarthTalk: Why are bed bugs a big issue right
now? Where do they come from and what real harm do they
do? Are there non-toxic ways of dealing with them?
-- Harper H., Newburyport, MA
cities across the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe
and Africa have seen an explosion in bed bugs in recent
years. Increased worldwide travel and the rising popularity
of second-hand goods may be factors. Some suggest
that bringing back DDT and other harsh insecticides,
long banned, is going to be the only way to halt an
bugs, tiny little rust-colored insects of the Cimicidae
family, live by feeding on the blood of humans and other
warm-blooded hosts. They get their name from their favorite
habitat: mattresses (they like sofas and other cushy furniture,
too). Bed bugs are most active at night, just when you’re
asleep in your bed and easy prey. While their bites can
be itchy, bed bugs are more of a nuisance than a health
threat at this point.
reasons still unknown to public health experts, certain
cities across the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe and Africa
have seen an explosion in bed bugs in recent years. According
to Larry Pinto, author of The Techletter, a leading information
source for the pest control industry, increased worldwide
travel and the rising popularity of second-hand goods may
be factors in the resurgence of bed bugs, but the most likely
reason is our rejection of DDT and other harsh insecticides
composed of chlorinated hydrocarbons.
suggests that the kinder, gentler pesticides available now,
as well as more conservative pest control methods (such
as using bait traps for specific infestations instead of
all-around, periodic preventative spraying) are less effective
at keeping bed bugs—and likely other pests—away.
“Modern insecticides are proving to be somewhat ineffective
against bed bugs,” he reports, adding that insects
can also develop some level of resistance to insecticides
to the bed bug problem in many cities, charities like Goodwill
often won’t accept old mattresses or couches any longer.
Consumers should beware of purchasing reconditioned or used
mattresses and furniture accordingly. Even new mattresses
can arrive at your home already infested, especially if
they travel in trucks that contain old mattresses that new
customers are discarding. If you can drive your new mattress
home from the store yourself you are more likely to avoid
a bed bug infestation altogether.
upside of our abandonment of pesticides like DDT, of course,
is the resurgence of bald eagles and other wildlife negatively
affected by the accumulation of such toxins in the environment
during the latter half of the 20th century. DDT was causing
the shells of bird eggs to be thin and weak, resulting in
many fewer hatchlings. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. played
host to only 400 breeding pairs of bald eagles—less
than one percent of the bird’s estimated population
in the region prior to white settlement. DDT was finally
banned in 1972, and today nearly 10,000 breeding pairs of
bald eagles thrive in the continental U.S.
home-use treatments made with natural non-toxic ingredients
are now available. XeroBugs’ Best Yet, a top choice
of hotel/motel managers, makes use of cedar oil and natural
enzymes to kill bed bugs. Another leading product is Rest
Easy Bed Bug Spray, which uses cinnamon and other natural
ingredients. Although these products are deemed effective,
some argue that they don’t work nearly well enough
to eradicate what some are calling a bed bug epidemic. Some
are even calling for bringing back DDT (for use in small
doses and for specific applications only) to help eradicate
the growing bed bug problem.
EarthTalk: What would you recommend as a non-toxic/non-lethal
way to keep squirrels, gophers and groundhogs away?
-- Faye Gillette, Coarsegold, CA
fencing buried deep around the perimeter of your garden
is probably the best, though not fool-proof, way to
keep the groundhogs out.
© Tom Brakefield, Getty Images
critters away can be tricky business, and options are somewhat
limited. For starters, make sure exterior garbage, recycling
and compost containers are shut tight, and pick up and remove
any fallen fruit that your apple, pear or plum trees may
have discarded. Of course, these measures will go only so
far in deterring unwelcome critters, so you may need to
employ a repellent or more proactive strategy.
repellent sold at plant nurseries is Bonide’s Organic
Repels-All, a concoction of dried blood, putrescent whole
egg solids and garlic oil. The stuff, which can be sprayed
on plants, grass, walkways and buildings without causing
damage, smells terrible, and thus provides a natural barrier
to unwanted animal visitation. Another top choice is Shake-Away
Organic Animal Repellent, which comes in various natural
formulas targeted to whichever type of critter you’re
trying to deter. The active ingredient in the product is
the urine of a feared predator; Shake-Away’s Small
Animal Repellent, for example, uses fox urine. These solutions
can last for weeks in dry climates, but will need to be
re-applied regularly following precipitation.
or Shake-Away don’t do the trick, flowers might. According
to gardening expert Bonnie Manion, narcissus bulbs naturally
deter gophers. “Any type of narcissus bulb, which
includes jonquils, paperwhites and daffodils, will be a
deterrent to gophers, rabbits and deer in your garden and
property,” she writes on her VintageGardenGal blog.
“Bulbs planted in the ground send out a year round
message to critters by actually ‘advertising’
a toxicity odor or fragrance.”
Of course, these
deterrents may or may not work in your situation. If squirrels
are damaging your trees, you could install aluminum collars
around the bases of the trunks to prevent them from climbing;
adjacent trees need to be wrapped, too, since jumping from
tree to tree is a squirrel’s stock and trade. If squirrels
are hogging the bird feeder, there are a number of feeder
styles that will deter them, including some with a perch
that starts to spin whenever a creature heavier than a bird
steps on it, tossing the invader gently off.
Gophers and groundhogs
present a unique problem, as they burrow tunnels in the
ground and eat seeds, roots and often your entire garden
bounty. And they are particularly difficult to chase away;
the common—and often cruel—method of flooding
their tunnels will only temporarily deter them. Another
approach comes from the old wives’ tale category,
but just may work: stuffing dog hair into the holes at the
end of their tunnels. Brush some hair off your own pooch
or get it from a local dog groomer.
vegetablegardener.com, fencing your garden in is probably
the best, though not fool-proof, way to keep the groundhogs
out. “The fencing should be at least 3 feet tall and
made of tight wire mesh [and] buried in the ground a minimum
of 1 foot,” the site recommends. Angling out a section
of the underground part of the fence to create an L-shape
will deter the animals from digging under it, and curving
the top of the fence outward will deter climbing.
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