Week of 10/4/09

Dear 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

Bed 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.

For 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.

Pinto 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 in general.

Certain 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 epidemic.

Due 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.

The 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.

Some 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.

CONTACTS: Techletter; XeroBugs; Rest Easy.


Dear EarthTalk: What would you recommend as a non-toxic/non-lethal way to keep squirrels, gophers and groundhogs away?

—Faye Gillette, Coarsegold, CA

Tall 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

Keeping unwanted 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.

One favorite 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.

If Repels-All 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.

According to 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.

CONTACTS: Bonide; Shake-Away; Vegetable Gardener; VintageGardenGal Blog.

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