San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Batty with Bugs: Dealing with Unwanted Pests

Cockroaches in the kitchen. Bugs in the bedroom. Scorpions in your shoes. Those of us who come from northern climates, where prolonged frosts make the world uninhabitable for many creepy crawlies, find ourselves helpless against this onslaught.

How do we combat these unwanted plagues? Would solutions that kill off pest populations affect human health or that of our pets or of the wildlife we want? Or is there a way to live in harmony with this unpleasant part of nature?

The most common pest problems here are cockroaches and rats, which do not distinguish between homes, business or stores.

They go looking for food. The easiest and safest form of rat control is Felis domesticus, the common cat. Even the smell of a cat will keep away all but the scrappiest (or stupidest) mice. Stored seeds or grain attract mice and rats, which in turn attract snakes. Cats are more compatible. For those who cannot tolerate the furry creatures, various types of traps are sold in supermarkets and hardware stores.

For home use, many commercial products are sold in supermarkets to control pests such as cockroaches. Baygon, made by Bayer, and Raid, made by SC Johnson, offer sprays that cost about ¢2,500 ($5); the Costa Rican company Cruz Verde has a cheaper one. These are strong sprays, and for the full effect it is recommended that doors and windows be closed. They work against ants, mosquitoes and other insects as well. Some of these products will also eliminate scorpions.

For organic products, Huracán, a small company in Alajuela, northwest of San José, makes a nicotine-based paste in a plastic syringe that can be safely and easily applied. Edgar Rodríguez, inventor and maker of the product, says it can safely be used anywhere in the house, and because it doesn’t smell it can be applied at any hour – a plus for businesses that have to fumigate after closing for the day.

Rodríguez suggests putting it in sink and tub drains, where cockroaches and other pests accumulate. Press out a drop of Huracán in a cabinet or drawer and the roaches lap it up. The label claims it will be their last meal. This product costs around ¢2,500 ($5) for 20 grams. Look for it at Perimercados and Más x Menos stores; note that because the big companies take up most of the shelf space, lesser-known organic products such as Huracán are usually on the bottom shelf.

Huracán also makes a biodegradable nontoxic spray for flies, a big pest in the early part of the rainy season, or in homes near farms where flies abound. For information about this product, call 443-9781.

The ecological club Yiski’s manual for reducing toxic substances includes organic solutions to pest problems. Closing off holes in floors, walls and cabinets and removing food sources will reduce the number of cockroaches. Keep food in pest-proof containers.

Roaches can eat through plastic bags, but cloth bags will keep them out of the bread and cake. Bay leaves hung in areas act as a repellent. For a stronger deterrent, mix two teaspoons of sugar and four teaspoons of borax and put small amounts in places frequented by cockroaches.

For ants, the manual suggests placing boric acid, ground pepper or paprika, or mint or laurel leaves in trafficked areas. Cats or hunting dogs are Yiski’s choice for controlling rats and mice. Supermarkets carry “paper cats” that attract and trap rodents humanely.

Other suggestions are rubbing brewer’s yeast on dogs and cats to prevent fleas and ticks, and lemon- or eucalyptus-scented incense to keep mosquitoes away.

For cockroaches, an Internet site suggests that you make a trap: Take a bowl or widemouth bottle with steep sides; lightly Vaseline the inside wall up to the lip so that a cockroach can not climb up the slippery surface; place the bowl in a typical hiding place such as under your kitchen sink; place some food (bread, carrots, etc.) in the bowl as well as some toweling dampened with water; build some ramps up to the lip on the outside with paper toweling to encourage the cockroaches to easily enter the bowl.

This trap will overnight accumulate a good sample of your household cockroach population. Flush them down the toilet each morning for sanitary disposal. Soon the cockroach population will be quite low.

Although bats hanging around the house are not considered pests – and indeed can help control insects – they can be nuisances for some.Hanging strips of aluminum foil in breezy areas where they will sway will interfere with the bats’ radar systems, and they will go elsewhere.

Businesses such as restaurants, stores and hotels that deal with food use fumigation services regularly. The manager of a chain supermarket says they fumigate every two weeks, mostly for cockroaches and moths that find their way into rice or flour.

Fumigation is done at night after store hours and does not affect food, he claims. The Central Market fumigates for roaches and rats every two weeks, using a commercial company. Food in open stalls draws rats from outside areas, reports one manager.

Several fumigation companies serve the country and are listed under “Fumigadoras” in the yellow pages. For them, too, the most common problem is cockroaches. Prices start at ¢25,000 ($50) and depend on the size of the building, how far away it is and the type of fumigation needed. Fumigation must meet Ministry of Health regulations.

Wood-eating termites are another common pest in this warm climate, but they are difficult to eliminate.

Most fumigation products will take care of the problem temporarily, but termites always return. Wood ceilings and floors can be replaced and wood for new construction can be treated, but once they get a taste of your antique desk it’s difficult to stop them. Even a thorough fumigation by professionals will not keep them from eventually coming back.

Although these services and products promise to eliminate pests, customers claim that none is 100% effective. As with all products, read labels and keep out of reach of children. Even organic products can cause ill effects if they are swallowed or come in contact with eyes or other sensitive areas.

Other scary critters that cause distress are tarantulas, wasps and scorpions. Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders called picacaballos here because of an old belief that they bite the hooves of horses.

Myths make them out to be dangerous, but University of Costa Rica spider specialist Dr. William Eberhard assures us they are inoffensive.

They live in holes in the ground, and those that erroneously crawl onto our patios are mature males looking for mates. They have glands and fang-like projections to paralyze their prey, which can cause discomfort if bitten but are not fatal.

“They should not be killed,” Eberhard says.

However, the smaller, pea-sized black widow spider, whose hourglass figure makes it identifiable and is more likely to enter houses, can provoke a nasty reaction, according to Eberhard. Scorpions like to hide in dark, dry places such as closets, behind doors and in shoes. Their sting can also cause serious reactions and should be checked by medical personnel.

Wasps are another potential problem when they build their nests, which are light gray globes hanging from the eaves of houses. But Dr. Mary Jane Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, wife of William, says they are not aggressive and unless they are in an area where they are likely to be disturbed, such as over a door or the basketball hoop, it’s better to leave them alone. If it’s necessary to evict them, use a regular insect spray at night, she recommends.


On the other hand, bugs can be really interesting…

Cockroaches: Blattella germanica govern themselves in a very simple democracy in which each insect has equal standing and group consultations precede decisions that affect the entire group. (Discovery Channel)

Beetles: In one sense, the most unusual property of beetles is their sheer number. There are more known species of Coleoptera than any other group of organisms, with more than 350,000 described species.

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