San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beat the bugs

In Costa Rica, bugs are simply a fact of life. You have to either learn to live with them, or move to a less tropical country.  Fortunately, there are several easy steps you can take to minimize insects in the house. Here are three effective homemade remedies to combat mosquitoes, ants and houseplant pests.

Non-toxically repelling the mosquitos

I know it’s a bit late in the rainy season for this one, but test this bug spray out – you won’t regret it. Apply it often, and it really works. Best of all, it’s non-toxic and actually smells good (I’ve heard people describe it as pumpkin pie and cinnamon). And if you accidentally eat some of it or lick your fingers after a meal, it doesn’t taste like a mouthful of fire ants.


  • 500 ml alcohol (rubbing alcohol or vodka)
  • 100 g of cloves (to cut costs, try to find the big bags of 30 g each – not the 10 g packets)
  • 100 ml oil (something you would want on your skin, like, coconut oil or unscented baby oil)


Clove oil makes for an effective, non-toxic mosquito repellent. 

Genna Marie Robustelli

STEP ONE: Soak all of the cloves in the alcohol for four days (this will extract the natural oils from the cloves).

STEP TWO: (optional) Stir each day. This is not a necessary step, but enthusiasts claim it makes the mixture stronger.

STEP THREE: After four days, strain. Keep the liquid and toss the cloves.

STEP FOUR: Add oil of your choice and mix.

Apply liberally and often to the skin.

Disclaimer: I had total success with this formula from July to mid-September, but I’m finding it slightly less effective as October and November creep by. Not only does clove oil seems to lose efficacy as it ages, but the mosquitoes also appear to be getting more vicious as the year draws to a close. If the formula is not strong enough to discourage the bugs in your area, add some essential oil extracts (like cinnamon, citronella, rosemary or lavender) to boost repelling power. Any pharmacy that offers natural homeopathic remedies usually stocks these items.

I also should warn you that people tend to either love or hate the smell of this homemade bug spray. You’ll walk into a room and hear either, “Oh, what is that lovely scent! Smells like homestyle applesauce.” Or, “Gross! It smells like Christmas ham.”

Poisoning the ants

Bugs commandeering the kitchen can be a stubborn household nuisance no matter where you live. Luckily, there’s an easy and relatively non-toxic solution to tackle many types of ant.

This minimalist recipe only requires three ingredients:

  • 1.5 tablespoons borax (also called sodium borate, sodium tetraborate or bisodium tetraborate and costs about $1 at any pharmacy)
  • 1 cup of table sugar (dirt cheap)
  • ½ cup water

Borax is a great insecticide for pet owners; if your dog eats some, it probably won’t die. According to a certified veterinary technician on, “Borax is generally non-toxic in small amounts.” (If Skippy does accidentally ingest some, you might want to call the vet anyway –  just to be safe.)

STEP ONE: Mix the 1.5 tablespoons of borax (no more!), sugar and water together and boil for two to three minutes. Let cool.

STEP TWO: Pour a small amount into a shallow plate or tupperware lid, and place in the area of the kitchen most frequented by ants. If the ants don’t seem to be going crazy for the sugar, trying mixing in a different type of bait – like meat or gravy.

SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR PET OWNERS: Poke medium and large holes on the top of a jar, and place the sugar/borax mixture inside (you can also use an old soda can). Turn the jar on its side, to entice the ants to enter.

That’s it. The ants will unknowingly take some of the borax with the sugar back to the hill, and their whole community will become poisoned in a day or two. You’re welcome.

Banishing the plant pests

Chile peppers and garlic are natural bug repellents. If your indoor or outdoor plants are being attacked by small insects like aphids or animals like squirrels and raccoons, spray the leaves with a this potion after the next rain. Pests will think twice about coming back. Don’t forget to wash the leaves with water before eating them yourself, or they might taste foul.

What you’ll need:

  • 4 cups of warm water
  • +/- 1 cup chile peppers, chopped
  • +/- 5 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
  • +/- 2 tablespoons of liquid dish soap (this acts as a binding agent so the mixture can adhere to the leaves)


Chile peppers and garlic are natural bug repellents.

Genna Marie Robustelli

STEP ONE: Add the soap and water together in a spray bottle and shake.

STEP TWO: Pour the soapy water into a large container or ziplock bag with the garlic and chile peppers.

STEP THREE: Leave the mixture to steep for 12-24 hours.

STEP FOUR: Strain, and pour back into the spray bottle.

Done! Mist your plants after each time it rains – always in the morning or after evening, or else the leaves will roast under the hot sun. This concoction will ward off all but the most stubborn creatures.

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