Eco-Tip of the Week: Yellow Jackets and Ants, Oh My!

Summer is here, and with it comes many of our favorite warm weather outdoor activities.  But those activities can be interrupted by the summer insects that come out in hot weather.  Yellow jackets swarm around the burgers, grilled salmon or lemonade at our weekend picnics.  And ants find any possible way to get into our houses and munch on food or compost we’ve left out in the kitchen.

Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that pesticides are by definition poisonous.  While some commercial bug repellants and sprays market themselves as “natural” or “green”, they can still contain harmful ingredients.

That’s why we recommend avoiding pesticides and chemical bug repellants altogether and using natural prevention and control methods instead.

Poison peddlers have convinced us to adopt an unnecessarily hard line on insects.  Not coincidentally, it’s also a profitable one for the chemical industry.  It goes something like this:  “Bug. . .Bad. . .Kill. . .Poison.”

And it’s especially easy to fall for it when pests are being pesky.

But here’s the truth that pesticide companies have paid millions of dollars to brainwash out of heads:  insects are a vital part of a healthy ecosystem.  They provide many useful services. Ants help control numerous insects and are superb scavengers. Because many ants nest in soil, they play an important part in keeping outdoor soils healthy. Yellowjackets feed their young large numbers of insects that might otherwise damage trees or crops.  They also feed their young lots of houseflies.

Below are our suggestions of ways to live with two of the most common summer insects:

Ants: When the lines of ants start showing up in your house, keep in mind that  you don’t need toxic sprays.

Just like the old cliché says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Keep things clean and dry (ants can be as thirsty as they are hungry). Caulk cracks that ants are using to get into your house. Store food in tight containers. Put ant delicacies like honey in the refrigerator.

Use a vacuum cleaner or soapy water in a spray bottle to clean up lines of foraging ants. (They mark their trails with smells, so the soap and water is important for removing the marking chemicals.)

Yellowjackets: Once again, that ounce of prevention. Trash cans should be regularly cleaned and have tight-fitting lids. Things like soda pop cans should be rinsed out before they’re put in a recycling bin. If you’re having a picnic or dining outdoors, make sure to keep food and drink covered as much as possible. Cups with lids and straws can help.   Avoid using perfumes, lotions, or other scented body care products, as they can attract yellow jackets.

Trapping yellow jackets can be amazingly effective. If you need convincing about this take a look at this minor league baseball story.  Pesticide-free traps are available at most home improvement, garden, and big-box stores.

The Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association has developed a website (Our Water Our World) to help people move away from conventional pesticide tools like sprays and foggers that both expose people to pesticides and pollute our water. While the website recommends pesticide use that CEH would not recommend, the information about pesticide-free techniques is great. For Our Water Our World information about specific insects, click here.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted July 1, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    What about those large black ants that eat the structure of one’s house? I have heard that if I don’t get rid them, they’ll cause major damage to my home. A pesticide company did an inspection and said that I have them. I am loathe to use the chemicals, but if I don’t, the damage may be really bad. What do your suggest I do?

  2. Charlie Pizarro
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Hi Heidi.

    The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides is a good resource for pesticide-free pest reduction strategies.

    Here’s their piece on carpenter ants:

    http://www.pesticide.org/carpenterants.html

    I hope it helps!

  3. Yolanda Leaird
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I just put some cut up hot dog at the other end of the deck. The yellowjackets don’t really want to be around humans. They love having their own snack. They no longer bother us.

  4. Ruth Mendes
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    I sprinkle diatomaceous earth on top of kitchen cabinets and under the stove, etc. It is the deposits of the shells of diatomes of prehistoric oceans. Diatomes were almost microscopic shell animals whose shells have very sharp spikes which scratch the waxy protective coating on an insect’s exoskeleton, causing them to dehydrate and die. It’s totally safe even if ingested and leaves no poisonous residue and is odor-free. It looks like a fine white powder. I had an invasion of black sugar ants one year and heavily dusted the areas where the ants were coming in. In a day or two, the ants were reduced to an occasional straggler.

  5. Valorie Berman
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    I have ants that have taken up residence in my house. I mean they are here from late winter or very early spring, til the first frost or so.
    They seem to be living in the walls, under my floor, etc!
    How the heck do I get rid of them?!! I have tried cinammon, cayenne, bay leaves, natural sprays, garlic, salt (that’s a good one) and more, which might discourage them for a bit, but nothing seems to really get rid of them. I have a cat, so don’t want to use anything that could harm her (or me!)

  6. Alison Geering-Kline
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi Valorie.

    As mentioned earlier, the Northwest Coalition for Alernatives to Pesticides is a good resource for non-toxic pest reduction.

    They have some good tips for ants (http://www.pesticide.org/carpenterants.html). It looks like some of our other readers have good tips up above too.

    Hope you find it helpful.

  7. Kathryn
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Heidi,
    As a homeowner we also had lots of the big black carpenter ants in the past – here is what I think helped the most (this year I saw only one or two in the house) – cut back, way way back, any woody vegetation that may be touching the exterior of your house. We had rhododendrons close to our house in several places – we cut them back three feet and – no more ants. They often crawl from a branch or a wire onto your home… I am no expert, but wanted to share what worked for us. Also lavender essential oil diluted in water used to clean our floors and in cracks – they don’t like lavender.