Welcome to Wildlife Week, an exploration of what happens when nature and home meet.
No matter where you live—a temperate city, a small town in the desert, a suburb in the semi-tropics—there will be pests, they will find their way into your home, and you will be annoyed about the whole thing. Whether they’re crawling, biting, flying, or digging, pests come in a huge variety, one that has as many unusual and exceptional entries as common offenders. Getting rid of them can seem daunting, but luckily, you usually can.
Given that the United States is an absurdly large and varied country, the specific species of pest can sometimes vary based on where you are, though there are plenty that span all or most of it. The best resource is to find a nearby university with some kind of agricultural component; these almost always have some kind of guide to local pests you can expect to deal with (and much more; they’re also great for helping your gardening tactics).
They may be more conventionally lovable than insects, but there are plenty of species of mammal that can cause problems in our homes and gardens.
There are three common species of mouse that invade our houses and other living structures: the house mouse, deer mouse, and white-footed mouse. But it’s the first of these, Mus musculus, that’s the most common. Its range is throughout North America, and it’s actually more common around human habitation than away from us. The house mouse is extremely cute and also adaptable and clever, which makes it a deeply irritating pest.
Dangers Posed: Disease (through contaminated food), poop, destruction of property (through gnawing).
Solutions: The house mouse is attracted to food, so the first step is to ensure that all food is properly sealed and that cabinets and kitchens are cleaned. You’ll want to seal all potential points of entry, which can be a real challenge; look around areas where you’ve found droppings for any holes as small as a dime (!). Seal those off. Mice also don’t like peppermint, which is easily found in extract form and also smells great. (To us, not to mice.)
Other potential solutions are live traps, which allow you to release mice outside; obviously, only do this after you’ve sealed your house. You’ll notice we aren’t recommending glue traps, cats, or other methods that kill mice as a prevention technique. For one thing, killing mice is gruesome and unpleasant. But mostly, killing mice is a Band-Aid solution. Until you’ve sealed your house, they’ll keep getting in.
Big Brown Bat
Found throughout North America, the big brown bat will sometimes roost in colonies in attics, crawlspaces, and other largely unused spaces.
Dangers Posed: Noise, occasional smells, disease (very rarely, and almost never unprovoked).
Solutions: None. Leave them alone. Bats are great; this species pretty much exclusively eats agricultural and human pests like cockroaches, cucumber beetles, and house flies. Welcome them into your home. If they are in your main living space, call an expert, but do not, under any circumstances, touch a bat, whether alive or dead. The big brown bat will not bite unless provoked, and can sometimes test positive for rabies, though very, very few cases of rabies are attributed to this particular species. Do everything you can to protect bats. They are not pests.
Various mammal species will look at your garden as a generous buffet. Raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, deer, voles, and chipmunks will sometimes eat your vegetables and fruits. Fencing can keep some of them out. It will probably not keep raccoons out. My preferred method is to plant more stuff and view 20 percent of my yield as the Raccoon Tax.
Several species of bird, including the much-loathed invasive European starling and the somewhat under appreciated varieties of sparrow, will eat fruits, vegetables, and leaves in your garden. Netting will keep them out.
Insect pests in your garden are widely varied and can require many different tactics. Generally speaking, you do not need to and should not drench your garden in pesticides. Cabbage aphids can be blasted off with a jet of water from a hose. Tomato hornworms should be picked off by hand, even though they are repulsive. Neem oil and a solution of water and dish soap can be very effective in keeping pests off your plants without risking danger to native plants and animals. You can buy ladybugs on Amazon, but these can sometimes bring foreign parasites and other issues to your garden; it’s a better long-term solution to plant flowers that beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and praying mantises like.
There are several species of woodpecker in North America, but the downy woodpecker is the most common in terms of its negative impact on the lives of humans. They’re found everywhere except some chunks of Southwestern desert, and are smaller than you might expect, with unusually short beaks for a woodpecker. As pests, they will sometimes bang holes in the exterior of homes, especially targeting untreated wood siding, in search of insect prey. You can typically hear them drumming, but visual clues would be small but deep holes all in a line, either vertical or horizontal, on exterior wood.
Dangers Posed: Property damage, noise.
Solutions: Woodpeckers are after insects, so you can get rid of insects! Rid your home of ants, termites, and other tasty woodpecker food. You can attempt to scare them away with decoys of predators like owls, though woodpeckers will usually figure out that the decoy isn’t real. Reflective "scare tape" is also effective. A more pleasant solution is to give them easier food nearby, like a suet cake, or a berry bush.
Several species of small lizard, like the western fence lizard in California and a few different anole lizards in Florida, might get into your house. Ignore them. They eat insects and won’t bother you. A good name for a lizard is Richard.
There are also many different invasive reptile species, especially in southern Florida, where the Burmese python, brown anole, green iguana, and others have found a hospitable home. You are legally allowed to humanely kill any Burmese python or green iguana in Florida, or you can call the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to come handle that task for you.
Now we’re getting into the really annoying stuff. There are dozens of species of very common flying insects that you might encounter and wish you hadn’t. As we mentioned before, consult your local state university’s extension program, all of which have guides to this sort of thing, but let’s go through some of the most common.
Found essentially worldwide, the house fly is one of the most common species of fly in the household pest world. House flies are fairly large, with four telltale stripes on the thorax (body). They’re attracted to food, especially decomposing food.
Dangers Posed: Disease (food contamination), annoyance.
Solutions: Ensure food is sealed and placed away. Make sure that garbage cans have tightly fitting lids. Take a look at your windows, screens, and doors for any holes or gaps.
Small, furry, with a somewhat triangular appearance, drain flies are most commonly found near sinks, tubs, and other, well, drains.
Dangers Posed: Annoyance.
Solutions: Clean your drains and pipes! Pouring some boiling water down drains near where you’ve seen the flies will do the trick, as will a baking soda and vinegar combo.
Very small, with red eyes, and commonly found around ripe fruit and ripe garbage. They have a very fast life cycle of egg-laying and maturing.
Dangers Posed: Annoyance, possible (though unlikely) disease through contamination.
Solutions: Refrigerate fruits and vegetables as soon as they’re ripe, and discard any with cracks in them (heirloom tomatoes, unfortunately, are trouble). They’ll mostly leave in the winter, but in the meantime, a trap of apple cider vinegar in a jar with a cone-shaped piece of paper will do wonders.
These look sort of like large, flying ants, and will typically emerge out of nowhere due to weather changes. They are the reproductive form of subterranean termites.
Dangers Posed: Well, actually none besides annoyance; they do not bite, and don’t actually even eat. They’re just out there to reproduce. But they are a very clear sign that you have termites.
Solutions: Vacuum up the swarmers and call an exterminator.
Small, typically beige- or cream-colored moth, about half an inch long. The moths themselves are harmless, but their larvae feed on animal fibers like wool, leather, and fur. You can identify a problem by frass, or moth larva poop, which looks kind of like a clump of quinoa.
Dangers Posed: Destruction of property.
Solutions: Dry-cleaning chemicals will work if you spot frass, as will extreme heat or cold; given that the clothes dryer will destroy some of these fabrics, the freezer is a better option. Put it on the lowest setting and toss your clothes in there for a few days. After treatment, place any natural-fiber clothing in a vacuum-sealable bag for the season.
Some of the most viscerally unpleasant creatures on our list, crawling insects come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and leg counts.
These terrifying-looking creatures have 15 pairs of legs, are a sort of yellowish-tan in color, and move extremely quickly, including up walls and ceilings. They’re most commonly found in basements.
Dangers Posed: Actually, none. They are venomous, but it’s physically very difficult for them to sting humans, and those incidents are both very rare and not especially dangerous. They’re also insectivores, eating cockroaches, silverfish, wasps, and other insects, as well as some spiders.
Solutions: You don’t actually need to get rid of house centipedes, as they’re mostly beneficial. But they might signify that you have some other pest problem that provides a food source to them.
There are three varieties of cockroaches common to the United States: in descending order of size, those are the American, Oriental, and German. Cockroaches are attracted to some of the same issues as house flies (uncovered garbage, decomposing food), but will also find their way into nearby homes or apartments that are clean. The German variety is brown and quite small, but reproduces very quickly; the American variety is gigantic; and the Oriental can be identified by its very shiny black or dark brown body.
Dangers Posed: Disease (through food contaminated with feces), annoyance, very gross.
Solutions: Honestly, very tricky. Cockroaches breed quickly, are quick and adept at hiding. Cleanliness helps, but not always. Bug sprays don’t address the root of the issue. Some cockroach bait products can work, but for serious infestations, call an exterminator. In some cities, like New York City, landlords are required to provide an exterminator if a cockroach is found in a dwelling.
There are hundreds of ant species in the United States, many of which are difficult to distinguish for the amateur. We’ve picked a few species based on their ubiquity and behavior, to have a semi-representative view of the wide world of ants.
The specific species of fire ant that’s an issue in the U.S. is the red imported fire ant, or RIFA, which is found throughout the Southeast, non-desert parts of the Southwest, and as far north as Virginia. It can both bite and sting, though it’s the painful, venomous sting that gives the ant its name. They’re more brownish than red, and make visible mounds in the soil, especially in sunny areas.
Dangers Posed: Extremely aggressive when disturbed, painful sting, can cause crop damage, mounds can sometimes break pavement.
Solutions: Baits are recommended; the ant will bring back this bait to its colony, hopefully destroying it. In some states, like California, there are hotlines you can call to get someone to come out and deal with a fire ant issue.
Very small, dull brown ants. They’re invasive and create truly mind-boggling colonies, often with multiple queens, and are common throughout the southern United States. Argentine ants are notably common and destructive in California.
Dangers Posed: They bite! Argentine ants aren’t venomous and the bites are unlikely to be dangerous, but they do bite. They also cause environmental damage by demolishing native ant and other insect populations, and are deeply annoying.
Solutions: Borate-based baits are the way to go here. Sprays do not work at all, and may actually trigger the colony to produce more offspring. Good luck trying to keep these tiny guys out.
A much larger, typically black ant, the carpenter ant likes to nest in rotting wood. It’s more common in the Northern United States than some of the other species.
Dangers Posed: Annoyance, property damage. Carpenter ants don’t eat wood, but do sometimes tunnel through it, which has the same effect.
Solutions: DIY methods include sprays and diatomaceous earth, but if you have a significant carpenter ant problem, call in a professional.
There are many different types of termite in the United States, but are usually categorized as subterranean, dampwood, and drywood types. Termites will announce their presence with a swarm of harmless but annoying reproductive termites, at which point you should call a termite expert immediately. You cannot tackle a termite issue yourself. Don’t even try.
Dangers Posed: Property damage, annoyance.
Solutions: These may range from baiting to injected insecticides to a full-on bug tent.
This term is more of a category than a specific species; it usually refers to any North American predatory wasp that appears yellow and black. Their diets vary, sometimes including pest insects like flies and caterpillars. They also can become very aggressive, especially in the late summer, and can and will sting repeatedly.
Dangers Posed: Painful sting (possibly harmful for those with allergies), will hover around food and especially sweet drinks like soda.
Solutions: The nests will die with the onset of colder weather, so avoid doing anything if you can. A nest within the house is cause for a professional; there are sprays available, but you don’t really want to mess with a yellowjacket nest.
Round, plump, and fuzzy, there are hundreds of species of bumblebee. They can sting, and actually can sting repeatedly, but are unlikely to do so unless threatened. They do not make honey in the volume necessary for humans to gather it. They’re also widely threatened, and sometimes endangered, and are incredibly efficient pollinators, much more so than the imported honey bee.
Dangers Posed: Can sting if threatened.
Solutions: None. Bumblebees are vital and increasingly at risk. Do not kill any bumblebees, please.
The European honey bee is one of the very few domesticated insects. They are not native, and were imported for honey and because they are easy to wrangle for agricultural pollination, though they’re not actually that great at it.
Dangers Posed: Can sting. Severe environmental damage due to outcompeting native bees and inefficient pollination.
Solutions: Contact a beekeeper, who will be able to remove a beehive without harming the bees.
Illustration by John Devolle