Pest Control 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Exterminating Pests

By Derek Lacey


Your lawn is a target. It’s a food source. It’s a housing development ready for hordes of new residents: insects.

For thousands of homeowners every year, insects are a serious issue. They can attack your grass and other landscape plants and annoy you to the point of running you off from your own backyard.

Many people control pests within their home, but outdoor pest control is a different phylum of animal altogether. But there are choices.

First, keeping a healthy lawn is essential to staving off pest issues. And once they’ve moved in, a variety of pesticides can help you evict the unwanted tenants.

If you’re turning to chemical help in your fight against bugs, the first decision to make is formulation, according to the Texas A&M University’s Agrilife Extension.

From spray cans that target wasps on the spot, to granular pesticide applications that seep into your soil, formulations make the difference.

So which should you choose? You have a lot of choices, and it’s a little trickier than just point-and-spray. We’ll help you with what you need to know.


Liquids

Liquid pesticides are likely the form most people are familiar with: a liquid sprayed to control pest problems.

The main categories among liquid insecticides are ready-to-use sprays and concentrates.

  • Ready-to-use products are good to go off the shelf. Ready-to-use sprays are designed for convenience. All you need to do is “point and pump” or attach a garden hose.
  • Concentrated pesticides need mixing first. Concentrates are generally cheaper and can be used for all kinds of applications. But since you have to handle the raw concentrated product, the risk is higher for exposure.

Dusts

Dusts are fine powders spread onto a targeted site. They’re best used for hard-to-reach areas. Dusts can deliver insecticides in cracks or hard-to-reach places that insects will track through and carry the poison back to the nest.

And for that reason, most dusts are applied with specialized tools, like a crank duster or squeeze bottle.

They may not be the best option if your pest problem is over a large area of your yard. The fine dust can easily be blown or washed away.

Granular

Granular pesticides focus on your soil, where pests like grubs eat away at your roots. They're housed within inert carriers like clay, and can be applied with a regular seed spreader over the entire lawn.

Granular formulations are also safer, TAMU says. With the toxic ingredient is inside the inert carrier, spills are easily contained and there’s little risk to exposed skin.

Baits

Toxic bait pesticides are usually combined with a food material. When the insect is drawn to the food, it also picks up the insecticide.

Baits are housed in a bait station or broadcast over the soil around a structure, according to the University of Florida Extension.

When considering bait, it’s important to think about the type of insect you’re targeting. The Florida Extension gives the ant-versus-fly example:

  • An ant would need a slow-acting bait so workers could take the poison back to the mound where it will be most effective.
  • A fly should be treated with a fast-acting bait to stop them from laying more eggs.

Aerosol

Aerosol cans house a dizzying variety of insecticide types. An aerosol product can fog an entire structure. It can also shoot a liquid stream to target individual insects.

Insecticides are mixed with gases in a metal can, making for an easy-to-use application. They’re commonly used for ant and roach control or flying insect control.

So if your pest problem is a wasp nest on the porch that’s disrupting your summer pool parties, aerosol cans may be right for you. Unfortunately, all that ease of use comes with a higher price point.

Natural Vs. Synthetic

All those long chemical names and bright red warning labels give many people pause. And with good reason.

Natural / organic pesticides, pros and cons

The good news is there are plenty of natural, even organic insecticides to choose from that carry less risk for both you and the environment.

Natural pesticides come from mineral dusts, plant and oil extracts and more, explains the Penn State Extension.

Those include options including:

  • Pyrethrum, derived from daisy flowers.
  • Azadirachtin, extracted from the oil of the Neem tree.
  • Extracts from other plants, including citrus and rosemary act to keep the insects from feeding on plants.
  • Mineral dusts such as kaolin clay repel insects and disrupt feeding and egg laying.

So the discerning homeowner has options.

Unfortunately, natural insecticides have some common drawbacks.

Compared with conventional pesticides, organics have short residual activity. Most need to be ingested by the insect.

They’re less effective on mature insects, Penn State says, and have a shorter shelf life. They’re also usually more expensive than their conventional counterparts.

Synthetic pesticides, pros and cons

Conventional pesticides rely on chemicals manufactured synthetically. They're designed to have a certain effect on a specific insect type.

Acephate, permethrin and carbaryl are among the long list of synthetics. Common name-brands including Ortho Home Defense, Bayer Advanced Garden and wasp and hornet sprays all use synthetics.

They’re cheaper, more effective, but also more hazardous.

Pesticide Safety Precautions

As the Tennessee Extension succinctly explains, “Pesticides are poisons, but they are safe to use when properly handled and applied.”

Precautions including wearing proper clothing and following instructions will keep you safe from a chemical essentially designed to kill.

Try baits first

One of those precautions needs to be bait as a first line of defense, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Baits are effective and present a lower risk that your pets or children will come into contact with the chemical.

Spraying pesticides

If the bait didn’t work and you need to spray, the first step is to read the product label carefully. There, you’ll find important safety information that is specific to the product.

It should cover proper mixing, application, storage and disposal to let you know how to stay safe at every step in the process.

And don’t mix different pesticides or assume that twice as much of a product will make it more effective.

You’ll also need to protect skin from exposure. That means covering up.

The Tennessee Extension guide recommends wearing a hat, long-sleeved shirt, long pants or coveralls, unlined neoprene or rubber gloves, socks and boots.

Mix pesticides outdoors in good lighting and fresh air. Wash any spilled pesticides off skin immediately and don’t touch surfaces that have been sprayed until they’re completely dry. Keep emergency response numbers like the National Poison Control Centers (800-222-1222) and medical emergency (911) handy.

Planning and a careful hand will keep you safe.

The most-common outdoor pests

A handful of insect species make up the list of usual suspects for a homeowner trying to protect their lawn. From ants tunneling underneath your bermuda to mosquitoes hiding out in your bird bath, these are the repeat offenders.

Here’s a rundown of the pests that most people end up dealing with, and the most common ways to control them:

Flies

Flies Source: Wikipedia

Range: Worldwide
Season: Year-round
Control method: Environmental control, traps

The housefly is the most common fly found in and around homes, according to the University of Maryland Extension. They live in filth and carry pathogens with them from place to place, but do not bite.

While they mostly stay dormant in the winter, sunny or warm days can bring them out. For the rest of the year they’re a consistent sight.

To control house flies, find out where they’re breeding and eliminate that site.

That includes removing trash and keeping garbage cans as dry and clean as possible. They’ll breed in any warm moist place with food, including pet excrement.

In this case, cleanliness is next to a fly-free backyard.

Adult flies can be trapped with baited fly traps or sticky fly tape, but spraying is generally not effective.

Biting flies: Depending on where in the United States you lives, you could be visited by a different type of fly — a biting fly that lives off the blood of mammals and doesn’t mind sipping on yours. Types of biting flies include deer flies, horseflies, black flies, stable flies, snipe flies yellow flies and midges. The general advice for ridding yourself of them is to deny them their favorite breeding ground, which varies by species.

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes

Range: Worldwide
Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Control method: Environmental control, sprays

Mosquitoes are the quintessential pest, the very picture of annoyance.

Warm weather brings them out of the standing water where they breed.

And that’s where mosquito control starts: eliminating standing water.

Eliminate all areas of standing water. That includes gutters, buckets and areas around your garden hose. If you’ve got standing water you can’t dump out, like a small pond, mosquito dunks will kill breeding mosquitoes.

Large-scale chemical control can be difficult, because new mosquitos can always fly into your yard after you’ve treated it. The Maryland Extension says you should spray only after non-chemical methods proved inadequate.

Spray first thing in the morning before bees or other insects become active to help target only mosquitoes. Be sure to check the product label, too, as some insecticides can be toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.

Ants

Ants Source: Wikipedia

Range: Worldwide
Season: Year-round
Control method: Environmental, granule or dust insecticide

Ants are beneficial to turfgrass and shouldn’t be needlessly discouraged, says the Iowa State Extension.

But they can go too far. If they nest close to the house and forage for food indoors, or the ants start to build mounds in the yard, it’s time to take action.

If a mound pops up in your yard, first rake it down and spread the dirt to the surrounding area. Wait a few days to see if they rebuild. If they do, choose an insecticide designed to fight ants, usually a powder or granule.

Rake the mound out and sprinkle a small amount of the insecticide on the mound and water it in.

Fire ants

Fire ants

Range: American South
Season: Year-round
Control method: Bait, spot application insecticides

Fire ants are the most common insect pests for home lawns in the South, according to a guide by the Mississippi State Extension Service.

The guide describes controlling fire ants as “a never-ending battle.” And fire ants are spreading from the Southeast to the Southwest and northward.

Fire ants can be a problem for your lawn year-round, and colonies can include as many as 200,000 individual ants.

It can take months for a colony to develop large enough to show a mound in your yard, Mississippi State notes.

Using baits is the cheapest, most effective and easiest way to control fire ants. Proper bait usage can reduce mounds in your yard by 80 to 90 percent. For even better results, supplement bait with spot-treating the mounds that remain.

Ticks

Ticks Source: Sara Davis, USDA/ARS

Range: American South
Season: Year-round, high summer activity
Control method: Environmental control, spray

Ticks are serious pests with the ability to transmit serious illnesses.

Problematic all year round, ticks usually make it to your lawn on the back of an animal. Either a wild raccoon looking for your leftovers in the middle of the night, or your dog or cat coming back from a romp around the neighborhood.

The good news is that spray treatments are effective.

First, Mississippi State’s guide recommends, treat any pets for ticks. Then, control animal access to your lawn.

Ticks generally await potential hosts above ground level, making sprays most effective. Concentrate applications along animal trails, around building perimeters and any tall, weedy vegetation. If the infestation is heavy, treat the entire lawn.

Fleas

Fleas

Range: Worldwide
Season: Year-round, high activity in fall
Control method: Environmental control, insecticides

Fleas occur all year long, but may go dormant in extremely hot or cold weather, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension says.

Fall, by far, is the worst season for fleas. They thrive in the mild temperatures, increased rainfall and humid, dark leaf piles.

Getting rid of that infestation takes a two-pronged attack. First is treating your pet with an integrated control program from your vet or pet supply store.

Fleas will stick to shaded, humid areas and it only takes a few to spark an infestation.

Second is treating the environment, because as the extension notes, that’s where the majority of the pests will be.

Keeping your yard and outdoor space clean is step No. 1. Follow up with a chemical treatment to knock down the infestation or regulate growth.

Termites

Termites Source: Scott Bauer, USDA/ARS

Range: Most of continental U.S.
Season: Year-round
Control method: Chemical insecticide, baits

Termites might be the pest that homeowners fear most.

If damage to structural timbers is evident, it’s the result of years of infestation, according to the Penn State entomology department.

Regular termite inspections will keep you from discovering a deep-rooted infestation after it’s already too late.

Normally, termites feed beneficially on old roots, tree stumps, fallen branches or similar material. According to a map from the University of Arkansas Extension, the most northern parts of the country see little to no termite activity. Light activity spreads through the Midwest and the Sun Belt, increasing to heavy activity in the southernmost parts of the country.

The first thing to do whether you’re trying to prevent or stop termites is clear your property of wooden debris, especially near any buildings.

Adequate drainage for basements, cellars and crawl spaces will help deter termites. When it comes to chemical termite control, it’s almost a necessity to hire a professional. Infestations often need intensive structural or chemical treatments. The best results come from a combination of both.

Treating with chemicals can require soil trenching, soil replacement and even drilling through concrete slabs and foundation, according to Penn State.

But baiting is an effective tactic a homeowner could try. By using a food source like a wood stake or piece of cardboard with an insecticide added, termites feed and carry the poison back to the colony.

Grubs

Grubs

Range: Worldwide
Season: Spring, Fall
Control method: Spray

Grubs, the larval stage of different beetle species, tend to invade lawns with high levels of organic matter. Lawns with large amounts of organic fertilizer or lawns with loads of thatch are prime targets for the root-eating grubs.

As Mississippi State explains, the grubs are the larval stage of May beetles, June beetles or several other species of beetle. By feeding on the grass roots about an inch below the soil, they can cause serious lawn problems.

Watch out for grubs in the spring. Cut several 1- to 2-foot square samples in your lawn between 2 and 3 inches deep. Lift out the turf, roll it back and look for grubs. An average of three to five per square foot means you need to treat.

The guide recommends watering the grass if it’s dry before you treat to bring them closer to the surface. Treat with an insecticide that targets grubs and water it in to help it reach where the grubs are feeding. See “Lawn Grubs: How and When to Kill Them” for more details.

Roaches

Roaches

Range: Worldwide
Season: Year-round
Control method: Traps, powder insecticide

Roaches are known for being tough to kill. But the homeowner armed with the right know-how can make quick work of it.

Mainly a problem in summer, roaches are one of the most common pests to bother American homes.

Keeping your home and surrounding landscape clean is a very important start to control roaches, according to the University of Minnesota Extension.

Corrugated cardboard boxes are a good source of cockroach infestations; vacuuming is very effective in removing the insects’ egg cases.

When it comes to pesticides for roaches, the Minnesota Extension suggests hiring a professional. But bait traps are a good place to start.

Traps usually come in ready-to-use, childproof containers. Place them where you frequently see cockroaches. Powder insecticides and ready-to-use aerosol sprays can supplement traps where needed.

Pesticide Application Techniques

So you’ve got an infestation and the weapon to deal with it. Now it’s time to get to work applying the product.

The best way to spread pesticides depends on the type of pest and the product itself. The packaging label should include specific directions for mixing and application.

  • If it’s a liquid, you’ll likely need a handheld sprayer.
  • If it’s granular, the best option is a regular walk-behind seed/fertilizer spreader.
  • Clear the area of everything you don’t want the pesticide to touch: your kid’s toys, pets, the lawnmower, etc.
  • Keep the area clear of these things, as well as people and pets. Once the spray has dried or as long as the product label directs, you're good to go, according to the Colorado State University Extension.
  • It’s best to apply pesticides early in the morning or late in the evenings, which will protect honey bees and other pollinators. It also avoids times when the lawn is in high demand.
  • Apply the pesticide only on the target areas. This could be just a couple ant mounds dotting the perimeter of the lawn, or it could be the entire grass surface for a grub infestation.
  • Avoid driveways or sidewalks. Hard surfaces can lead to pesticide runoff.
  • Have a cleanup plan — rags, sponges, hoses. If you do get the insecticide where you don’t want it, cat litter works well to pick up any spilled liquids, according to Colorado State.
  • Some products, especially granulars, need to be watered in to take full effect. Apply only enough water to completely wet the area and stop before puddling or runoff.
  • Just in case, plan for an emergency. The National Poison Control Center has a network of 55 local agencies and an online poison diagnostic tool. Its national phone number is (800) 222-1222.

Hiring a Professional for Pest Control

For some pest problems, like termite infestations, professionals may be the best option. But given the hazardous nature of pesticides, many folks may want to let the pros handle this job no matter the size and scope.

The bottom line is if your pest control needs are outside your comfort zone, you should hire a commercial pest control service.

According to the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program, many pest problems require specialized equipment, pesticides and technical training.

Hiring a professional also brings more perks than just peace of mind.

Many professional pest control companies offer a warranty. If the bugs come back, so does the pest control guy.

Cost of Pest Control

So just how expensive are the pros?

Well, it depends. Are you looking for preventative measures or treatment for a full-blown infestation?

For example, Houston-based Stuart’s Pest Control offers a general pest service of $100 for the first 2,000 square feet, and 5 cents for every additional square foot.

Stuart’s also sprays lawns for mosquitoes for $75, and for fleas, fire ants and other specific pests, $100 for a single lot and $200 for a double lot.

Companies like Nozzle Nolen in Tequesta, Fla., also offer plans for residential pest control starting at $30 per month. The plan covers more than 20 pests all year with an option for all-natural treatments as well.

Many companies provide a free quote or free inspection so you can know for sure before you commit.

Hiring professionals also increases your chances of successfully dealing with your pest problem.

Their expertise, licensing and qualifications means they can use pesticides you can’t. This is imperative with severe infestations like termites. It’s the same with hazardous pests like hornets, yellow jackets or other stinging insects.

Unless they’re treating a specific insect problem, the pros will focus on preventative measures. They’ll turn your yard and home into a pesticide-protected fortress with several layers of defense.

As Pacific Pest Control in Orange County, Calif., explains, it’s about layering barriers. First, they spray inside the home around the baseboards to keep pests coming in. Then sprays treat around the outside of the home, and finally around the outside of the lawn.

Keeping the Pests Gone

If you’ve finally eradicated all those bugs from your lawn, there’s good news. You can discourage them from embarking on a second campaign into your territory.

Across the board, experts say that prevention is the best treatment for pests.

And the first preventive step is keeping a healthy, strong lawn.

Grow an appropriate grass species for your region and care for it properly, says a guide from the University of California Extension.

Fertilize, irrigate and mow at the correct levels and remove excess thatch.

More preventative measures include cleaning up all trash and organic matter like dead wood. Remove standing water sources where mosquitoes breed and clean up places of clutter where insects can hide.

The UC Extension guide says “pesticides should never be applied unless a pest has been identified, is present at damaging levels and is present in a susceptible life stage.”

Still, there are products that you can use to give them a little extra encouragement to stay off the grass.

Perimeter applications of insecticide, mainly applied by professionals, deter insects from crossing your property line.

Sprays along the borders of driveways or sidewalks will help protect your lawn from new invasions. Your grass will stay green, healthy and bug-free year in and year out.

Formerly the agriculture writer for the Hendersonville Times-News, Derek Lacey’s articles have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Charlotte Observer, News & Observer, and The State. He has won 15 awards from the North Carolina Press Association and GateHouse Media, for pieces ranging from news features and investigative reporting to photography and multimedia projects.