The kitchen is where everyone gathers. It’s typically the coziest, most welcoming spot in the house, but it also can attract some unwelcome visitors: small pests, like ants and flies, and bigger intruders, like mice and other rodents.
Most kitchen pests are drawn by the warmth, shelter and the food — even weeks-old crumbs hidden beneath the toaster. And while they won’t eat you out of house and home, they can contaminate your food. What’s more, they’re surprisingly resilient, squeezing into your home through tiny access points you didn’t even know about, or hitching a ride on food from farmers markets and warehouses or even on pieces of firewood.
Some pests, such as ants, show up in larger numbers in the summer, so living in a place with year-round mild weather, like Florida or Arizona, presents more problems, says Nan-Yao Su, distinguished professor of entomology at the University of Florida in Fort Lauderdale. But even if you live in a region with four seasons and colder weather, you might run into trouble with insects like cockroaches, which can linger all year.
No matter the season, here’s how to get rid of some of the most common kitchen pests.
Is there a more detestable pest than these fast creepers? They’ve survived millions of years because they’re extremely adaptable, and they’ve been known to show up even in superclean kitchens any time of year, often stowing away in the creases of paper bags and boxes you bring into the house. They eat just about anything, and like warm, moist environments. Cockroaches can trigger allergies, exacerbate asthma symptoms and spread many types of bacteria, including salmonella.
Store-bought bait traps can be effective against roaches, Su says, but since these insects tend to hide in crevices and cracks in the wall, make sure to smear bait gel or paste into those areas, he adds.
“The most important thing is not to leave empty food or dirty dishes in the sink. If you do that, they’re going to have a party at night,” Su says. “Close the dishwasher door and store food in the microwave with the door closed if you don’t want to refrigerate it.”
If DIY treatments don’t work, if you’d prefer not to handle insecticides or if you have a major infestation, experts recommend hiring a professional. Consumers can find local exterminators by zip code on the National Pest Management Association’s website.
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Mice and rats are probably the most unpleasant and most harmful kitchen pests because they can trigger allergies, spread diseases such as hantavirus and gnaw through wood and electrical wires. They tend to show up once outdoor temperatures drop, squeezing through holes the size of a dime as they seek food and warmth. If you see chewed food packages or rodent droppings, you’ve got company.
“Winter is the worst season for rodents,” says Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. “You can try to trap them, but mice are notorious at being deceptive as to how many there are.” Consumers can use store-bought bait stations for rodents, too, Su says, but be careful not to place them where your pets might find them. For prevention, clean the kitchen frequently and seal gaps around doors and walls and inside cabinets where your plumbing meets the wall.
Ants may be the nation’s number one pest problem during summer, but they’re also active in the fall, bulking up to survive the winter months, when they go dormant. For people who live in places with year-round temperate weather, ants can become a chronic problem.
Minnesota resident Sue Shaughnessy has had an ant problem in her kitchen area for two years. She tried using Raid ant baits to get rid of them, but they returned last spring to her St. Paul condo. “I was surprised to find ants here, since I live on the second floor,” says Shaughnessy, 65. “I thought they were kind of troublesome.”
Ants can enter a home through minuscule holes and cracks, looking for food or warm, moist areas to nest. To prevent ants, Su suggests removing crumbs from counters and floors, cleaning spills immediately, running garbage disposals frequently, and emptying your trash, recycling and compost bins regularly. Once you detect ants, experts recommend using sugar- or protein-based baits that typically contain a benign pesticide like boric acid. If you use over-the-counter repellents, target kitchen corners and make sure to wipe away any excess spray.
Fruit flies and houseflies, which are most active in summer through early fall, are attracted to overripe or decaying food. Fruit flies can smell the yeast in fermenting fruit from far away, says Fredericks. They also lay eggs on fruit at the grocery store that hatch once produce comes into your home, and they’re small enough to fit through the slightest cracks or holes in a screen door.
If these pests are already in your kitchen, Su suggests using an old-fashioned flyswatter. You also can get rid of fruit flies by making a simple, eco-friendly trap from ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. Pour a small amount of apple cider vinegar into a bowl or glass, cover it with plastic wrap (use a rubber band to keep it tight) and poke holes in the top. Place the traps near areas where you’ve seen fruit flies, which will be attracted to the vinegar scent, fly into the container and become trapped. As a preventive measure, however, as soon as fruit begins to ripen, move it off the counter and into the refrigerator. Follow the same sanitary tips as with ants.
Also called stored-food pests, these include small beetles, moths and weevils. They feed on food like grains, nuts, some spices, birdseed and pet food. Look for small moths flying in a zigzag pattern, silky webbing inside food containers spun by larvae, and pests crawling on kitchen counters and the floor, Fredericks says.
Pantry pests tend to spread, so if you see them in a bag of rice, for example, check other shelved products. Throw out all contaminated goods in outdoor bins. If you discover the problem is widespread, empty the entire pantry and then vacuum and wash the shelves, floors and corners with soapy water. Keep stored food, even pet food, in airtight containers with lids instead of more porous bags or boxes.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association’s website.