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.