They want the same things we do: food, shelter and water. And they’re willing to invade our space to get them.
Except we don’t want to share.
The pests of summer are out in force to ruin our good-time vibes, indoors and out. These invaders go way beyond gnats dive-bombing a barbecue. Some of these potential threats can kill you.
Drought adds a wrinkle to their behavior as these creatures aggressively search for moisture. That may make your swimming pool or backyard fountain irresistible. A drippy faucet may be enough to invite trouble.
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As the weather heats up, experts in wildlife and pest control have been inundated with pleas for help. In particular, be on the lookout for these potential summer troublemakers.
One threat is definitely up: rattlesnakes.
“It’s been interesting,” said rattlesnake expert John Potash of Get Rattled, which specializes in rattlesnake-avoidance training. “Snakes tend to wake up in spring, but they’re confused; we had such a mild winter, ‘spring’ started in January. They’ve been trying to acclimate and find food. As the weather warms up, they get more active. The beginning of summer really is the beginning of snake season.”
Besides bringing hungry snakes out earlier, the drought and weird weather have brought more wildlife in contact with people, Potash said. That includes coyotes, raccoons and skunks as well as rattlers.
“Everybody is out searching for water, plain and simple,” Potash said. “I hear stories every day (of close encounters). We’re seeing a lot more wildlife. Rattlesnakes are out everywhere – and a lot closer to town.”
Recent publicized snake bite incidents – such as a 4-year-old Folsom boy bitten near his home – have spotlighted this threat.
Usually encountered in foothill areas near craggy rocks (their favorite habitat), rattlesnakes are following their food source – rodents, Potash said. The rats, mice and voles they crave are looking for water.
“Any standing water will bring rodents, and that brings the snakes right behind,” he said. “Snakes are actually pretty adept at going a long time without water; they can get what they need by lapping the moisture from your lawn.”
Meanwhile, watch out for trouble that may be hiding in your garden.
“People think snakes love the sun; they love warmth, not sun,” Potash explained. “During the heat of the day in dry times, they’re looking for shade. They may be underneath your car or hiding under shrubs. If you’re wearing sandals or flip-flops, watch your step.”
Eliminate places that snakes may hide, he said. “They love wood piles. That’s a favorite place for rodents, too, so they’re getting food and shelter in one spot. Eliminate any standing water; watch for accumulations from sprinklers. Trim bushes off the ground so it’s open around the base and easier to see if something’s hiding in the shade.”
Whatever you do: Leave the snake alone!
“That’s the best thing,” Potash said. “But if it’s in your yard, you don’t want it to stay there. Contact animal control or wildlife rescue and call for snake removal. About 90 percent of all rattlesnake bites for people are because they tried to engage the snake; they tried to kill it, catch it or poke it with a stick. Don’t do that.”
Potash trains dogs – and dog owners – how to avoid trouble and stay away from rattlers. One bite can be deadly.
“Rattlesnakes are a huge problem for dogs,” Potash said. “A dog’s natural reaction is to go right up and see what it is. Ears up, nose in; (the rattle) sounds neat. Very few dogs are adverse to snakes. That’s why dogs are at huge risk, more so than people.”
Potash advises dog owners to keep an eye on their pooches during snake season. “Don’t let your dogs run around unattended,” he said. “Keep them on a leash during walks. Don’t let them stick their noses into everything. You don’t know what’s under that bush.”
Stop the bite
Warmer than usual weather also brought out mosquitoes early this spring. That renewed the threat of West Nile virus.
According to the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District, this summer is shaping up to be “an intense year” for West Nile activity. Throughout California, 119 mosquito samples have tested positive for the deadly virus through June 22, compared with 85 by this time in 2014. And last year was a record-breaker.
Mosquitoes are always unwanted pests, but West Nile and other mosquito-borne diseases make them potentially lethal.
“In 2014, we had 801 human cases of West Nile in California including 31 deaths,” district spokeswoman Luz Maria Rodriguez said. “The prior year, we had 379 human cases.”
In 2014, 31 people died of West Nile virus in California.
First reported in California in 2003, West Nile had been on a steady decline after peaking in 2005 until the drought, when numbers started to rise again. So far in 2015, West Nile virus activity has been found in 23 counties, including Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and Yuba.
How does drought increase West Nile cases? Lack of water draws bird and mosquito populations closer together, Rodriguez explained. There are fewer watering holes for birds and animals and those spots where water has collected likely have turned stagnant, inviting mosquitoes.
“Definitely, the drought did contribute to (the increase),” Rodriguez said.
Controlling West Nile’s spread is dependent on controlling mosquitoes, Rodriguez noted. Any standing water can become a breeding ground.
“We want people to collect water to help their gardens,” Rodriguez said, “but we don’t want them breeding mosquitoes.”
The pest that will draw the most complaints this summer? Ants. Expect to see them invading the house in search of moisture.
“Ants are already the No. 1 nuisance pest in America,” said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. “There are more than 700 ant species. They’re looking for food and, during drought, seeking water. It’s not surprising to see ants coming in (your home) during drought.”
Two kinds are most common. Odorous house ants are little brown-black insects with a sweet tooth. Under 1/8-inch long, they smell like rotten coconut when crushed. By contrast, black and red carpenter ants are much larger, 1/4- to 3/4-inch long. As their name implies, they prefer to nest in wood, particularly if it’s moist (such as in a bathroom, kitchen or crawl space) and can do significant damage. Most common in forested foothill areas, they can be found congregating in wood piles or old logs.
Keep ants out by looking at your home from their viewpoint.
“To prevent bugs, you’ve got to think like an insect,” Henriksen said. “They need food, they need water, they need shelter. Ask yourself: What’s attractive to an ant?”
Start with cleaning surfaces of any food particles or residue.
“Basic hygiene goes a long ways,” she said. “Clean the counters really well. No sticky stuff in the pantry; make sure there’s no crumbs. Pet food is very attractive to ants; don’t keep it out all day.”
During drought, ants seek water as much as food, she added. “Ants are looking for your kitchen sink. When you’re ant-proofing, make sure to dry the sink, too. They want those drops of water.”
Then block any entry points. Seal cracks and crevices around windows, doors and pipes. Repair weather stripping. Block bugs’ access.
“They may be getting into your house in ways you don’t expect,” Henriksen said. “Trim back shrubbery and trees. An overgrown branch is like a perfect pest highway into your house. You want to make sure your house is truly your home, not theirs.”
One bit of good bug news: Drought may keep California’s termite populations down. These bugs prefer moister conditions, but they’re still a major threat to homes.
“Termites cause $5 billion of property damage (nationwide) every year,” Henriksen said. “You still need to be on the lookout. A lot of people are putting down mulch (to conserve landscape) water. Remember: Keep mulch away from walls, at least 18 inches away from the foundation. Water gets trapped inside the mulch and it’s a haven for termites.”
Be a pest stopper
The National Pest Management Association and the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District offer this advice for fighting summer pests:
- Always apply an insect repellant containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus when spending time outdoors, and reapply as directed on the label.
- Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and closed-toe shoes when outdoors. Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot insects.
- Reduce the amount of time spent outside during dusk and dawn, when many mosquitoes are most active.
- Remove weeds, woodpiles and debris. Avoid transporting firewood.
- Eliminate areas of standing water around the home, such as flowerpots, birdbaths, baby pools, grill covers and other objects where water collects.
- Report dead birds within 24 hours to the West Nile virus hotline, (877) 968-2473 or at www.fightthebite.net.
- If you are concerned about mosquitoes on your property, contact a licensed pest professional.