Growing Concerns 499: Box elder, pest control


Readers report plagues of box elder bugs, resent sarcastic advice



I just read your article on box elder bugs.  You sarcastically ask "Why is it so important to eliminate them?" I will tell you why!

My parents had a number of box elder trees on their property and the box elder population was out of control. The south side of their home was covered with the red and black buggers. It looked like a scary movie. Your writer is correct that there was nothing they could do. They tried everthing. We would vacuum them off the siding with a shop vac and end up with gallons of bugs each time. Then they started to invade the house. They poop and fly and crawl. Despite their harmlessness, they became creepy. They would crawl across dinner tables and counters. This is not the type of atmosphere anyone wants to live in or a type of guest anyone wants to live with. Finally their solution was to have all the box elder trees cut down.

This all but elimated the problems except a few that hang out on the barn. These are probably due to some strapling trees replanting themselves here and there.

Finally, to suggest to fill all the nook and crannies that a house might have to keep the bugs from entering has two problems with it. It does not eliminate the pest from covering your siding and second Mr. Glenn Hagge might have a few articles to talk about sealing your house up too much causing a health problem in the winter. I feel you have obviously not experienced the invasion of box elder bugs! Sincerely,


Dear L.H.,

I know how thick box elder bugs can be in fall. However, it is entirely possible to have them in the house without experiencing that degree of infestation. Since the question in that recent article was about some box elder bugs inside in winter, not about hordes in fall, I answered in that vein.

Sarcasm was not my intent. As often happens, I've been where that reader is and want to help. I've also dealt with the fall masses, so I know an occasional year of sweeping and vacuuming is bearable but as a routine it's terrible. When heavy congregations keep occurring, tree removal has to be considered, beginning with seed-bearing female trees. Seeds last through winter and are a critical spring food for the bugs.

What I asked was an honest question, seeking clarification. People do answer and conversations do continue, in and out of these articles.

If that other reader responds that they want to eliminate the bugs because their child finds them too creepy, I'll suggest including the child in sweeping, disposal... and education. It's a tried and true defense against phobias, plus this bug's life cycle is a fascinating ecology lesson.

If the answer is, "We hate the insect poop," I'll point out that since these bugs don't eat in winter, a single one doesn't excrete much. So where there are lots of little brown dots of "frass", many bugs probably frequent that spot. Special focus on outer walls near those places can pay off at caulking time.

Is it practical to expect to completely seal a house, or desirable? No. But sealing at least some holes on the side where the bugs congregate in fall makes a difference. It's a reasonable first step, less drastic than removing trees. 

Short reports

"...I laugh at the suggestions that you gave,"

writes Y.B. "In the fall the box elder bugs cover the entire front of my house including my front door and garage door. Guests have to call me to let me know that they are either on their way or have arrived. We buy the strongest pesticide on the market and we spray those suckers until given a break from their presence at least for the remainder of the day."

I sympathize, Y.B., but still say avoid pesticides. If box elder congregations are chronic on your house but you can't remove nearby trees, direct traffic to a back door during the fall or keep a hose ready, equipped with a spray gun to knock the bugs back with water. A malodorous fog of pesticide is not a good welcome mat. Also, some products with a residual capable of killing non-feeding bugs work through a bug's respiratory or nervous system -- not likely to be good for you to inhale or absorb at every exit and homecoming.


Green thumbs up

to humor in dealing with catalog-obsessed gardeners. K.S. says it was fun to intercept a dozen catalogs, bag them in clear plastic, hang them from shrubs, then direct the afflicted gardener on a treasure hunt. "Now our orders are based on a recent memory of our actual garden!"


Green thumbs down

to watering indoor plants on gray days, unless they're wilted. Better to leave them dry and wait a few days for sun than to water when the plant is barely photosynthesizing. Photosynthesis draws water up into foliage. Without it, water may sit around roots and rot them.

Originally published 1/18/03