In the wake of last year’s Zika epidemic, and with the list of mosquito- and tick-borne diseases growing, the insect-control business is booming. 

“There’s been a proliferation of companies that are doing mosquito control right now,” says Stanton Cope, president of the American Mosquito Control Association. “You see them all over the place. But some of them are much more professional than others.” In fact, consumer affairs bureaus across the U.S. are on high alert for companies that spray without proper licensing, experience, or equipment.

Spraying is serious business, Cope says. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved a number of pesticides for residential spraying, saying they are generally safe when used properly, but any chemical spray poses some risks. And those risks are made far worse if the person doing the spraying isn’t properly trained.

Inexperienced sprayers may lead you to waste your money by spraying chemicals the wrong way or by using ones that don’t work. And they can expose you to unnecessary risk. Misapplied chemicals can mean that more toxins reach your children and pets, and they can harm natural foliage and nonthreatening insects (some of which have protective effects). They can also breed insecticide resistance, which will make any existing insect problems much worse. 

You can avoid all of these concerns by following the steps outlined below. 

Start Simple

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the EPA say that for reducing insect populations around your home, integrated pest management (IPM) is still the best first step.

That is, before you consider spraying, you should try basic mosquito-control tactics like eliminating standing water (where some mosquitoes like to breed) from pet dishes, old tires, bird feeders, planters, and the like.

You should also repair screens on doors and windows, and use air conditioning, if you can, to keep mosquitoes from invading the house. For more advice on ticks, see our report “How to Tick-Proof Your Yard Without Chemicals.”  

You should also use an EPA-registered insect repellent on your exposed skin. (Check out our recommended products.) 

If your yard is already infested with insects or you’re worried about infestation for a specific reason (for example, there’s a pond or brook near your property), it’s best to call your local mosquito-abatement district, because those tend to be staffed with professionals. Call your town or county government to see whether you have one in your area (not everyone does). They may spray your yard free or for a small fee if the threat of infestation or spread is significant enough. 

Ask Questions and Check Credentials

If your county doesn’t have a mosquito-abatement team in place and do-it-yourself steps aren’t sufficient, your next option should be a private pest-control company. But before you decide to hire one, there are some basic questions you should ask:

1. Ask to see a license or certification, a label for the insecticide being used, and protective gear. Professional companies should have all of these things at the ready. In most states, they are legally required for any pest-control business. The license should be current, and the label should indicate which chemicals the company is using. 

2. Ask whether they have a plan to protect nontarget organisms. The chemicals used to kill mosquitoes can also kill good insects, like honeybees, ladybugs, and butterflies. Professional sprayers will have strategies, like standing with their back to the property line and working with the wind, to minimize the drift of chemicals into nontarget areas.  

3. Ask whether they make follow-up visits to ensure their insecticide treatment has worked. Good companies will come back periodically to test the area to see that their chemicals are working against the local mosquito population. 

Be Skeptical

The legitimacy of any pest-control company isn’t the only thing you should watch out for. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

1. Think twice about “all organic” claims. There’s no official standard for the term when it comes to insect abatement, Cope says, so there’s no guarantee that something labeled organic is any safer than anything else.

2. Reject mosquito misting systems. The use of these automated spraying systems, which function like automatic water sprinklers, is growing. But the devices are not EPA-approved, and Cope says you’re better off skipping them. They’re quite expensive, he says. And because they don’t allow for a nuanced approach to pest management (they generally involve spraying a single chemical across an entire yard), they can breed insecticide resistance. 

3. Be mindful of insecticide resistance. During last year’s Zika outbreak in Florida, the CDC reported that infection-control measures were not working as well as it had hoped, in part because mosquitoes had developed resistance to some of the chemicals used. Resistance was also a problem in Puerto Rico and other areas hard hit by the virus. 

What does this have to do with your yard?

The way that people control their pest situations—the chemicals that are sprayed and the way they are sprayed—can make the problem of resistance much better or much worse, says a CDC entomologist, Janet McAllister. So it’s important to make sure that any company you work with handles these chemicals responsibly.

A professional will know that rotating chemicals from year to year is a good way to prevent resistance from developing in a local insect population. 

Guide to Mosquito and Tick Diseases

Where Most Cases Occur
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Serious Side Effects

Symptoms appear

Treatments

Common Symptoms
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