The Best Bug-Killing Gear

The Fly Web fly light, BugZooka bug vacuum and Executioner bug zapper are your best bets in the war on household bugs. The Fly Web will passively catch flies while you sleep, while the Executioner lets you stun or kill flying bugs. For removing spiders, the BugZooka is your weapon. These three devices should cover most of your casual bug-removal needs.

Last Updated: July 17, 2014
We refreshed this guide by beefing up the mosquitoes section with more research, adding two more suggestions for keeping mosquitoes at bay (oscillating fan and yellow bug light), and reporting back on our (failed) attempts to grow carnivorous plants.
Expand Previous Updates
August 27, 2013: We finished some mosquito repelling/killing research for our anti-bug piece. It took a little longer than we would have liked but it's better to get your supplies ready before the next mosquito season starts so we figured we would post it now.

Unless you’re an entomologist, you’re probably not super excited about having bugs in your house. Whether spiders, flies, roaches, centipedes or ants, your first instinct is to get rid of them immediately. The old wad-of-paper-towel-smushing-it-against-the-wall method has some serious drawbacks. For one thing, it requires you to get within arm’s length of the bug, and that can be a real problem depending on your level of bugphobia. It also tends to leave a residue of bug guts all over your wall—or, in the case of centipedes, a dozen still-twitching legs that will haunt your nightmares for the rest of your natural life. Your segmented visitors don’t always hang out in easy to reach places, either.

It’s entirely possible to eradicate insects and arachnids from your home or camper without touching, smushing or even killing them.
Luckily, enterprising primates that we are, humans have devised a vast and varied array of devices designed to overcome one or more of these problems. It’s entirely possible to eradicate insects and arachnids from your home or camper without touching, smushing or even killing them. There are passive devices that attract and trap bugs, vacuums that let you catch and release if you’re so inclined and some truly bizarre high-powered anti-bug products.

One thing any exterminator will tell you, though, is that if you have an indoor bug problem, all the swatting, zapping, sucking and trapping in the world will just be a temporary fix. You have to find the source of the problem and remove it, whether it’s a nest, a source of moisture or food in your kitchen drain. All of the exterminators I spoke to said that any serious infestation requires two steps to resolve: identify the pest, then remove the source. Scott Armbrust, entomologist and owner of Littleton, Colorado’s Rid-A-Pest Exterminators, told me: “The first step in fly control is proper identification of the pest fly. There are many university web sites that you can access for this.” Examples include Texas A&M, Iowa State, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Luis Pabon, technical director of Catseye Pest Control in Albany, New York, agreed on the importance of identification: “Identify the fly to determine what its source is. Most fly issues are related to sanitation. Once you have correctly identified the fly the solution is fairly easy to determine.”

That said, taking care of an errant fly or roach is easy enough with the tools we’ve tested.

Why no sprays, ant or roach traps, mosquito or tick repellants or other chemical anti-bug recommendations?

For sure, bug sprays, ant and roach traps and other anti-insect products are effective, but we’re just not ready to get into the kind of research that involves making sure stuff with hardcore chemicals are worth it. We’ll get to other types of insect killing gear over time, though. Consider this guide a starter. We just added sections on mosquitoes. In the coming weeks, we’ll probably get into some roach and ant gear.

Where’s the data?

Well there isn’t any. Nobody reviews these things, which is a shame because it’s something almost everyone could use (or already does). In light of the lack of traditional published sources, we turned to experienced exterminators and entomologists, following up with our own testing to find conclusions.

To separate the brilliant devices from the crap, I ordered an entire arsenal of traps, guns and vacuums. The mere sight of it sent every insect within five miles running for the hills. I still plan to build a suit of power armor to holster all of these devices at once, but for now I just tested them individually (imagine how different Starship Troopers would be if they just dropped giant glue traps on Klendathu).

Active anti-bug devices

These devices are less about controlling an infestation than about taking out that one fly or spider that’s freaking you out right now. When you want a bug in your house dead and gone, you want action. It was tough to compare these devices quantitatively, but they certainly offer plenty of swatting, zapping, shooting and sucking options.

Bug zapper

More effective and less messy than a flyswatter, it is best for flying or juicy insects.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $18.
The Executioner costs $18 at Amazon and is the weapon of choice for actively hunting down insects that fly or that have too much volume to squish without making a gooey mess. It’s more effective and less messy than a fly swatter and will let you take out bugs in a variety of circumstances. It’s also super fun to use.

The larger, more powerful Executioner PRO seems to be discontinued; it’s no longer available at Amazon, and prices at other online retailers range from $40 to $80 (which is far too much for this sort of thing). A less expensive model, the Amazing Handheld Bug Zapper, was DOA and appeared to be very flimsy. I also checked out the Dynazap DZ30100, which is shaped more like a traditional fly swatter than a tennis racket. In the end, the Executioner won out by virtue of a 4.4-star Amazon user rating from over 100 total reviews.

This tennis-racket-shaped device electrocutes flying insects, killing or stunning them so you can clean them up without making a mess. Though made of plastic, it’s sturdily built and runs on included AA batteries. Of the tennis-racket-shaped bug zappers available, this one had favorable reviews (78 5-star reviews out of 105 total on Amazon) and no indication that it’s prone to falling apart. Editor Brian Lam has used one of these in Hawaii with great success to stun half a dozen large roaches and another half dozen flies and mosquitoes (and beetles) before flushing them down the drain. The greatest benefit is that you’re catching roaches without having to squash them. Roach guts stink and stain.

I stumbled across another use for tennis-racket-style bug zappers while talking to an avid gardener from Tennessee on a recent flight. She told me that some gardeners use them by holding them flat and scraping or shaking bugs off of plants onto the electric grid. This allows you to kill harmful pests infesting your plants without using pesticides.

To begin testing, I pressed the button and touched the grid. It makes a satisfying pop and gives you a spicy jolt. I’ve heard reports of more painful jolts, but the main thing: don’t touch the zapping grid when you’ve got the safety buttons activated. It is definitely effective at stunning or killing flying bugs, including one sad fly who got fried into the grid itself. I also took down a yellowjacket.

I was skeptical of this device at first, but after testing I can see how useful it would be at a backyard picnic troubled by wasps. Usually, swatting at a hornet or wasp just makes it angry, but the Executioner will stun it so you can get rid of it without risk of being stung.

Flyswatter

A classic flyswatter that gets the job done without the gimmicks.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $2.
The Willert Home Products R38 metal flyswatter is my swatter of choice. It’s a well-made, simple flyswatter for only $2. If you only get a fly in your house occasionally, this might be the tool for you. Yes, it has drawbacks (like the mess it incurs). But it’s simple to use and doesn’t need batteries. Think of it as a less fun, more messy budget alternative to the zapper above.

In reading numerous user reviews, I found that plastic flyswatters break easily and don’t have as much snap as the metal kind. I ordered a metal-handled swatter and gave some things around my garage a good whacking (there weren’t many flies around that day). I really beat the crap out of this thing and it didn’t break, although the joint between the swatter and the handle did loosen a bit.

With a 20″ length, the flyswatter has an effective range of a foot or more, depending on how far you choke up on your grip. It will certainly splatter anything you kill with it, though, and I should note that vigorous swatting did actually scratch the paint off of a metal door. So if you’re the type to really lay into the flies, you might do some household damage.

Tracking down a fly to swat is much more difficult with a traditional swatter than with the Executioner. You have to stalk the fly and wait until it’s at rest on a suitable swatting surface. With the Executioner, you can just sort of hold the “kill zone” of the racket above the fly. With practice, you can position it so the fly tends to fly right into it. Plus, flyswatters splatter flies all over the wall, possibly sending fly guts into your nearby dinner. Zapper-type swatters don’t cause this problem. So if you’re serious about bug hunting, you probably want to upgrade your fly killing tech from the basic swatter.

BugZooka

Perfect for slower bugs or hard-to-reach critters like spiders.
BugZooka ($29 at Amazon) is also a bug vacuum. I recommend it for dealing with crawling bugs in your house, mostly spiders. (Centipedes are probably too quick.) I chose BugZooka to test among all the other bug vacuums on the market because it doesn’t require batteries. It’s entirely pneumatic. There’s a bellows on one end and the other end is open. To use it, you collapse the bellows, which is resisted by a spring mechanism. When you push the bellows in all the way, it clicks and locks into place. It’s easy to do by simply pressing the bellows against your hip. When you press the release button, the spring pushes the bellows open quickly, creating a small but powerful puff of suction at the open end.

In testing, the suction of the BugZooka was significantly stronger than the Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum. It was able to pick up several ants with no difficulty. Despite the stronger suction, the only harm to the ants came when I accidentally mangled them with the end of the BugZooka. Although it doesn’t have a built-in magnifying lens, the Bugzooka does have a nice clear collection chamber (with a spare), so you can use it to observe your catches. It’s easier to remove bugs from the collection chamber when you’re done (compared to the Bug Vacuum), because you can pump the bellows a few times to blow them out.

BugZooka has a lot going for it. The telescoping tubes give it an effective range of two feet, which should be enough to reach high corners where spiders like to hide out. It doesn’t smoosh bugs, and while it doesn’t come with the cutesy patch and book like the Bug Vacuum, it would still be a good way to collect and observe bugs with curious children. The pneumatic operation means that it’s always ready for action. If it’s been four months and you suddenly spot a bug, you won’t be stuck with dead batteries. It even comes with a wall-mounted bracket for storage.

The one problem I see with BugZooka is the fragility of the bellows. The main body is plastic and well-made, but the bellows is a sort of soft rubberized plastic. The folds of the bellows seem especially prone to wear. Once you put a hole in it, the BugZooka isn’t going to function anymore. That said, after more than a week of on-and-off testing sucking up ants and spiders in my yard, mine’s still going strong.

Bug-A-Salt

A bit expensive, but the Bug-A-Salt is fun to use---even if it can be difficult to aim.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $35.
The Bug-A-Salt ($35 at Amazon) is an impressive device. It’s basically a mini shotgun that fires common table salt. The salt just acts like buckshot, stunning the bug with the impact. The whole thing is really well-made. The hard plastic body has some weight to it and feels very solid. It also uses a very cinematic pump action that feels oddly satisfying as you unleash your fury on whatever terrorist bugs are in your airspace. And though it’s not listed in the instructions, you are required to come up with your own catchphrase to shout whenever you fire it. Mine: “You’ve been iodized!”

As awesome as the Bug-A-Salt is (and it’s really an ingenious device for firing salt out of a toy gun), it has limited effectiveness as a bug stopper. I had a hard time figuring out a way to gauge its range, because it’s really difficult to see where a pile of salt lands and how hard it hit. Then I found a patch of peppermint plants in my yard that would shake under the force of a salt blast, so by noting which plants shook I could tell how far the salt had shot.

Beyond six feet, you’ve basically discovered the world’s most elaborate way to season french fries.
Based on those tests, I’d judge the Bug-A-Salt to have an effective range of three feet. At six feet, the salt spreads out into a wide shotgun blast that doesn’t have much impact. Beyond six feet, you’ve basically discovered the world’s most elaborate way to season french fries.

That brings us to the Bug-A-Salt’s first problem. It shoots salt everywhere. This wasn’t a huge deal in my garage, but if you plan on taking out some bogies in your living room, there will be some cleanup involved. Each individual shot doesn’t put out a ton of salt (see photo below), but once you click-click-boom a few times, things get pretty salty.

The remnants of either a Bug-A-Salt shot or a kitchen accident.

The remnants of either a Bug-A-Salt shot or a kitchen accident.

Another problem: at close range, the salt tends to bounce around. Including back into your eyes. So wear safety goggles, I guess. Curious about direct hits, I shot myself in the hand to see if it hurts. It stings a bit, similar to snapping a rubberband on your skin. No big deal.

At one point, a small fly started buzzing around the garage while I was testing this thing. It never landed anywhere for a clear shot, so I just started working the pump action and trying to blast that fly into a world of salty hurt. I think one shot mildly annoyed the fly and made it change direction in mid-air. But even well within the effective range, I was unable to take the fly down. Later, I did knock a fly off of a garbage can from three feet. It took a few tries to dial my aim in, but eventually the fly got overconfident and I sent him tumbling to the driveway below. Imagine it happening in slow motion with Ennio Morricone music playing in the background.

The most ideal scenario for the Bug-A-Salt is to blast flies that are trying to land on food, since it’ll have the effect of seasoning your meal, too.

Passive Traps

These anti-bug devices sit there quietly, catching bugs with no direct action on your part. Most designs involve sticky paper to trap the bugs, and optionally may use a light or sweet liquid to attract them.

To find out which glue trap works best, I set up a fly light, a hanging paper strip and a window trap in the same area (my garage). The hanging paper strip was placed near the window to try to maximize the chance of a fly getting stuck there. The light was about 10 feet away from the window. This was an admittedly unscientific test, but after a week the Fly Web fly light was a clear winner. At night, the fly light was the only light source in the garage, and that drew in four to five times as many bugs as the other traps. The only drawback is that a few hot days melted a bit of the glue, which left some goop and a few dead bugs down in the light’s casing, in an area not easy to clean out.

Fly Web

If manual swatting is too much of a time sink, this is the best passive option for flies.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $30.
This is my top pick among passive fly traps. The cost ($25 at Amazon) is quite reasonable, and it won the head-to-head fly trap battle in my garage.

The fly light is yet another variant on the glue trap. The glue is stuck to a piece of cardboard which is slotted into a fluorescent light. Plug it in and it provides a light source to draw in bugs, which then get stuck to the trap. This seems like a fine idea and it allows you to catch bugs overnight, when the Fly Web is the only light source in the area and thus attractive to insects.

User reviews mostly praise it for its effectiveness and ease of use. Amazon user Kip described a typical usage scenario: “I bought three flyweb units and loads of sticky window tape. The window stuff worked just OK but the flyweb unit filled so quickly that I had to change the cards every day — even after I vacuumed and swatted the first wave of flies. By day three we were essentially fly-less. I’m buying more units tonight! These units work best at night when they are not competing with natural light. But at night you really can’t have these in your bedroom as they throw off quite a lot of light. I move them from room to room and close the shades. You want the flies to see only this light, get attracted to it, bounce around and finally get caught. Pure statistics.”

Some fly lights look like regular lighting fixtures that you’d mount to a ceiling or wall. Others plug directly into an outlet, like the one I tested. There are also standalone lights with a short cord that can plug into an extension cord. These units are suited for catching flies in places without convenient outlets, or where you want to position the light in a really specific place to maximize flycatching potential.

The price jump to other fly lights is significant—some models cost more than $100. While this light is small, it gets the job done, and you can simply change out the glue card when it gets full. If your fly problem is so bad that you need a larger fly light, you probably want to go with an exterminator instead.

The fly light is an ideal way to deal with an indoor infestation where you can control the light.
The fly light is an ideal way to deal with an indoor infestation where you can control the light, like an attic or other well-curtained room. At night, whatever flies are bugging you will be drawn to this thing like moths to a flame (it will totally catch moths too) and get stuck in the glue for easy disposal. Professional exterminator and owner of asktheexterminator.com Rick Steinau particularly recommends these traps for stinkbug infestations, as they trap and kill the bugs without squishing them and releasing their foul smell.

“To trap flies, the best but most expensive route is to install flying insect light traps. Many types of light traps are available, but the most effective ones may cost several hundred dollars,” said Armbrust. Bigger lights (with bigger glue boards) would theoretically catch more flies, but my testing shows you don’t need an expensive system to catch a ton of flies in a short time.

Glass fly trap

Use this if you have a fruit fly problem to take care of.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.
Glass fly traps have been in use at least since the early 1800s—in fact, there’s a whole subset of antique collecting that seeks out hand-blown glass fly traps. They come in many shapes, but all work on the same principle: sweet fluid attracts flies in, and clever design (a curved inside lip) keeps them in forever.

The Springstar Glass Fruit Fly Trap is $13. It’s our pick because it looks less macabre than fly paper, has positive user reviews, tested well and isn’t expensive.

As its name indicates, this particular model is intended to trap fruit flies, and it comes with a packet of fruit fly bait. However, you can just as easily use sugar water (or even a bit of sugary soda) and it will attract other kinds of flies. Just be careful not to place it outside where it might trap honeybees.

To test it, we set it up in a science teacher’s classroom that had a problem with fruit flies. Unfortunately, a cold spell killed off most of the flies, but the trap still managed to collect a few. It also won the prize for best looking bug-killing device. Multiple people remarked on how nice it looked, not even realizing it was anything other than a glass ornament or suncatcher.

If $13 is too steep, or you’d like a more streamlined design, you can make your own fly trap out of a soda bottle.

Catchmaster window traps

A budget-friendly fly paper for catching anything from house flies to fruit flies.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $5.
I recommend these passive traps for locations where you have one or two windows that flies are attracted to, like an attic or garage. A 4 pack costs $4.32 at Amazon. There aren’t as many varieties of window traps as you’ll find for hanging paper traps. I chose the Catchmaster over the Black Flag window traps due to a huge difference in the number of positive Amazon user reviews (Black Flag got very positive reviews, but not nearly as many overall, and their traps cost about a dollar more).

These act on the same general principle as the fly paper, but some differences in the design make them much easier to use and potentially more effective. Instead of a hanging ribbon, each trap is a flat and transparent piece that can be stuck to a window. They’re much easier to apply—you just peel off the backing, stick it to the window, then peel off the other backing. While not completely invisible, they’re a lot less unsightly than the hanging ribbon traps. Sticking them to a window also provides a form of attractant. Flies are drawn to light, which is why you often find them buzzing around windows. How well this truly works depends on how many other windows/light sources are around.

Armbrust offered a slightly unorthodox use of flat sticky traps — on the floor to catch crawling bugs. “You will catch the most spiders by placing the traps on the floor directly in contact with a wall,” he told me, suggesting you could even use mouse glue traps for this purpose.

I stuck one to the outside of my garage window so it would be easier to see it in the photo below. You’d obviously tend to use them on the inside. I was worried that the window side would be a full sticky panel that might be hard to remove or leave a residue. In fact, there’s only a thin strip of adhesive sticking it to the window. It came off easily and did not leave a residue.

In the glue trap showdown, the window trap came in second, catching small flies and one spider. It performed slightly better than the TAT paper trap, and significantly worse than the fly light.

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are pesky little creatures. Most products and methods that claim to get rid of them simply don’t work. We’ll get more into why later. The most effective mosquito prevention is a simple, five-pronged approach: source reduction, larvicide, repellant for your clothing, repellant for your body and a physical barrier.

Remove the source

For source reduction, the best product is your own eyes: “If there are any places in the yard that have items that have the potential to hold water, it’s best to remove them or modify them so that they drain water,” says C. Roxanne Connelly, an entomologist at the University of Florida and president of the American Mosquito Control Association. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, so any water might be host to thousands of larvae, soon to be thousands of mosquitoes, who will then bite you. Now’s the time for a good gutter cleaning—Connelly says the gutter along the roof is one of the more commonly-missed spots for mosquito breeding, along with kids toys left in the rain, sagging tarps, old tires, plant saucers “and the list goes on,” she says. Joe Conlon, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, also recommends changing water in birdbaths, plant pots or drip trays at least once weekly. Anywhere water collects should be modified to drain or removed completely.

If you can't remove the standing water mosquitoes are using to breed, this is a great, non-toxic larvacide that should stop the problem at its source.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
But some bodies of water can’t or shouldn’t be removed completely, including natural features like lakes, ponds or slow-moving rivers. For those, Connelly and the other experts we spoke with recommend a larvicide—particularly Mosquito Bits—as the best option after source reduction. Mosquito Bits are the baby brother of Mosquito Dunks, and work better for most consumer applications, like birdbaths, ponds or other small, permanent standing water sources. (If you’re managing a large body of water, switch to the Dunks.) They’re tiny, made up of a piece of corn covered in Bti, or Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a naturally-occurring bacterium that’s remarkably nontoxic: According to the Washington State Department of Health, no negative effects have been noticed in animals that have ingested large concentrations of Bti, including mammals, birds and fish. “My garden has proudly been certified a National Wildlife Habitat and every life form that uses my pond THRIVES,” said reviewer Jeni Rein on Amazon. Some humans have experienced mild irritation after handling, although that effect is very rare—either way, we recommend you wear gloves while handling them. Better safe than sorry.

With more than 100 reviews on Amazon and a 4.4-star review, people generally agree that, when used properly, Bits are the best way to keep the mosquito population in your yard down, some reviewers saying the larvae died within a few hours. However, they only work when the larvae are actively feeding (which means they’ll do nothing to live mosquitoes in the water), because they work by releasing deadly toxins into the gut. That means you’ll need to re-apply frequently—Summit Chemical, the manufacturer of the Bits, recommends re-applying biweekly. But barring commercial products not intended for home use, it’s the most effective way of inhibiting larvae growth.

Fans and bug lights

This fan can sit on the floor or on a table, is whisper-quiet, and circulates air effectively up to 50 feet away.
The American Mosquito Control Association says an easy method of  keeping mosquitoes at bay is simply making it harder for them to get near you: “Mosquitoes are relatively weak fliers, so placing a large fan on your deck can provide a low-tech solution.” Fans move air faster than mosquitoes can fly, and keeping the air moving around you also has the benefit of dissipating bodily scents that attract mosquitoes in the first place. Use an oscillating fan (or box fan, but oscillating is better), which you may already have on hand. If you don’t, we recommend the Vornado 660, which has been our pick for best fan for several years running. The 660 moves a lot of air and is super quiet.

Just having lights on can attract mosquitoes too. Since mosquitoes don’t see some colors one the spectrum, one solution is to install yellow bug lights in place of whatever bulbs you have illuminating your outdoor space. The lights don’t actively repel bugs, but mosquitoes’ eyes don’t pick up yellow light, so you at least won’t be alerting them you’re out on the back deck just by flipping on the lights. Many of the biggest light bulb brands offer them in several wattage options.

Spray repellant for skin

The next step is often, unfortunately, people’s first step: repellant. For consistent, effective and long-lasting protection, there are really only three options, and only two really good ones: DEET and picaridin. (All-natural lemon-eucalyptus, the only natural option that was cited by both Connelly and Conlon, has been lab-tested to provide about two hours of protection.)

“There are a great many chemicals that exhibit varying degrees of repellancy to mosquitoes,” Conlon said. “The problem is having them remain effective for a requisite length of time to make them useful repellents. In addition, many of those exhibiting repellent characteristics, like oil of cloves, only do so at high concentrations”—concentrations where their odor often becomes “extremely problematic.” Most all-natural solutions require very frequent reapplication, as often as every 15-30 minutes. Formulations requiring that much reapplication increase the number of steps to complete protection: If you forget to reapply or leave the repellant at the house for a 30-minute hike, the number of mosquito bites you’ll receive will increase as soon as the all-natural repellant loses efficacy.

DEET and picaridin are mostly equal in effectiveness. Although DEET may have a bad reputation (DEET is a solvent, so it can melt plastic and any synthetic materials), the US National Library of Medicine’s MedLine Plus says “When used as directed in low doses, DEET is relatively not harmful.” Formulations with more than 50 percent DEET should be avoided, as they can cause skin reactions when used over a long period of time, and children over two should use a product with 7.5 percent or less (children under two shouldn’t use DEET). Just don’t ingest it, and don’t spray it near open wounds.

Picaridin is relatively safe and considered essentially nontoxic, according to the National Pesticide Information Center, although it can also cause some skin irritation as well. A good repellant should have between 20 and 30 percent DEET, which should last about four hours, or around 15 percent picaridin; it should also be water-resistant, last at least 2 hours and keep the off-putting smells to a minimum. Any repellant with 20-plus percent DEET should be effective. Beyond that, it’s just sorting out the nitty-gritty.

Less pungent than other DEET sprays but still effective, earning top points from Consumer Reports.
For DEET-based repellants, we recommend Backwoods Cutter Unscented. It’s pretty cheap ($8 for a bottle) and was among the top-rated repellants at Consumer Reports where it earned the highest score, a 98. Their reviewers found it to be effective at repelling mosquitoes and ticks for more than eight hours. It has 23 percent DEET and is sweat-proof and water-resistant (all repellants should be reapplied more frequently if you’re spending much time in the water). That “unscented” label might be a bit of a misnomer, as any DEET-based bugspray is going to have some hint of chemical smell, but it’s less pungent than other options. Amazon reviewers have seen good results in the British Virgin Islands and Haiti and some protection against no-see-ums (or biting midges, depending on what part of the country you hail from).

This cream-based repellant lasts longer than sprays and our Assistant Editor recommends it highly after he took it on a trip to Cambodia.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $9.
If you need something that will last you all day, pick up the 3M Ultrathon. It’s cream-based, so it’ll feel a little slimier to the skin, but our Assistant Editor Michael Zhao used it on a trip to Cambodia and found it “super effective.” If you’re heading into the marshes or on a long trip where reapplying will be difficult, this is your best bet. “I wouldn’t recommend anything short of it for going to malaria infested areas, frankly,” he says.

Nearly as effective as DEET but less smelly and less irritating. If malaria isn't an issue, this will do the trick.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.
DEET still make you uneasy? According to Conlon, picaridin is one of the most widely-used repellants outside of the United States and “nearly” as effective as DEET, without causing the same level of skin irritation. It only became available stateside in 2005. It’s a synthetic compound that resembles piperine, a natural compound found in plants that produce black pepper. We still think a DEET-based repellent is the best choice, but if you’re determined to use something else, we recommend Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard plus Picaridin. It can be a little hard to find—the Amazon listing we’ve linked to sells through a third-party seller—but check your local drugstore, too. Reviewers say it isn’t greasy, its water-resistance is effective and its smell is neutral. If you’re headed to a mosquito-heavy part of the world, pick up the 3M (or at least the Cutter Backwoods); if you’re having a backyard party or going on a hike in the woods, this will do the DEET-less trick.

Repellant for fabrics

The next layer required for complete coverage is permethrin, a pesticide that works on fabrics—i.e., clothing and nets. There are two ways to go about this: Either with a spray, or in permethrin-soaked clothing. Permethrin isn’t safe for use on the skin, but it’s very potent when used on fabric, and retains potent for up to two weeks, even through laundering. Permethrin for the clothing, which kills mosquitoes if they eat or touch it, and DEET for the skin, which essentially works by making skin “invisible,” creates a potent combination and allows for virtually mosquito-free meandering.

The Department of Defense uses permethrin to “impregnate battle dress uniforms for the operational forces in order to protect the troops from anthropod-borne diseases overseas,” Conlon says. He used the clothing when he was in the Navy, deployed with the Marines in Desert Shield and in jungle environments. “They worked wonderfully and I would highly recommend them,” he said.

“They would not be using something that they had not tested and found to be effective,” Connelly said, although she said she hasn’t tested permethrin personally. “I have seen results that show that permethrin-treated fabrics are effective.” Permethrin kills all bothersome flying insects, plus ticks and mites.

You can always spray on your own fabric repellant but these have it built into the fabric and it should last for 70-plus washes.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $20 - $50.
You can either buy clothing pretreated with permethrin or treat it yourself with spray at home. Pretreated clothing is safer, especially for cat-owners, as permethrin can be fatal to felines. We recommend ExOfficio clothing, which comes recommended by Backpacker: You can find it in almost any shape, size or color you desire for not too much money, as prices start at ~$30. Here’s a men’s and women’s long-sleeved tee, both with excellent ratings on Amazon. Reviewers have used it everywhere from Belize to Africa, and say using the clothing and DEET together is far superior to even a 100% DEET spray. And they’ll last much longer than when you treat your clothing yourself, with the ExOfficio website claiming it will remain effective for 70-plus washings. Even taking that as a wee bit generous, that’s still a long span of mosquito-free time.

Applying repellant to fabric yourself won't last as long as specialty fabric (six washes vs 70 washes), but it still works the same.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $10 - $34.
For self-treating fabrics, the best option is Sawyer Premium permethrin spray, which lasts six weeks or six washings. It also comes recommended via Phil Paoletta, an African travel expert and one of the editors for Sick on the Road. Make sure the clothing dries completely before using, as the wet fabric can be heavy or greasy—not to mention that it is fatal to cats (and mildly toxic to fish and humans) before drying. According to Backpacker, one $16 24-ounce bottle is enough for four sets of shirts, pants and socks—enough to cover most of the summer. Before camping, spray it on tents for all-night protection.

Tents, netting, and other shields

And then there are the physical barriers: nets. You can either purchase a tent-like net for camping, which can be set up on cots or just on the ground, or you can purchase a personal headnet. It depends on your needs—if you’re just hiking and you’re not traveling in mosquito-infested areas or intending to sleep outdoors, you’ll just need a headnet. If you’re traveling or sleeping outside, you’ll also want a personal tent-style net.

If all you need is a personal headnet, this one fits over most hats and will keep mosquitoes at bay.
For a personal headnet, we recommend Outdoor Research’s Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet, which costs $20 and keeps out mosquitoes, gnats and no-see-ums. It fits over most hats—Tilley hats are great—and it’s lightweight and compact enough to fold up into your pack when you don’t need it. It’s great for gardening or any other casual outdoor activities, although you might look a bit silly if you wear it to a party.

For some extra protection, a full-on tent solution like this works great with a mosquito net on the inside and rain protection on the outside.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $71.
The best larger, tent-style net is the Kamp-Rite Insect Protection System, which costs $73; it’s essentially a full-on tent with a mosquito net inside and full rain protection. If you’re somewhere with a lot of mosquitoes (and are planning on sleeping by yourself), this is a good swap for your regular camping tent. Although it’s a full tent, it’s still small enough to fit on top of any military cot. IntrepidXJ’s review at Backcountry Post says it’s large enough to fit someone taller than 6’, perfect for car camping. It’s also incredibly versatile. Since it has sturdy legs, you can set it up on rocky ground or anywhere else you might not want to set a tent otherwise.

There are a few products that might be worth checking out, but right now, neither research nor our entomologist experts aren’t quite sold yet: the Off! Clip-On and the ThermaCELL. Backpacker reviewed them both with decent results, but we’re not ready to recommend them without further testing and researchers. As of yet, they aren’t proven in a lab. Amazon reviews of the Clip-On are mostly critical, with a few successes; the ThermaCELL looks to be a better bet, but some report it doesn’t work in breezy conditions, and others are worried about its toxicity. With such mixed reviews, we can’t yet make a serious recommendation.

EHHHHHHHHHHHH (skip this stuff)

Homemade mosquito remedies

So what doesn’t work? In short, almost everything. Susan Paskewitz at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a thorough site debunking most of the urban mosquito myths: home remedies like garlic, vitamin B, catnip oil and alcohol; sonic and ultrasonic devices; the citrosa plant; and carbon dioxide-baited traps.

Citronella candles

Citronella and geraniol candles provide some reduction in mosquito bites, but not enough to truly call them “effective.” Suit up with DEET and permethrin—don’t waste money on weak candles.

Mosquito foggers

Home mosquito foggers, yard spray and mists get rid of mosquitoes, but at great risk and expense. First, they’re indiscriminate: They’ll kill mosquitoes, sure, but they’ll also kill other bugs and critters beneficial to the ecosystem. Second, used by non-professionals, they’re responsible for the release of too much unnecessary insecticide into the environment. Third: According to Paskewitz’s site, many of the systems have no safeguards to prevent against misuse of pesticide. And fourth, their usage promotes insecticide resistance—which could create harder-to-kill, stronger mosquito breeds in the future. No one needs that.

Zappers for mosquitoes

As for zappers (a.k.a ”insect electrocution devices”): they work, but they’re also indiscriminate. According to the AMCA’s FAQ, while they attract and kill thousands of bugs, “mosquitoes comprised merely 4.1% and 6.4% respectively of the daily catch over an entire season. Even more important was the finding in both studies that there was no significant difference in the number of mosquitoes found in yards with or without bug zappers.”

With high hopes, we tested out the Dynatrap DT1200 Flying Insect Eliminator. However, our tester, Travis Hudson, said, “it didn’t do much for immediate deterrent. While I was setting it up, and with it running, I received two bites while sitting within four feet of the thing.” Out of the 30-40 bugs it caught in an evening, about half were mosquitoes, and the others were as varied as wasps and junebugs. And in the grand scheme of things, 30-40 bugs is a teeny tiny portion of a yard’s bug community. But “this thing stinks as a deterrent,” Hudson says.

Fly shooter

The Martin Paul Fly Shooter is a novelty item that isn’t effective at killing flies or other bugs. It costs $6 at Amazon, possibly worth it if you just want to shoot a plastic disc at your little brother.

This is sort of a spring-loaded flyswatter. The mechanism is simple: a tube with a spring inside and a round fly-killing surface mounted to it. It clicks into place and a trigger releases the spring, firing the whole tube. It will go about 12 feet total, but beyond six feet it won’t really have any serious impact. The effective range is closer to four feet, but it comes with a string that keeps the swatting head and tube connected to the gun. The string is 32 inches long.

Unfortunately, this would not be effective at killing anything. The swatter part doesn’t fly through the air with the swatting surface facing forward—it tumbles, making any bug kills a matter of dumb luck. On the positive side, while the spring is quite strong, it doesn’t hurt to get shot with, though I wouldn’t want to get hit in the eye.

Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum

*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
Better suited for a kid's science lesson than any serious bug removal.
The Summit Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum, $14 at Amazon, is well-made but not very effective at bug removal. Pass on this, unless you’re trying to collect samples for your kid’s science fair.

This is marketed as a children’s toy and not necessarily as a means to remove bugs from your home. It’s shaped like a gun, and when you pull the trigger a small vacuum motor applies suction. A bug at the open end is sucked into a clear chamber which can be toggled shut so the bug doesn’t crawl back out. The vacuum’s range extends about ten inches from your hand.

There are a lot of advantages to a device like this. It lets you remove bugs without making a mess, and you can release them outdoors without killing them if that’s your thing. If you have kids, it’s also a great way to teach them a bit about science. It comes with a Bug Wrangler patch and a pop-up insect identification book. The small “gate” that seals the collection chamber shut is actually a magnifying lens. You can remove the chamber and look through the lens for a close view at whatever you caught. There’s an extra chamber, too, so you can have one bug in storage while you’re hunting for more. The gun itself is made of sturdy, heavy plastic that should stand up to kids, though I’m sure dropping it onto concrete would crack it.

I placed the suction end directly on top of an ant and it was not sucked in.
As much as I wanted to like this, it suffers from some serious flaws. It runs on batteries (which are included) but you have to unscrew part of the case to get at them when they need changing. There’s a “laser” light attachment that’s useless but maybe makes it more fun for kids. The fatal flaw, though, is weak suction. I found some ants crawling around a fence in my yard, and the Bug Vacuum was hard pressed to draw any of them up into the chamber. I grabbed one or two, but one of them crawled back out while I was still pulling the trigger. In some cases I placed the suction end directly on top of an ant and it was not sucked in. These weren’t massive carpenter ants or anything—just your basic medium-sized yard ants.

I understand that to study insects, you need a fairly gentle way to collect them, but this is just too gentle. To be effective at all, you have to get right over the bug, and if the bug is anything faster or heavier than an ant, I doubt you’ll be able to collect it at all. Lack of suction seems to be a common problem among battery-powered bug vacuums—powerful vacuum motors draw lots of amps, more than a pair of AA batteries can provide. Plug-in rechargeable models have a better track record, working basically like a “Dustbuster.” In fact, a small rechargeable vacuum is another bug removal option if you’re not worried about rescuing or observing the bugs.

TAT Fly paper

*At the time of publishing, the price was $3.
In our tests it only caught a few fruit flies... pathetic.
This is the least effective passive fly trap, and as a result I don’t recommend it. You will catch flies with sticky paper traps under the right circumstances, especially if you have a severe and ongoing indoor infestation, but other passive traps work better. On the plus side, these things are dirt cheap—an 8 pack costs about $2 at Amazon.

Your basic glue trap is simply a length of paper coated with thick glue—flies that touch it are stuck and eventually die. It unravels into a long, twisted ribbon that you hang wherever flies are a problem. It has an effective range of zero, since it only works on flies that touch it. There’s no bait or scent to attract the flies, so you just have to hope they run into it by chance. On the other hand, they also don’t use poison to kill the flies, so you don’t have to worry about hanging anything toxic in your home. (I still wouldn’t eat the glue though; keep these away from kids and pets if only to avoid a truly astonishing mess.) There are also fly trap products that use a scented bait to attract flies. However, in my research I found that these products emit a very strong odor that’s unpleasant to humans, making them only suitable for outdoor use. Some of them suggest they can be used indoors, but user reviews almost universally complain about the smell.

There’s little to differentiate different brands of fly paper. It’s sticky, gluey paper coiled up, with a loop to hang it from. You can find nearly identical products from brands like PIC and Black Flag. I chose the TAT fly paper because it had the strongest Amazon reviews and because it was so inexpensive.

In testing, I found fly paper to be awkward to use (it can be tough unraveling the coiled paper without getting glue on your hands) and it’s not very visually appealing to have a fly-ridden thing hanging around. But fly paper has a long track record, and many people swear by it. It’s so inexpensive that you could hang a ton of these all over the place for less than $10 (it would still look terrible in your house, though). One of the exterminators I spoke to, entomologist Andrew Taylor of Clegg’s Termite & Pest Control in Durham, North Carolina, favors traditional trapping methods. “[The best fly trap] is based on the type of fly infestation. For fruit flies, vinegar traps work the best. For house flies, the fly strips tend to work most effectively.”

However, in the head-to-head glue trap test, the TAT paper trap came in last, only collecting a few small fruit flies.

Carnivorous plants

Why kill or trap bugs when you can grow some cool plants that will eat them for you? Unfortunately, carnivorous plants are notoriously difficult to grow, and growing them from seed takes a lot of time. The kit to grow them was relatively inexpensive ($15 or so), so I tried it out as an experiment last summer. Ours failed to grow at all, despite following the included instructions. Cultivating carnivorous plants is certainly a fun (and difficult) hobby, but a mail-order kit was probably not the best way to go. A local horticulture club might be a better place to start. In the end, this is not really going to be an effective way to control indoor bugs even if you do get a few plants to grow.

Wrapping it up

Some of these are clearly just toys meant for amusement. When it comes to seriously taking out bugs, the key is to use the right tool for the right job. The BugZooka is your best bet for indoor critters crawling along walls or ceilings that are hard to reach. The Executioner will let you swat flying bugs with a fierce little zap. The Fly Web fly light is an ideal passive trap for trimming the bug population while you sleep, and classic fruit fly traps can accomplish a similar job while looking pretty.

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Sources

  1. Scott Armbrust, Email Interview, June 25, 2013
    “The first step in fly control is proper identification of the pest fly. There are many university web sites that you can access for this. For house flies, the first thing that you want to do is make sure that all of your window screens fit properly and are not torn. House flies are also attracted to cool air during the hot summer months, so pay special attention to the basement window screens. Flies are also enter the home down chimneys as they are attracted to cold air that comes out when the air conditioner is running. Make sure that your fire place damper is closed. If you have metallic colored flies, these are usually bottle flies that breed in dead animals that may be in the chimney or your crawl space. For these flies, you will probably need to hire a professional exterminator. To trap flies, the best, but most expensive route is to install flying insect light traps. Many types of light traps are available, but the most effective ones may cost several hundred dollars.”
  2. Luis Pabon, Email Interview, June 25, 2013
    “All of these [passive] devices will attract the adult fly however it will not solve the problem if you have not removed their breeding sites. Paper traps can be messy as can the jar traps.

 Screen your windows and doors. A good strong vacuum with a hepa-filter is one of the most effective non-chemical approaches. Bug zappers may sound cool when they work but will send body parts flying into the air. If you want to use an insect fly trap purchase those that draw them near and then catches them on a sticky trap on the bottom of it. This type is rated for commercial kitchens.”
  3. Rick Steinau, Stink Bugs In the House, Ask the Exterminator
    “Want to get the stink bugs into a trap? The best way to do this is by installing an insect light trap in the attics. The light traps have black light bulbs that give off ultra-violet (UV) rays that attract insects. The UV light spectrum is much brighter than daylight and the bugs can’t wait to get to it. The traps come in two varieties. One type is has an electrical grid. When the bug crawls inside it comes in contact with the grid and it gets zapped. The other type of light trap employs glue boards. The insect is attracted to the lights, but encounters a sticky surface and becomes stuck as it enters the light fixture. Either type works and it will greatly reduce stink bug populations hiding in the dark attic spaces.”
  4. Andrew Taylor, Email Interview, June 25, 2013
    “Stick with what works, the fly swatter has been in use for as long as I can remember and it still works very effectively.”
  • kashirat

    You should mention the best ‘fly swatter’ that most people already have in their home – a vacuum cleaner with a telescoping head. Better than buying any other special gadgets to try to clean up the buggies.

  • eaadams

    This is what makes the wirecutter/sweethome great. I never thought about this stuff but I actually do need some of these things. I live in Davis, CA next to a few 1000 acres of crops and tomatoes. When the tomatoes get ripe the entire town becomes infested with flies. These things may make my life more easy & I didn’t even know they were out there. awesome!

  • Justin Bell

    Did I miss what to do about ants?

  • David Lim

    One of my favorite ways to kill spiders is actually with a nerf gun. Yes, it leaves a splat, but I think of it as a trophy and warning to other spiders ;)

  • chimbleysweep

    We get lots of moths at night due to the old-fashioned storm windows that have a small opening at the bottom so that rain water can seep out. Turns out, they also let bugs in!

    I’m interested to see if those window strips will help.

  • http://edwardsung.com/ El Sabor Asiático

    I just want to note that the Executioner PRO appears to be available at Amazon as of this writing, priced at $29.95. I still ended up buying the regular Executioner, though, since I’m thinking the smaller, lighter racket will make for a faster, more precise swing. Also, I see several complaints in the PRO reviews of units dying after a few hours/days/weeks, which makes me wonder if that model has some technical flaws.

  • Justin Bell

    +1 for the Fly Web light trap. Best we have ever used.

  • ctchrisf

    nothing on the CO2 yard machines like mosquito magnet.
    we had one seemed fairly effective. the bag was quiet full.
    Although it was a PIA to get started.
    we purchased that about 10 years ago, was hoping they got better.

    http://www.amazon.com/Mosquito-Magnet-MM3300-Executive-Trap/dp/B001P82AHM/ref=sr_1_1?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1380823387&sr=1-1&keywords=mosquito+magnet

  • td99

    Harbor Freight has an electric fly swatter between $2.00 to $4.00. Mine has done wonders and we gave a bunch out as gifts. My friends were loving them.

    http://www.harborfreight.com/electronic-fly-swatter-40122.html

  • FarmEcol

    I, and may others I know, swear by the Thermacell.

    If you have ever been canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), or hunting in deep woods, you know that mosquitoes can be THICK, especially in low or no wind situations ( like campsites in the evening ).

    The Thermacell works great in these conditions. It really does create a bug free ‘zone’ around the unit. Of course, it will blow away if the wind comes up..but so do the bugs! However, this is true of any air-based system.

    • Mordy Baron

      I heartily agree. Skeeters love me, especially my ankles.Thanks to my Thermacell lantern I can now sit on my deck for hours. You just have to keep replacing the little repellant inserts.

  • Vera Comment

    “Plus, flyswatters splatter flies all over the wall, possibly sending fly guts into your nearby dinner. ”

    ..well, I have the Executioner. I guess if the fly is big enough and you hit it right, it pops.. fly pieces all over the place…