The Best Bug-Killing Gear

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Unless you’re an entomologist, you’re probably not superexcited about having bugs in your house. Whether spiders, flies, roaches, centipedes, or ants, your first instinct is likely to get rid of them immediately. To find the best bug-killing (and bug-deterring) gear available, we turned to experienced exterminators and entomologists, following up with our own testing on an arsenal of traps, swatters, repellents, and nets. Here are the best products and the smartest advice we’ve found on keeping bugs out of your life.

Last Updated: July 6, 2016
We’ve updated a few picks in this collective, including a new pick for our favorite fan and favorite insect repellent, to help you avoid all the things that sting and bite this summer.
Expand Most Recent Updates
August 11, 2015: We have a new, separate guide to the best bug repellant, which can be found here.
May 1, 2015: Removed our pick for best bug spray with DEET because it’s been discontinued. We are currently refreshing this guide for 2015, and finding a new bug spray pick will be one of our top priorities.
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.
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.

Table of contents

A handheld bug zapper

The Executioner is the weapon of choice for actively hunting down insects that fly or are too large to squish without making a 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 superfun to use.

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, especially when compared with the Amazing Handheld Bug Zapper, and runs on included AA batteries. Of the tennis-racket-shaped bug zappers available, this one had favorable reviews—4.1 stars (out of five) across 1,739 reviews on Amazon—and no indication that it’s prone to falling apart while being swung around the home.

While I was researching this piece, an avid gardener from Tennessee told me that some gardeners use electric swatters like the Executioner to scrape and shake smaller bugs off of plants onto the electric grid, which allows you to kill harmful pests infesting your plants without using pesticides.

The Executioner works on larger bugs as well. Wirecutter founder Brian Lam has used one 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 smell and can potentially stain fabrics).

During testing, I pressed the button and touched the grid to see how powerful the Executioner’s voltage was. And although it makes a satisfying pop and gives you a spicy jolt, it won’t leave you tased on the ground either: Its shock is more powerful than licking a battery, less powerful than a loose lamp wire. The main thing to remember is to not touch the zapping grid when you’ve got the safety buttons activated.

A flyswatter

If you want an old-fashioned solution, or you just like killing flies, the Enoz Wire Mesh Head Fly Swatter is my swatter of choice. It’s a well-made, simple, and inexpensive flyswatter. If you only get the occasional fly in your house, this is the tool for you. Yes, it has drawbacks (like the mess it creates). But it’s simple to use and doesn’t need batteries. The Enoz isn’t as good as The Executioner for large bugs, requires a bit more skill and patience, and will definitely make more of a mess, but its inexpensive price can’t be beat.

In reading numerous user reviews, I found that plastic flyswatters break easily and don’t have as much snap as the metal kind, an important feature to give your kill stroke that added sting. I ordered this metal-handled swatter and gave some things around my garage a good whacking (there weren’t many flies around that day). With a 20-inch length, this flyswatter has an effective range of a foot or more, depending on how far you choke up on your grip. 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. The vigorous swatting did scratch some paint off of a metal door, but you shouldn’t have to be that heavy-handed to kill a fly.

A BugZooka

BugZooka
Perfect for slower bugs or hard-to-reach critters like spiders.

The BugZooka is a bug vacuum. I recommend it for dealing with crawling bugs in your house, mostly spiders. Bugs like centipedes are probably too quick and may require The Executioner above. I chose the BugZooka to test among all the other bug vacuums on the market because it doesn’t require batteries. It’s entirely pneumatic. A bellows on one end provides the suction and the other end is open. To use it, you collapse the bellows, which is resisted by a spring mechanism that clicks and locks into place. 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. Locking the bellows is easy enough to do for most people by simply pressing the bellows against your hip or a hard surface.

In testing, the suction of the BugZooka was significantly stronger than that of the Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum. It was able to pick up several ants at once with no difficulty without harming them. Although, mercifully, 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 (a good way to collect and observe bugs with curious children). It’s easier to safely remove bugs from the BugZooka’s collection chamber than it is from the Backyard Safari as well: When you’re done collecting, just pump the bellows a few times to blow them out.

The BugZooka’s telescoping tube gives it an effective range of two feet, which should be enough to reach high corners where spiders like to hide out. The pneumatic operation means that it’s always ready for action. Plus, if it’s been four months and you suddenly spot a bug, you won’t be stuck with dead batteries, and it also comes with a wall-mounting bracket for easy closet storage.

The one problem I see with the 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 the yard, mine’s still going strong.

A plug-in bug zapper

Fly Web Fly Light
If manual swatting is too much of a time suck, this is the best passive option for flies.

If you want a passive fly trap that will (sooner or later) do the work for you, the Fly Web Fly Light is your best pick.

In our head-to-head fly trap garage test, the Fly Web Fly Light was a clear winner. Simply plug in the Fly Web and it provides a light source to draw in bugs, which then get stuck to the glue trap that surrounds it, a particularly useful feature for catching bugs at night. This light “bait” makes this trap particularly effective, especially when compared with other passive traps (like TAT Fly Paper, or our budget pick, Catchmaster Bug & Fly Clear Window Traps). The only drawback, we found, is that after a few hot days the glue trap melted a bit, which left some goop and a few dead bugs down in the light’s casing, an area not easy to clean out.

User reviews mostly praise the Fly Web Fly Light 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.

What about the competitors? Some fly lights look like regular lighting fixtures that you’d mount to a ceiling or wall. Others, similar to the Fly Web Fly Light, plug directly into an outlet. There are also stand-alone lights with a short cord that can plug into an extension cord, such as the Apalus LED Insect Trap. These units in particular 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.

Though 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 amount of other light.

A fly light is an ideal way to deal with an indoor infestation where you can control the amount of other light, like in an attic or a well-curtained room. At night, whatever flies are bugging you will be drawn to a fly light 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 Ask the Exterminator, Rick Steinau, particularly recommends these traps for stinkbug infestations, as they trap and kill the bugs without squishing them and releasing their foul smell.

Scott Armbrust, entomologist and owner of Rid-A-Pest Exterminators in Littleton, Colorado, likes light traps too, saying, “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.”

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 lot of flies in a short time.

Catchmaster window traps

Catchmaster Bug & Fly Clear Window Traps
A budget-friendly flypaper for catching anything from house flies to fruit flies.

I recommend these passive traps for locations where you have one or two windows that flies are attracted to, like an attic or garage. 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 Fly Trap due to a huge difference in the number of positive Amazon user reviews. (The Black Flag got very positive reviews, but not nearly as many overall, and its traps are a bit more expensive.)

These act on the same general principle as TAT Fly Paper, but some differences in the design make Catchmaster traps 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 easy to apply—you just peel off the backing, stick it to the window, then peel off the other backing. Though not completely invisible, they’re a lot less unsightly than the TAT 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 or 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. When installing, I was worried that the sticky side might be hard to remove or leave a mark. In fact, there’s only a thin strip of adhesive sticking it to the window, which came off easily and did not leave residue.

Overall, sticky traps like the Catchmaster or TAT are both able to catch small bugs, but neither performed as well in that task as our top electronic trap, the Fly Web Fly Light.

Products for mosquitoes

Mosquito Bits
If you can’t remove the standing water mosquitoes are using to breed, this is a great nontoxic larvicide that should stop the problem at its source.

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

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. “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,” said C. Roxanne Connelly, an entomologist at the University of Florida and former president of the American Mosquito Control Association. She 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—the list goes on. Joe Conlon, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, also recommends changing water in birdbaths and plant pots or drip trays at least once weekly. Anywhere water collects should be modified to drain or removed completely.

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 sibling 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 and made up of a piece of corn covered in Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis), a naturally occurring bacterium that’s remarkably nontoxic to critters besides mosquitoes and blackflies: According to the Washington State Department of Health, no negative effects have been noticed in animals that 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,” says reviewer Jeni Rein on Amazon. Some people have experienced mild irritation after handling, although that effect is very rare—but if you know you’re sensitive, you might want to don gloves when touching these.

With more than 750 reviews on Amazon and 4.3 stars (out of five), people generally agree that, when used properly, Bits are the best way to keep the mosquito population in your yard down—some reviewers even say the larvae died within a few hours. However, Bits work only when the larvae are actively feeding (which means Bits won’t do anything to live mosquitoes in the water), because they work by releasing deadly toxins into the mosquitoes’ gut. That means you’ll need to reapply the Bits frequently (Summit Chemical, manufacturer of Bits, recommends reapplying biweekly). Outside of commercial products not intended for home use, Mosquito Bits are the most effective way of inhibiting larvae growth.

Fans

Seville Classics UltraSlimLine 40-Inch Tower Fan
The Seville was the most powerful fan we tested. It’s quiet too, which means you can keep the bugs away while still enjoying an easy conversation.

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. Ideally, you should use an oscillating fan for the most coverage. If you don’t already have one on hand, we recommend the Seville Classics UltraSlimline 40″ Tower Fan. The Seville was quiet and circulated more air than any other fan we tested, as measured both in a controlled test environment and in a home’s living room and bedroom. The same is true outdoors; Sweethome senior editor Harry Sawyers hauls his Seville fan out to the patio to shoo away mosquitoes and other small flies hovering nearby.

Best repellent for mosquitoes

Cutter Backwoods Dry
Of all the sprays we tested, Cutter Backwoods Dry with 25 percent DEET felt the best on the skin. It goes on in a thin, even layer and offers about three to four hours of protection against small things that want to bite you.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.

First things first: Let’s talk about efficacy. Fortunately, a lot of scientific research on bug repellents exists. After reading gigantic stacks of papers and articles, we found that they all point to one repellent that’s best in both safety and efficacy: DEET. Hands down, DEET is the safest and best-working bug repellent out there.

Many people have asked us why we didn’t test any products with picaridin, a bug spray with a non-DEET active ingredient. We have much more in our full guide about picaridin (and other non-DEET repellents), but in short, picaridin is a newer bug repellent that hasn’t been in use as long as DEET has, so we don’t have nearly as much safety data on it. If you’re worried about DEET, don’t be—it’s the safest repellent for the most people, from kids as young as 2 months old to pregnant women. And even though DEET hasn’t been tested on pregnant women in their first trimester, experts suggest that all pregnant women use insect repellents that contain DEET, because the danger of Zika to an unborn baby is higher than any potential danger from DEET.

The percentage of DEET in a bug repellent determines how long it will last, not how well it wards off bugs. So the higher the percentage, the longer it works. We think the best formula for most folks contains about 25 percent DEET. According to some of this research we mentioned, this amount should give you about three to four hours of protection without you having to reapply it, plenty of time for a summer picnic or an afternoon hiking trip.

You could get by on a lower percentage of DEET. Many of the main offerings from brands such as Cutter and Off have a 15 percent concentration, and several sprays out there have only 5 to 7 percent. But according to the CDC, you should choose a repellent with at least 20 percent to ward off ticks as well. And because ticks can cause Lyme disease and other nasties, we think protecting against them is important. Our pick has 25 percent DEET.

Out of all the sprays we tested, Cutter Backwoods Dry was the easiest to apply and the most pleasant to wear, and it offered the most reliable sprayer. It can repel disease-carrying mosquitoes (and to a lesser degree, ticks) for about three to four hours without you having to put more on. DEET does have a bit of an odor that can put off some people, but we found that Cutter’s smell faded after 20 or so minutes.

A word of warning: 100 percent DEET can damage both leather and plastic materials. But we are not advocating using high concentrations of DEET. The max you should use is about 30 percent, tops. Our pick has 25 percent DEET; we tested it on a bunch of different materials and fabrics and saw no damage. As a precaution, make sure to wash your hands after applying, and don’t spray it around tents or your fancy kayak.

Best repellent for ticks

Women’s BugsAway Hiker Sock
When walking outside, permethrin-treated socks and pants provide the most effective barrier against ticks. ExOfficio’s treatment is said to be effective for 70 washes.
Men’s BugsAway Hiker Sock
When walking outside, permethrin-treated socks and pants provide the most effective barrier against ticks. ExOfficio’s treatment is said to be effective for 70 washes.

If you’re going to get an insect-borne illness in the US, you’re statistically most likely to get Lyme disease. It’s carried by black-legged ticks, aka deer ticks, and is most prevalent on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Ticks can carry some other scary diseases, too—15 by the CDC’s last count—and some ticks can carry more than one.  And though DEET repellent can help deter ticks, it isn’t 100 percent effective.

The TickEncounter Resource Center suggests treating your clothes—especially shoes and socks—with permethrin. This substance is an insecticide; it not only repels insects but also kills them. It’s safe only for clothing, though, so don’t spray it on your skin. You can buy permethrin-treated clothing, purchase a spray bottle of the repellent itself, or have your clothes treated by a company to be bugproof. The treatment doesn’t last forever—about six washes if you do the application yourself, and up to 70 for the professionally treated stuff. But it’s far and away the best way to keep ticks from biting you. If you treat just your shoes and socks, you’re 76 times less likely to be bitten by a tick than if you’re wearing untreated footwear. In a study, people wearing treated shirts and shorts were only about four and two times less likely, respectively, to be bitten, so those pieces of treated clothing may not be worth the dollars. Ticks tend to crawl up on you from the ground, which is why your footwear matters more.

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.

Men’s Nomad Pant
Available in a variety of colors and styles, ExOfficio’s Nomad pants should work in any setting from trail hiking to backyard gardening.
Women’s Nomad Roll-Up Pant
Available in a variety of colors and styles, ExOfficio’s Nomad pants should work in any setting from trail hiking to backyard gardening.
Amazon reviewers have used it everywhere from Belize to Africa, and say using the clothing and DEET together is far superior to even a DEET spray alone. ExOfficio’s clothing’s protection should last much longer than clothes you treated yourself. The ExOfficio website claims it will remain effective for 70-plus washings.

Sawyear Products Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent
Applying repellent to fabric yourself won’t last as long as repellent in specialty fabric (six washes vs. 70 washes), but it still works the same.
To self-treat fabrics, the best option is Sawyer Products Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent, which lasts six weeks or six washings. It also comes recommended by Phil Paoletta, an African-travel expert and one of the editors of 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 can be fatal to cats (and mildly toxic to fish and humans) before drying. According to Backpacker, one 24-ounce bottle of the Sawyer spray 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

Of course, a bug can’t bite you if it can’t get near you. That’s where physical barriers like nets come into the equation. You can either purchase a tentlike net for camping, which you can set up on cots or just on the ground, or you can purchase a personal head net. 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 head net. If you’re traveling or sleeping outside, you’ll also want a personal tent-style net.

Outdoor Research Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet
If all you need is a personal head net, this one fits over most hats and will keep mosquitoes at bay.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.

For a personal head net, we recommend Outdoor Research’s Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet, which 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 too, although you might look a bit silly if you wear it to a party.

Kamp-Rite Insect Protection System
For some extra protection, a full-on tent solution like this works great because it has a mosquito net on the inside and rain protection on the outside.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $65.

The best larger, tent-style net is the Kamp-Rite Insect Protection System. It’s essentially a 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 feet, perfect for car camping. It’s also incredibly versatile. Because it has sturdy legs, you can set it up on rocky ground or anywhere else you might not want to set a tent otherwise.

Products for a full infestation

All of the exterminators said any serious infestation requires two steps to resolve: Identify the pest, then remove the source.
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 potentially harmful pesticides are worth it. We’ll get to other types of insect-killing gear over time, though. Consider this guide a starter.

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 be just 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 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 about 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.

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Sources

  1. Luis Pabon, technical director of Catseye Pest Control, Email Interview, June 25, 2013
  2. Rick Steinau, Stink Bugs In the House, Ask the Exterminator

Originally published: July 6, 2016

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