Dealing with the bugs in Costa Rica

“You stand here for longer than 30 seconds, something is crawling on you.” Les Stroud, Survivorman.

I used to love watching the Canadian show, Survivorman, with Les Stroud. My daughter was with me when we watched him decide to venture into the jungle after being dropped off on a Costa Rican beach. Almost simultaneously, we both said, “oh no, bad idea!” And it was. Poor guy ended up spending the night standing up because he said the entire jungle floor was moving.

There are a lot of bugs in Costa Rica, and when I say a lot, I am referring to numbers in the millions and billions. Costa Rica is recognized as having the highest density of wildlife species in the world, and while it makes up only .33 percent of the world’s land mass, it contains 4% of all existing species, many of which exist only here.

We have over 300,000 of species of insects & arachnids alone. They creep, they crawl, they swim, and they fly. They’re everywhere, but you can minimize their presence in your life.

The main purpose of this post is to give you tips on dealing with the most common ones. I’ve lived in hot Santa Ana, cooler San Pedro, and moderate San Pablo, and I’ve stayed at eco lodges and mountain/beach cabins. I’ve encountered almost every creepy crawly critter here. Don’t let bugs scare you away from this beautiful country; you will get used to dealing with the bugs here without drama and fear.

I’m using the word “jungle” loosely in this article to indicate rainforest, cloud forest, reserves, and any place that is mostly in a natural state, whether it’s hours from a road or steps behind your place.

Since this is an informational post it’s going to be really long, (lest I leave out something important) so I’m going to break it into two separate posts. I’ll include a few pertinent links to sites you might like to check out, including the Survivorman episode I mentioned above. If you want more detailed information about anything, contact me.

Rainy season has just begun, which kicks off many creepy crawler/flyer invasions. They also want a dry place to hang out in, and your house is perfect. Ground floor entries offer the best opportunity for them to come in. Unscreened windows run a close second. Vines and tree branches touching your house are other avenues of entry.

Anytime a field or cafetal (coffee plantation) is cleared or cleaned up, the neighbors can expect an almost instant invasion of every crawling critter that was there. Roaches, scorpions, spiders, etc. If your place is close to a junky empty lot or a spot where trash piles up, roaches and ants could be big problems. This is especially true when there are a lot of food places nearby. If you live in a beach town, you know what I’m talking about.

First, never assume that because you’re in the city, you won’t encounter a “jungle” beastie. My only close encounter with a tarantula was in San Pedro. The biggest scorpion I’ve faced was on the second floor of my San Pablo house. And one of snakes I’ve had to remove was in my school classroom (chalkboard tray) in Moravia. It’s not common, but you may find critters in areas they previously didn’t tend to be found in.

Don’t Touch! Never touch a bug you haven’t dealt with before, even if it looks just like one you used to pick up at home in the U.S. When walking through a cafetal or a jungle path, don’t lean on or touch trees, vines, leaves, or branches without looking first. Be aware of those vines and branches hanging down above your head, too. Learn to scan the area around you as you move through those areas. Never, ever, stick fingers, feet, or hands into any space, hole, surface underside, or place that you cannot see. A hole in the ground is likely occupied—leave it alone. Be careful around rocky areas and steps that provide hiding spots beneath the edges. Make enough noise as you walk to give snakes time to get out of your way.

Caterpillars here are particularly well endowed with stinging cells. The more colorful anything is here, the more dangerous it may be, but even the plain brown and black ones can ruin your day, so be aware. That pretty green fern looking caterpillar—admire from a distance! Some of them can squirt a liquid on you causing a chemical burn that builds slowly as it becomes a *#!*@% moment. FYI: ammonia can calm the pain of most ant and caterpillar bites/stings whose venom is formic acid based. I always kept it on hand when I had small children. Just make sure you know what is responsible for the bite before using ammonia or it could make it worse.

Reduce hiding places. Be vigilant about piles of anything in and outside your house—papers, fabrics, wood, leaves, trash, etc. Scorpions, ants, and roaches love to hide in them. Do not leave damp towels or clothing piled on floors, or you might find a crawly surprise under them the next day.

Install door sweeps. Houses here are not sealed up because of the climate, but all those gaps are open invitations to bugs. I lived in front of a cafetal for 8 years and scorpions were a major problem until I installed good door sweeps on my front and side doors. I went from finding 2-3 scorpions a week inside to only 1-2 per year. At beach and mountain cabins I have shoved rolled up newspaper under doors to block all but the most determined critters.

Screen windows and doors. Make sure windows have screens and that there are no gaps around the edges. Make sure you repair any little holes in the screens. This is a good time of year to check them because with these first sporadic rains, the mosquito population increases. Make sure you close unscreened windows and doors by dusk. Right now especially, the May beetles are buzzing around like clumsy drunk drivers and they crash into everything. Plus, they seem to have an uncanny ability to find any little doorway into your house. These guys will disappear very soon.

Sweep, sweep, sweep. You know how Ticos always seem to be sweeping and brushing walls and ceilings with their brooms and dust cloths? There’s a reason for this and it isn’t just the dust! Sweep ‘em away before they build a nest or move indoors.

Shake out shoes and boots. Many spider and scorpion bites here are to feet. Get in the habit of giving each shoe a quick shake or tap against a hard surface before putting them on. Those rubber galoshes that farmers use and that are standard fare on many tours are the ones you really need to shake out before putting on.

Use Boric Acid and Diatomaceous Earth. These two powders are non toxic but cause damage to the protective shells/skins of bugs causing them to die. The powders won’t hurt you or your pets, but they are skin/eye irritants when in powder form so use gloves and skin and eye protection when using, especially on windy days.

A little goes a long way. Both can be sprinkled around the edges of baseboards and entryways. Even the military uses boric acid for ant and termite control. You can buy ácido bórico in almost any pharmacy, and it’s cheap. I have not seen Diatomaceous Earth in CR, but if I were a home owner here, I would definitely consider bringing a bag down in a suitcase. It’s sold at garden centers and places like Lowes and Home Depot. I used both of these abundantly and successfully in TN. The DE kept ants out of the house for months at a time, and periodic termite inspections proved the efficacy of the boric acid.

Note: I don’t like the popular idea of dissolving boric acid into sugar water unless you want to create baits. But this can be good if you already have an invasion and need to draw them out of their hiding places.

Peppermint essential oil I buy peppermint essential oil in the U.S. and bring it down regularly because it deters ants and spiders very effectively. Make sure you buy a genuine oil and not a cheap synthetic that will not work. (NOW brand is good for this purpose) I sprinkle it along door threshholds and have sprinkled/wiped it all around bed legs when staying in a buggy place to prevent scorpions and other creepy crawlies from joining me in bed. I wipe it around the edges of my kitchen sink and counters, and inside some cabinets to keep the ants away. Use sparingly around plastic wrapped or boxed food lest it all become peppermint flavored. Keep it away from your mouth and eyes, and use it cautiously around infants and small children to avoid irritating their sensitive skin. If you have cats, don’t use this – cats may have severe reactions to essential oils. Dogs either love it or tolerate it, but watch them to make sure it doesn’t irritate them. Natural does not mean harmless; it just means it doesn’t cause the kind of damage to the body that chemical agents do.

Eucalyptus citriodora This essential oil is not easy to find (order it) but has been found in clinical studies to be as effective as Deet in preventing mosquito bites. I used it effectively while in Brazil, on and in the Amazon river area, and use it here in CR when I’m going to be at risk for mosquito bites. I normally apply a few drops to my feet and ankles and other exposed skin. I have sprinkled it abundantly around the room when staying at a beach cabin. So far, so good. It smells lemony like citronella, but it’s a totally different oil. I order it and have it shipped to a relative in the U.S.

Keep wool fiber clothing isolated. I no longer live where it’s cold, but I do travel to those places in winter and have much of my winter clothing here with me in CR. Keeping moths away from it is crucial. Remember it’s the larva that feed on wool and leave those annoying holes in your sweaters or trousers. Keeping moths out of your house, and especially out of your closets and drawers is key. I use breathable but closed up bags, and I periodically spray my clothes storage areas with a homemade spray of vetiver essential oil, which seems to be more effective than cedar here. A really simple solution for those of you who live in the hotter areas is to store your woolens in suitcases. Toss in a dry washcloth that you’ve sprinkled with a little lavender, cedar, or vetiver oil to avoid mustiness. Air it all out on a hot sunny day several times a year. I plan to bring some closet cedar blocks to toss into my storage suitcase. Don’t use traditional moth balls unless you want to smell like your grandmother’s attic and want to risk neurological damage as a nice side-effect.

Keep trash and food isolated or sealed up. Welcome to the tropics, where things go stale in hours and bugs get into everything! Ziplock bags, mason jars, clamp top jars, Tupperware, and daily trash disposal are your keys to discouraging ants, beetles, roaches, and moths. I put every package of pasta or grains into a bag or jar (or the freezer or refrigerator) as soon as I get it home. It’s not a matter of if, but rather a matter of when you will have a bug infestation in your pantry if you don’t take these preventive measures. Ants and moths find your food easily. Some hitchhike into your house in bags and boxes, and sometimes even within the sealed bags of imported goods that sat on the shelf too long.

Carry and use your own washable cloth grocery bags when possible. Those packing boxes from the stores harbor all kinds of creepy crawlies in the nooks and crannies of the cardboard. If you must use them, try not to bring them all the way inside your house. I personally don’t even like putting them in my car.

Encourage the good guys. If there are no bugs in your house to eat, you’ll have few spiders. The flip side of this is, if you have spiders, you have live-in beetle, fly, and mosquito control. Nature abhors a vacuum and it will be nearly impossible to get rid of every single insect or arachnid. Sometimes you have to pick your bug.

When I lived in a ground level house I often allowed wolf spiders to hang out in certain areas like a covered patio, for example, as long as they stayed in their hiding place during the day. (My dad once asked me if my “pets” had names.) And yes, like many of you, I was once terrified of spiders too, but roaches scare and gross me out even more.  I currently have a really tiny spider in a kitchen cabinet where I have my nuts and seeds.  If it’s in there it’s catching something, so for now, it gets to stay.

Lady bugs, lacewings, praying mantises, and even some spiders are examples of good bugs to have because they eat bugs that you don’t want around. Bats are amazing at keeping mosquito populations down, and the vast majority of bats are harmless.

Insecticides, bug sprays: There are good reasons to avoid using chemical pesticides and bug sprays in and around your home, an on your person. To start with, the more you use, the less effective they will be, as the bugs quickly become more tolerant of them. I do understand that sometimes nothing else will do. Just be aware of the dangers and use as little as possible, and only when absolutely necessary. I’m a holistic nutritionist, so I can’t ignore this aspect of pest control. I’ve done full length articles on the chemicals we use in our homes and yards.

House and garden pesticide use has been clinically linked to:

—All cancers—particularly leukemia, brain, breast, prostate, lung, and neuroblastoma.

—Learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

—Neurological disorders including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

—Male and female infertility

—Birth defects such as cleft palate and hydrocephaly

There are several new pest control companies popping up in the U.S. and Costa Rica that use less toxic chemicals or are using organic pesticides. Consider using them if your home situation is beyond your control. If I were going to leave my place closed up for weeks or months at a time, this might be worth considering for sure. If any of you have used these, please share your experience with me.

Conclusion: I hope I’ve given you enough information to help you keep the creepy crawly population to a minimum in your space. Watch for part II tomorrow: A compilation of the most common bugs you’ll deal with in Costa Rica, with a short list of the really nasty ones that could kill you.

Pura Vida, my friends!

Survivorman in Costa Rica link. FYI Know that his species numbers are not correct and he makes numerous small errors such as calling coconut water “coconut milk”, but his video of his night in the jungle and his comments at the end are worth watching—especially minutes 25-46.