There are many humane and harmless ways to keep insects at bay at your home.
All violence starts at home. If you accustom your child to killing ants, cockroaches, flies, spiders, lizards and whatever else you think is a pest, the cycle of killing only escalates. What stops the child from attacking everything that he thinks is odd or that he is told to be frightened of — dogs, cats, birds, large animals, animals in zoos; and from there, everything that does not fit in with his world view such as the disabled, the weak and the poor?
All this may seem unlikely, but in an overcrowded world where it is difficult to swing one’s hand without hitting another’s nose metaphorically, the most important principle that has to be taught is ahimsa.
When people use insecticides at home, few realise that they are actually killing themselves, not the pests. Insecticides contain so many harmful chemicals, such as malathion and BHC, that anyone using them stands a greater chance of being killed — especially with the sprays that send most of the poison into the air that is breathed by household members. There are many ways to keep insects at bay that are gentle, both for the insect and the human.
Start with mosquitoes, as these are truly troublesome. Neem oil is one of the best things to keep at home. Take a used mosquito mat (don’t buy them, they are very poisonous). Dip it in neem oil, and place it in the electric mat machine that comes with it. This is basically just a heater that will keep evaporating the oil.
If you don’t have a mat, take a fresh onion, cut it in two and place the halves on your bedside tables. Onions keep the most ardent lovers away — why not mosquitoes! Neem oil can also be rubbed on the exposed parts of the body. Another mixture — neem oil, coconut oil and white petroleum jelly — you can carry with you. But the smell will probably be grim. Another combination to apply on the body is clove oil mixed with Celastrus paniculatus (staff tree or vanhiruchi / malakanguni or atiparichram) oil.
You can use the mixture to swab floors: make a paste of marigold lea-ves, mix in water and use with the mop. It keeps away mosquitoes and flies.
Mosquitoes hate citrus of any kind — even lemongrass. The lemon and green chilli that hang fresh outside the door in many homes is not to ward off evil spirits, as is supposed, but to keep away mosquitoes.
If you live in a major mosquito area, add a few drops of citronella oil in the last mug of water you pour on yourself when having a bath. If you don’t have citronella, use nimbu pani; no mosquitoes will touch you.
Mosquitoes come in at dusk, so close the windows of the house just before sunset. If you have a little green patch, plant a lemon tree in it or in a pot outside your window or door. Another plant mosquitoes hate is tomato. A row of tomato plants on your windowsill keeps them away.
A not-so-great idea is to smoke neem leaves over a coal fire and take the smoking leaves through the rooms. In villages, this is what they do in cattle sheds when the day ends.
If you are having a party and you want to get rid of mosquitoes so your guests do not go home early, try putting a few drops of citronella in water, soak a few ribbons in it a day earlier, and hang the ribbons on bushes and tree branches around the area.
There is a company in Hyderabad that has biogenetically invented a plant called Citrosa. This plant has been in use for many years in Europe under another name (Citroen geranium). You place Citrosa near a window where shaded light falls and it can get fresh air. It grows easily and becomes bushy. It keeps mosquitoes out of the house. You can pluck a few leaves and use them as protection when you go out. It has a very sweet fragrance.
Nepal has a herb called loban, which is sold as a paste ball. In the evenings it is lit and the smoke is taken through each room to keep the mosquitoes out.
Then comes the pocha, which is used to clean the floors every day. Lots of people use phenyl as an antimicrobial but it causes liver cancer, dizziness, headaches, and is also very dangerous for the poor woman who comes to clean your house. In my house we use only water. And that is all you need. A fresh bucket of water for each room and a clean pocha and everything remains sparkling and insects keep away. Every now and then we add a spoonful of eucalyptus oil, which keeps the house fragrant and also keeps insects away, including flies and cockroaches.
Cockroaches can also be kept away with other methods: Make a ball of flour and water. Add a few drops of cedar wood oil, sandalwood and patchouli oil. Make little balls and place them in cupboards and drains. If you put neem oil with carom seeds (ajwain) and camphor in the drain or around it, they won’t come out. The first and obvious thing to do is keep the kitchen and storage areas clean.
Keep ants out of your sugar jars by putting tejpatta leaves in them. Keep them out of the house by using sindoor lines around where they enter. To keep ants out, see where they come from and draw a Lakshman rekha of chilli powder or turmeric powder (haldi). Another thing they hate is peppermint oil. Just put two drops at the entrances to your house or wherever they enter from and see them disappear. Mice hate peppermint as well. So you can put it any place you think mice may come in.
Termites and other insects stay out of your books, wood and clothes if you polish the wood with neem oil. You should keep neem or tulsi or morpankhi leaves inside books and in the clothes cupboard. Lavender oil or cedar wood oil also keeps insects away from your clothes.
Use neem leaves in your cupboard and under your carpet to keep all insects out. Dry the leaves and then put them in your warm clothes, books, and grain. Get rid of houseflies that hover over the table by wiping the table with a little salt water before and after the meal. In the South, when they eat sitting on the ground, the ritual is that before the meal is served the eater draws a line around his plate with water. This serves the same purpose.
Do you have white ants in the garden? A very easy way to get rid of them is to grow a banana tree. Again, this has been converted into mythology — that it was to keep evil spirits away. No, it was to make sure that the termites disappeared before the foundation was laid.
If you like walking in the evening but are bothered by insects, or you want to eat out in your garden but don’t want to spend time scratching yourself, you can grow, in pots, the morpankhi, which has green oblong shaped seeds. In the villages, they take the seed and rub it over their arms or any exposed area. All insects stay away. The seed does not smell.
What you think is a pest serves a purpose in nature. Even the mosquito is an important food for many insects and birds. The moth is a pollinator of plants. The cockroach serves the role that a vulture does: he is the scavenger of the sewers and keeps them free of other dirt. I haven’t figured out what the rat does — except serve as a food for the snake! Keeping them away is easier and better than killing them with chemicals. All violence is harmful to humans and insecticides prove my point!
Remember, spiders and lizards are not pests. Spiders are completely harmless and are there to kill mosquitoes and flies, so leave them be. Lizards are meant to kill mosquitoes, flies and spiders so leave them be as well. People should stop poisoning themselves in the name of “cleanliness” and the world they live in.
(The author is Union minister for women and child development and animal-cum-nature lover)