Blighted by bugs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 October, 2002, 12:00am

THEY MAY NOT eat much, nor take up much room. You might not even know they are there. Yet chances are your home is lousy with unwanted 'visitors' that you could find hard to evict. These overstayers are the insects that invade our homes as a natural consequence of living in a sub-tropical climate. If cockroaches are able to survive a nuclear attack, getting into your flat is a walk in the park, even if you do live on the 40th floor. They fly, they spread disease and they can give you a fright if you happen on them at night.

Vincent Lam, chief executive of pest-control company Christian Environmental Health, says it is a rare household that hasn't at some stage encountered either the smaller, more common 'German' cockroach, or the bigger, flying 'American' species. No matter how meticulous your housekeeping, they can crawl in under the door, sneak up the drainpipe, or hitch a ride on the things you bring home.

'Cockroaches will eat anything. They inhabit warm, wet areas, like the kitchen and bathroom, and they usually hide during the day,' Lam says.

A single mating pair can reproduce with frightening speed, producing 20,000 cockroaches a year.

Keep the numbers down through professional cockroach treatment. For a 1,000-sq-ft flat this takes about an hour and costs $500 to $1,000. The treatment involves spraying a chemical, which dries in around two hours, is low in toxicity and lasts for several weeks.

Another common household nuisance are rodents, usually rats. They are more likely to take up residence if you live near the countryside. You'll know you have them if you hear scratching in the night, or if you find their droppings. This is one pest you really want to be rid of, says Lam, because they spread even more diseases than cockroaches.

The best measures are preventative: keep a clean house, don't leave food out at night and make sure your rubbish bins are securely covered.

You can buy a 'glue board' rat trap from a supermarket or pest controller, put down bait blocks, or call in the professionals, depending on how badly you want to get rid of the rodents.

Other common pests are book lice, which can account for that strange-looking mound on your wallpaper, and mites, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, but are believed to be linked to allergies and asthma. There are various treatments, chemical and non-chemical, but as both species of pest have short lifecycles they may need more regular attention.

One varmint that has Hong Kongers itching to call in the pest controllers is the ubiquitous mosquito. Normally more of a nuisance than a hazard, 'mozzies' have been causing quite a buzz lately, following confirmation of Hong Kong's first case of locally contracted dengue fever, an occasionally fatal mosquito-borne disease.

George Chow, divisional manager of Rentokil Hong Kong, says his phones have been ringing off the hook with people who fear for their health. The best way to protect against mosquitoes is to clean up around the outside of your home, Chow says. Stagnant water that comes from drainage sites or pot plant containers, or 'dead corners' where building or other rubble tends to gather, are ideal breeding grounds. People living near hillsides will always have more problems.

Adult mosquitoes may bite you, but at least they won't lay larvae in your home. The usual treatment is a two-pronged attack: spray the outdoor areas to get rid of the adults, then pour sand on to potential breeding sites. Treatment of an average-sized site may take a few hours, but residents can return to the area immediately after the spraying. Depending on the size of the area and the level of infestation, treatment can cost from $4,000 to $10,000.

According to Stuart Morton, deputy general manager of BioCycle (HK), the worst nuisance of all is termites. Hong Kong, along with southern China and Taiwan, is home to the formosan species, one of the most destructive. 'They can sink a boat,' he says. 'And they love to get into your timber floors. You only know they're there by accident or dumb luck. Usually, you won't see them until something falls off, when they've consumed 80 or 90 per cent of the wood they live in.'

Termites are highly socio-organised creatures: they have a king and queen, workers and soldiers, and they swarm in summer looking for new sites to inhabit. And you'd better hope that's not your place: a single colony will house five million to seven million insects.

Certain areas of Hong Kong tend to be worse for termites than others, Discovery Bay and Red Hill Peninsula among them. Treatment involves either an injection of a chemical into the problem areas, which can cost up to $5,000 for an average home, or a longer-lasting baiting system at $8,000 to $15,000.

But if you don't want the termite equivalent of the population of Hong Kong setting up camp in your living room, then perhaps it is worth it.