This summer the ants came marching one by one all over our house. With our California drought, they seemed to be desperate for moisture, as they'd often march right past a sticky spoonful of honey, heading instead for the nearest half-full water glass.
We tried just about everything (both natural and toxic), but still the ants kept coming. Then someone suggested diatomaceous earth. I’d heard of the stuff before, but I really had no idea what it was, or how to use diatomaceous earth to get rid of pests naturally. Here's what I learned…
What is diatomaceous earth?
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is made from the fossilized remains of a particular kind of algae called diatoms. These are tiny single-celled aquatic organisms that have an outer shell of silica that is made up largely of silicon. Basically, the skeletons of dead diatoms accumulate in the sediment at the bottom of rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans.
First discovered in Germany, there are major deposits in the US in Colorado, Nevada and California. The powder’s chemical composition is typically 85% silica, 10% other oxides, and 5% moisture.
How to use diatomaceous earth to get rid of pests
DE works as an insecticide by basically killing the critters through dehydration. The silica absorbs all the moisture out of the insect, and – voila – no more pests.
Diatomaceous earth is widely recognized around the world as one of the few pesticides that is non-toxic. However, if you breathe in large amounts of the dust, you can cause some pretty serious lung irritation. The trick to avoiding that is to mix it with water when you’re applying it so that you don’t inhale the dust. Once the moisture evaporates away, then what’s left has the same drying power as the original dust.
To use DE for pest elimination, you want to make sure you’re using uncalcined, meaning it hasn’t been heated to high temperatures, because that reduces its effectiveness as a pesticide (but makes it better for other uses, such as filtration devices).
I got my DE here and loved how easy it was to use. Using an old spray bottle I had (probably a ¼-gallon size or so), I put 1 heaping tablespoon of the powder in it, then filled it up with water, leaving just enough room that I could shake it up really well to get the DE to be well-distributed in the water. The powder doesn’t dissolve, but the particles remain suspended in the liquid, which is why it can be sprayed. Remember to keep shaking it up as you go along.
I spent about a half hour walking around finding all the different lines of ants and spraying each one liberally with the DE spray. I even did this all around the outside of the house wherever I saw them making their approach. The DE works on pests only when dry, but 24 hours later…not a single ant. YAY!
Other pests that can be easily eliminated using DE include anything on your pets, such as fleas, worms, ticks and mites. In those cases, you use it like a flea powder. Again, apply it carefully without creating a large cloud of dust. Start at the base of your pet’s tail (apparently a favorite spot for fleas) and work your way up to the front. Lift the fur as much as possible to get the DE on the skin and base of the fur, massaging it in as thoroughly as possible. Remember it needs to dry to work, and you should plan on doing this twice a week.
Lice, mites and bedbugs
Diatomaceous earth is effective on the lice and mites that bug your backyard chickens (good luck with the dusting). There are even people who say it’s quite effective for lice on human heads as well, though you have to find a way to dust the hair thoroughly without creating a cloud of it that can irritate your eyes and lungs. I found this post that explains one way of using DE to deal with head lice, which I will certainly try if I have the displeasure of needing to do so! Apparently, DE can also get rid of bed bugs if you have that nasty problem (source).
In the garden, circle plants with a ring of DE (only on dry days when not watering) to keep slugs from getting on your plants at night. Using the same method as the ant treatment I described, you can spray any plants that are susceptible to various insect pests such as aphids, caterpillars like the dreaded tomato hornworm, and many others. You can use the dusting approach as well.
How to use diatomaceous earth for home, health, & body
There are lots of other uses of DE. Though I haven’t tried any of these yet, if it works as well as it did on the ants, it's certainly worth considering.
- Cleaning up spills. Because DE is so absorbent, you can use it to clean up spills around the house, whether it’s oil, grease or soda (source).
- Deodorizer. Whether it’s your refrigerator, garbage can, shoes, or a litter-box, DE is a powerful deodorizer you can use throughout your house (source).
- Heavy metal detoxification. While I recommend consulting with your holistic healthcare practitioner before trying this, some people who suffer from low-level chronic exposure to toxic heavy metals have reported success using DE to help cleanse heavy metals from their bodies (source).
- Hearth health. A preliminary study obtained good results in using DE to significantly lower cholesterol levels in 19 healthy individuals with a history of moderate cholesterol problems (source).
- Skincare and cosmetics. Food-grade DE is already used in a wide variety of cosmetics and personal care products because of its anti-caking and absorbent qualities. When added to cleansing products, it adds a real boost for exfoliation.
Where to buy diatomaceous earth
I am super stoked that I am no longer sharing my house with a herd of ants. When using DE, (unless it's in your pool filter) you want to make sure you select a brand that is high-quality and food-grade. This makes it safe if you intend to or accidentally ingest it.
Do you use diatomaceous earth? Why and how?