What to do this week
By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA
Rats and Insects feeding on your Citrus Trees -
February is one of my favorite times of the year. During this season, many of our citrus fruits begin to ripen, and because many of us have backyard citrus trees, the morning grapefruit or tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice is just feet away from the breakfast table. When I first moved to Florida over thirty years ago, I planted several trees in my yard just to enjoy that privilege our northern friends can only dream about. In fact, many of you must have had the same thought I did because just about every home I see has at least one citrus tree planted in the yard. Well, as time has passed, these trees have grown very large, and now they produce hundreds of fruit per tree. Many of these fruit fail to make it to harvest and unfortunately, fall to the ground where they become food for rodents, especially rats and insects. In this article, I will go over a few ways to lessen the intrusion of these pests into your homes and yards. Let’s get started!
Rat populations explode during our citrus harvest season because food is so plentiful. Many of you have probably noticed large holes in oranges and grapefruit where rats have hollowed out the fruit to feed on the seeds. These seeds contain Niacin, and rats love to eat them in mass. The more fruit trees you have, the greater the possibility you will see rats in your yard. What the rats leave behind, insects and flies finish off.
Rats reach sexual maturity in three to four months of age. Each female rat can give birth to a litter of five to eight pups in as little as twenty-three days. When food is plentiful, rats can produce four to five litters yearly. This explosion of hungry rats tends to be the biggest problem homeowners face during the spring. Central Florida has two types of rats which we need to talk about, the Norway or sewer rat and the roof rat.
The Norway rat prefers to live close to canals, lakes, and areas where garbage may be stored incorrectly. These rats like to eat fish, meat or grains but will happily feed on any garbage they find as long as they have a fresh water source nearby. Norway rats are also diggers, burrowing under foundations of homes or beneath shrubs and landscape plants. Each rat can weigh up to a pound, when mature and will live within one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet from their primary food source. Although these rats can cause extensive damage to homes over time, their cousin the roof rat is a much more destructive pest.
Roof rats like to make their home in attics, on roofs, in citrus trees or in palm trees. These skilled climbers have been seen walking on telephone wires from building to building. Attics are a natural home for these rodents. They can use the insulation to create nests to breed in, and they gnaw on electrical wires and phone cables relentlessly. All rats must constantly gnaw to control the growth of the teeth. The damages caused by their constant chewing have been tallied into the millions in Florida alone. Rats have also chewed through electrical lines causing fires, which have destroyed complete buildings. Their droppings and urine contaminate food and have been attributed to over thirty five different diseases to humans worldwide. Keeping these pests out of your home can be hard, but let me give you a few simple tricks of the trade that may help you protect your home and family.
One of the first things you need to do is to inspect your home for access points rats use to enter your dwelling. Rodents only need an opening one-half inch in size. Look for small holes around pipes, water lines, wires, or cables that enter your home. All of these should be sealed with steel wool or wired shut. I recommend you purchase one-quarter inch hardware cloth from the local box store. Rats cannot gnaw through this material, and you can mold it to fit and cover most openings. You will need to screw this material into place to keep it from falling out of place. Replace worn door sweeps and garage door weather-stripping, which may leave an opening for rats to enter. Remember, after a good dinner, rats want to go home and rest just like you do. Don’t let them make your home their home. Rats are always looking for entryways to your home. In some cases, they will gnaw their way in no matter what you do especially if there are multiple rats looking for nesting sites.
If you plan on using silicone or caulking to help prevent rats from entering the home or those expandable foam products, you have all seen on TV, don’t bother. These products are like chewing gum to rats, and they will go through them in minutes. Continue to inspect your home paying special attention to the A/C conduit running up from your air conditioner into the attic. Most of these are covered by a silver metal cover or rat freeway as we like to call them. They give perfect access directly to the attic. You need to cover the bottom and the top of this channel with hardware cloth. In addition, pay special attention to tree branches overhanging the home or touching the roof line. These bridges will also bring the rats to your home. Attic vents and openings on your home’s eaves are also entry points.
Remember, rats start feeding at dusk so you may not see them during the daytime but as the sun begins to set, rats start looking for food. Pick up any fruit that may have fallen to the ground and place them in the garbage can. If you have damaged fruit on the tree, then you should also remove them. Clean out garbage cans to remove foul smells that may attract rodents back for a meal. You should also seek advice from your local extension office on rodent proofing your home or ask your pest-control company for a free inspection. Finally, after you have rodent proofed your home; you may want to try to bait some of the rodents you are seeing.
Baiting for rodents requires the use of a rodent station which is normally pre-baited. These can be purchased at a do-it-yourself pest-control store. An averaged sized home may require up to three stations. Place the stations against the edge of the home with the openings on the station being closest to the wall. Rats’ hug walls as they travel to and from your home, eventually bringing them in contact with your bait station. Once they find the station and feed on the bait, they will usually die within a few days. Please make sure your stations are secured to the ground so children and pets cannot move or tamper with the station. Check you stations regularly to make sure there is still bait available. You may not kill all the rats you have in the yard, but you will eliminate those looking forward to finding a new place to live.
Growing citrus can be a lot of fun but as the fruit begins to mature; you have to be aware of uninvited guests. Inspect your home for any openings and seal them. Pick up and dropped fruit and place them in sealed containers. Protect your family and property from rats and the diseases they carry and do not give them the opportunity to share your living quarters. Good luck and remember, without plants, we would not be here.