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Whether you live in a rambling mansion or a tiny shack (or something in between), your house should be a place of refuge and rest. It’s where you’re at your most vulnerable, where you sleep every night, unconscious and at the mercy of an uncaring universe. So it’s natural that people freak out when they notice their home has been invaded by some kind of bug.

But not all bugs in the house constitute an emergency. Often, the level of panic required is pretty obvious. Bedbugs? Time to fetch the gasoline and some matches. But we all know that a solitary fly buzzing around is merely an annoyance. The real challenge is when you have a broad range of critters that look similar, with some posing a real threat and others being more or less harmless. But unless you’re a trained entomologist, it’s not always easy to tell the harmless bugs from the bugs you should have nightmares about. Here’s a quick guide to the bugs in your house that constitute an emergency.


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Ants in the house can be disturbing; they tend to show up in large numbers and appear organized, as if they’re an alien species that have been planning an invasion for years. But most ants are pretty harmless in terms of property damage or your health. Sure, you want to discourage ants and get them out of your home, but generally speaking, a bloom of small, black ants isn’t an emergency.

Some ants (or ant-like things) sure are, however:

  • Termites. Termites are often confused with ants, but they’re a different species, and they can destroy your house if left unchecked. Termites are usually lighter in color than ants, their wings are symmetrical while ant wings tend to be more lopsided, and ants will have a “pinched” body with an obvious waist, while termites are more tubular. Termites also don’t care about your sloppy food storage; instead, they’ll leave little piles of sawdust as they eat your home’s wood infrastructure.
  • Carpenter ants. These jolly fellows don’t actually eat wood, but they like to nest in it, carving out palatial homes that leave your house falling down around your ears. Carpenter ants are typically dark in color, about half an inch long, often have wings, and have a large head and a narrow waist. If you suddenly notice a bunch of large, winged ants in your house, you probably have had a nest for a while, and overpopulation has triggered spawning.
  • Red fire ants. Most fire ants won’t make a home in your house, but they can migrate inside and then spend their time merrily biting you. The red fire ant is, yes, reddish in color, and you’ll notice a wide variation in their size (most ant species tend to be pretty uniform in size). They also have a noticeable stinger at the end of their body, which is the easiest way to know you’re in an emergency eradication scenario.


While we tend to be afraid of bees (and most bees do sting under certain circumstances), most common bees like bumblebees and honeybees will only attack and sting if you’re going after their nest or they feel threatened, so finding one flying around your house is probably not a huge concern. The real problem is telling innocent pollinating bees from destructive bees and the other insects that are often confused with bees:

  • Carpenter bees. Like most insects with the word “carpenter” in their name, these bees like to carve out nests in wood, and sometimes that’s the wood in your house. The tell-tale sign is a round hole in some part of your house. They’re large bees, and have a furry yellow top and a smooth black bottom.
  • Killer bees. Anything with the name “killer” in it is probably trouble. The Africanized Honeybee, aka the “Killer Bee,” can be deadly when they attack in swarms, which they tend to do when a nest is threatened. While a solitary killer bee in your house isn’t a huge problem, you don’t want to get stung. The problem is that they are, essentially, honeybees, and they look almost the same as their much less dangerous cousins. Your main clue is their aggressiveness. While honeybees will avoid you, killer bees will act like you’re in their house.
  • Wasps. Many people see black and yellow and wings and think bees, but a bumblebee in your house isn’t an emergency, while a wasp or hornet definitely is. Wasps are longer and thinner than bees, and have a pronounced cinch in their waist. The yellow and black variety (aka yellowjackets) tend to be a brighter shade of yellow, as well. Hornets are a type of wasp, and can be quite large—the so-called “Murder Hornet,” for example, can be as big as two inches long, and has a formidable stinger that can get through even relatively thick clothing.


Many folks have a fear of spiders, but most of the spiders you’ll meet in your house are friends, not foes. They’re almost always harmless to humans unless you handle them aggressively, and they help control the population of more annoying critters by enthusiastically eating them. If you see a lot of spiders, you might want to investigate, because it could indicate that you have an invisible infestation of bugs, but otherwise there are only four spiders you might actually find in your house that are cause for emergency: black widows, brown recluses, hobo spiders, and tarantulas.

  • Black widows are your classic Halloween spider, with a bulbous abdomen and a distinctive red mark on their bellies that looks like an hourglass.
  • Brown recluse spiders are, yes, brown, and they have a unique violin-shaped mark on their back, as well as very long legs.
  • Hobo spiders are tough to identify, because they’re small and resemble most of the harmless spiders in your house. They’re not aggressive, but their bites can be painful. They usually have yellow markings on their abdomens that can help identify them.
  • Tarantulas are enormous spiders that can be as big as three inches long. They’re also pretty hairy, so they’re pretty easy to spot. And run away from.

Like it or not, we share this planet with a lot of bugs. And like it or not, many of those bugs are living in your house with you right now. Most of them will never bother you, and most aren’t dangerous even if they do—but knowing the ones that are can be crucial for your health and your peace of mind.

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