battling mice and voles (but never with mothballs)

mousetrapsTHE SNOW MELTS, revealing the horror: Mice and voles have had at it in your garden, coldframe or greenhouse. As fall approaches, maybe they’re scurrying for a nesting spot in your house or garage or shed. Whatever the havoc, mothballs are not the answer—and are in fact highly toxic, and illegal for garden use.  Learn how to control rodent pests safely, and how mice in particular figure into the Lyme-disease equation, too.

Though this is not new information, it apparently bears repeating. I hear from readers whenever I mention animal control–even of deer–who share the “tip” that they’ve discovered mothballs, reporting that they have spread them in a vole-besieged bed, or along their deer-pressured property line, or even in a stone wall, perhaps, to deter snakes.


Any use not specifically listed on the package violates Federal law, and can also harm you, your pets, or animals in the environment, and can contaminate soil and water, according to the National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State. Moth balls do not belong in your garden (nor in your attic, car, or crawl space).

Moth balls (and flakes) contain either napthalene or paradichlorobenzene. I frankly don’t want them in my closet, either, even inside a closed container as the directions advise, but again: Anywhere else is illegal, and dangerous.

box for mousetraps

What to do instead?

For rodents, I follow longtime organic farmer Eliot Coleman’s advice and trap year-round in key garden areas and outbuildings, placing my traps inside homemade boxes, as in the photos above and below. I like the Snap-e brand of trap (affiliate link), shown, for ease of setting and lastingness. Get the whole story on the boxes and how to use them. The box protects other animals from potentially getting injured, compared to a trap placed out in the open. I bait mine with peanut butter, because most of my prey are mice; Coleman uses no bait for trapping voles. I get voles, too, even with the bait applied.

box mousetrap with lid offthe mouse-lyme disease connection

GARDEN DAMAGE ASIDE, I also aggressively trap rodents year round near the house—my own primary habitat!–because white-footed mice, in particular, are a primary vector for Lyme-disease transmission.Ticks that feed on mice are particularly likely to become infected with the spirochete bacterium implicated in Lyme.

“Long-term research shows that white-footed mice are the critical hosts for black-legged ticks, which carry and spread the bacterium that causes Lyme disease,” says the Cary Institute in Millbrook, New York, where extensive tick-related research is under way. Read their summary on the ecology of Lyme disease for a shorthand insight into this disease and its life cycle. “Superabundant mouse populations allow more ticks to survive and lead to predictable spikes in human Lyme disease exposure.” Scientists there are even working on a bait that could inoculate mouse populations against the bacterium.

So-called “deer ticks” usually spread the Lyme to humans as nymphs, their second life stage—and the stage at which they are more likely to be on mice or shrews (or perhaps even chipmunks) than on deer, who are more often hosts for the adult ticks.

My own vigilant “mouse patrol,” as I refer to it, may be slightly irrational–clearly, I am not capable of achieving a truly mouse-free zone. But letting their population build up unnecessarily where I am most likely to interact with them is something I prefer not to do.

garter snakeOne final thought about those snakes, and by association, those mice and voles:

Snakes are one of your best allies in garden pest control, with many species consuming not only rodents, but also those garden-damaging pests, slugs. A healthy garden includes snakes as part of its community, and though I may at first feel squeamish when one startles me outside, I am glad they’re here and would never harm one. Red-tailed hawks, who also like to pick off small animals like mice, racing down from the sky with more precision than any mousetrap I could employ, agree with me that snakes are great, but for another reason. They like to enjoy the occasional snake for lunch.

It’s a food chain; don’t poison it with mothballs or any other chemical. (And there are even more players in the dance, of course, than my little example above.)

Oh, and want to keep deer out? Get a fence. No kidding.

more on voles (vs. moles) and ‘nuisance wildlife’

from Missouri Botanical GardenCAN’T TELL signs of a vole from a mole, or have other “nuisance wildlife” issues, from rabbits to woodchucks to who knows who? This interview with Marnie Titchenell from Ohio State University may help. (Above, photo of voles’ surface tunneling in turf from Missouri Botanical Garden, where they have more on voles and mice.)

  1. kathy says:

    My husband and I can’t stand to kill anything so he traps rodents in “have a heart” traps and releases them miles deep into the woods! We live in a climatic forest and have lots of hawks and snakes.

      1. Brigitte Frank says:

        I can’t use mouse traps outside bc while I want the voles eradicated, I still love seeing chipmunks, and rabbits. I use MoleMax granulals in my flower beds & it does work on all the rodents.

    1. Katie says:

      Depending on the animal and where you live it may be illegal to trap and release somewhere else. Areas have laws against this to reduce the spread of disease.

  2. Cene says:

    Voles… I have a city. Kitty kills at least 3 a day. I would never in a million years thought to use mothballs. Or traps. Mainly have to clean the leaves up so they don’t have a place to hide. But … Ive noticed they have very discriminating taste when it comes to the plants they like to eat. Only the expensive ones…. On the bright side- They seem to aerate the grass ? ( I know… no bright side to voles ) My snakes are the best fed on the whole street ! Love to see their vole eating selves !

  3. Diane says:

    We had the most wonderful rodent catcher this winter, a bobcat! It was amazing to watch her follow her prey moving under the snow then suddenly watch her pounce breaking the crust of the snow and most of the time successfully capturing a meal! Beautiful creature. Another of the many reasons not to use pesticides or poisons.

    1. Betty Scoggin says:

      Hello. I use flip top cardboard shoe boxes for the mouse traps. Put 2 traps in each box and use several boxes so that you get all of the mice before they can reproduce.

    2. Judy says:

      Yes. I’ve used trap and release traps for mice found in the home. I filled the small openings outside using a steel wool type material I got through Amazon for keeping mice out. Inside, under kitchen sinks…where the pipes are, the openings are pretty wide and are easy access for rodents. Close those up, too. Also, bathrooms and anywhere in your house where there are gaps. I release the mice at least three miles away in an open, wildlife refuge where there are no homes. I read that they can find their way back if not released far enough. I would never use poisons or anything toxic. There are predators that’ll eat dead animals…such as bald eagles, for example…that will ingest the poison of their prey and get very sick or die. Also, using lead sinkers in fishing and lead bullets in hunting can be dangerous, too. They eat a lot of fish and carrion. Think of the food chain in the wild, overall.

  4. Pam Hinckley says:

    I have found a delightful mouse trap to use in my cellar (I also have a very old house). I take a 5 gallon bucket, add 3″ of water, smear peanut butter along the inside of the bucket, and add a piece of wood about an inch wide as a ramp. Mouse smells the peanut butter, fall s and drowns. To dispose, dump water and mouse outside and then add more water. While it won’t work outside, it does help protect the veggies in the root cellar. I have caught more than a dozen mice this winter.

    1. Wendy says:

      Our family cannot kill an animal just because it is looking for food or for any reason. We are all in the same boat, we all have to eat.

      We live catch and then release the animal, see where it runs to get out of the house and then block the hole. It has worked every time.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Patricia. Moles are great soil aerators, and eat some grubs (and also earthworms)…they don’t eat plants (though sometimes their tunneling disrupts things). So I like them, but of course anything in excess can be tricky. Sometimes it’s written that having loads of grubs (such as those of Japanese beetles) makes the turf or garden more appealing to moles, but again: they really love earthworms, so getting rids of grubs won’t solve your problem, other experts say. Ohio State has this point of view; at UC-Davis this is the wisdom. As you can see trapping is what’s recommended if control is really warranted. I’d recommend against wasting time on home remedies like castor oil and definitely not to buy and use toxic baits and fumigants.

      1. Pat Olson says:

        Thanks. My property is loaded with earthworms in the nice-looking soil. My biggest issue with the moles is the holes I trip in all over my property as my dachshund attempts to uproot the poor critters!

          1. Meris Ruzow says:

            Hi Margaret! Love your podcasts and articles! Thank you SO much! I”m not far from you — Just north between Albany & Saratoga. I noticed more garter snakes this year and while they also spook me at first, I’d never do anything to them! In fact, I’m wondering if there’s a way to introduce more onto my property. I live in a sub-division with forever wild woods behind my home. Let them eat moles !!!!!! :-) Thanks.

  5. Maggie says:

    What kind of peanut butter actually works? I must be using the wrong kind because my traps sit untouched for months, while other evidence of mouse activity appears. I used the 365 brand from Whole Foods, just because I had it. I used to use the fluff inside the Cadbury Creame Eggs, but since they changed the formula, that doesn’t work, either.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Maggie. I have used the junkiest supermarket generic brands that I would never eat myself, and gourmet stuff, too, when I had nothing else. It all works. You have to freshen the bait every few days; it does not stay fresh (and can even mold/harden). Try sticking a sunflower seeds or two onto the dab of PB perhaps. But the trick isn’t the brand, that much I feel certain of (and I have even used leftover almond butter, by the way).

    2. Mary says:

      Add a little jelly and a piece of pretzel to the peanut butter. My Va. mice seem to prefer a “sandwich!” (but to refresh it lest it get moldy…)

  6. claudia says:

    I have an old PB jar (gone rancid) that I use as mouse trap bait. Many of the newer plastic snap trpas are so fast that the PB is never touched and will last a season (and still catch mice)! Just label the jar as MOUSE with a sharpie. Wouldn’t work around non-readers.

  7. Tammi says:

    We use a trap on our backyard rats (they love birdseed) remove them from the trap and leave them on the lawn overnight. They are always gone by daybreak. Lots of owls and hawks to dispose of them. Why we won’t use poisons!

      1. Theresa says:

        Yes they do! Have seen them, swoop in and get, an escaped baby rat (caught in the barn – Not a pet). Also, believe it or not, I saw a group in a circle throwing one around to each other! True story! :) Love the crow watching.

  8. Ruth says:

    I tried traps out of doors one time. I got a chipping sparrow. You will never convince me to trap in my garden, even in a box. My husband does trap in our shed tho.

  9. Interesting, I have never heard of using mothballs. We have a lot of moles and mice and mouse traps with and without peanut butter has never worked. We found the easiest thing is just to block them. I put wire mesh under our raised beds and chicken wire above them and I have no problems. We don’t have ticks where I live, so I am not worried about Lyme disease.

  10. Robin Bolduc says:

    I live at 8900′ in Colorado. I have a whole colony of voles. They eat all of the native plants (roots). This leaves opportunity for invasive plant species to take over my property – apparent they don’t like thistle and non-native mustards. There are few natural predators – I haven’t seen any snakes and just a few hawks. My property is highway on the north and the South Platte River on the south. I wondered if it would be possible introduce bull snakes? I wonder why they are not naturally occurring? The land has gone through man-made disturbances in the last 100 years – it was a railroad turnstile, an empty field, and now a residence. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. margaret says:

      Voles are a big challenge, and their populations here can swell some years, too. I see that Colorado State Extension has an extensive factsheet on their life cycle and control — but it disclaims the possibility of total control, of course, and many of the recommendations include not just trapping but using chemical bait and so on. I’d suggest contacting your nearest Extension office to ask for advice, and also perhaps a local state-licensed “nuisance wildlife” control expert. As for why certain predators do or don’t occur, that’s probably a factor of available preferred habitat and other natural forces (like whether the desired predator’s own predator is present, etc.). Again, I suspect the local Extension and a DEC-licensed nuisance wildlife person (perhaps the Extension can recommend a list of such people) would have greater insight.

  11. Pam says:

    I am plagued by voles, hundreds of voles. Now they have eaten my yucca plants, which are located in the front of the house. New area for them, I suppose because they have eaten everything else in back and in side beds. They bite the leaves, gnaw on the nice juicy roots, this is very bad, however, yucca plants were near my prized Bartzela peony, and narcissus and leucojum bulbs. I literally have no plants left. Help! I’ve tried everything, except making these boxes due to lack of woodworking ability. Cod liver oil, powdered form, mouse traps, everything works a little while. I need a new plan, how do other gardeners deal with voles and probably rabbits? I am almost ready for *really bad things* thanks. Desperate!!!!!

    1. Pamela says:

      I used spray foam from Lowe’s. I put it in the holes. It expands filling the tunnel with harder stuff. Did this last year. Haven’t had any problems since.

      1. margaret says:

        Yes, here too. But I keep trapping as well. And somehow they always find new ways into my 125 year old cellar!

  12. Lauren? says:

    This is the first year voles have been busy in my yard. Horrible. They did their dirty deeds under a late snow. No evidence prior., when the snow melted the runs were everywhere. Humph. How do you keep the Alvins (chipmunks) from getting into the traps? I like them. Does this cod liver oil thing work? I saw a man who sells Hostas in New Hampshire in a video sing the praises of cod liver oil.

    I used to work in a school that got INFESTED with mice (and maybe rats) and this woman from the business office scattered scads of mothballs all over the underground parking garage and the smell came up into the whole school and lots of the classrooms had no windows and I will always wonder how many years of my life were stolen by breathing that terrible thing. For weeks I would get a sore throat soon after going into the school. Imagine what it did to pregnant teachers and all those young kids. ☹️Everyone was scared to tell OSHA or the union because the union was very cozy with the administration.

    The rodents couldn’t care less – they went about their business merrily. ??????

  13. Julie says:

    Our front yard looked like the cratered moon surface after the voles moved in 2 winters ago.

    We have a great hawk population, so we have been keeping the grass shorter to reduce hiding places for voles. (Read that tip online.) I think they are officially gone!

  14. Alicia Brewster says:

    I have snakes and owls that nest on my property, and have tried every non poison on the market. Underground traps in tunnels worked well, but caught shrews as well, so no more of that. One time I emptied the trap 3 times before I could walk away..snapped again. Buckets covering traps over the holes.. so much work, and for every one killed, there are 50 more. I hate killing things, have had many pet rats, but I was desperate. Love the box idea, but afraid a snake or toad or bird will go in. Dog hair collected from brushing tucked around the plants seems to work the longest for me, but just a couple of weeks at best. Why do I continue to plant things..so much wasted money and work. Every year I Google this topic again, hoping a cure has been discovered, but always the same thing…desperate gardeners losing the battle. Just needed to vent to people who understand. Voles are really making me sad :(

  15. Janette L Hartje says:

    I have a problem with mice in the sm. 2 car garage where I have my rabbits, store food for them & also my chickens (in tight containers). I also have to store holiday decorations, camping gear etc. The mice get into it all! I want to put something in the boxes that will repel them & I do set traps everyday (catch a couple daily too!) I use the “scraps” of any creamy peanut butter with great success. My question: “What can I use to keep them OUT of my decorations,etc.?” Help! My Lab/Shar Pei mix hunts them many times daily, never gets any but tears thru the boxes with great pleasure!!

  16. Betty M Assmann says:

    Voles were terrible this year, they completely distroyed my Marigold garden.
    I put deter down, but it never helped.

  17. Sharon says:

    so good that you mentioned Cary Institute in Milbrook for their tick related research. Had a phone conversation with them about opposums who are voracious tick eaters.

  18. Brigitte Frank says:

    I can’t use mouse traps outside bc while I want the voles eradicated, I still love seeing chipmunks, and rabbits. I use MoleMax granulals in my flower beds & it does work on all the rodents.

  19. Lauren? says:

    I used to work in a private school that was HEAVILY infested with mice and the business office woman brilliantly decided that instead of paying for an exterminator bought tons of mothballs and strewed them all over the underground parking garage where the fresh air intakes for the whole school were located. For weeks we endured terrible sore throats and smelled like our grandmas by the time we would leave in the afternoon. I always wonder what this did to us all. It did nothing to get rid of the mice.

    I control vole activity in the yard by using a mix of castor oil and dishwashing detergent to repel them from plants. Look at the charming video at New Hampshire Hostas to learn more. I used it last year and got to see all sorts of small spring bulb blooms, plus I also walked around all beds when it snowed, hoping to flatten any of their tunnels.

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