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For many of us lucky Floridians, summertime includes weekends and vacations on the water with family and friends. Nowhere else in the country is boating more popular than right here in Florida where water surrounds us. As a long time sailor and boating fanatic, I want to take just as much care with my boat as I do with my house. Today, let’s talk about pest control for boats.

The things that make boating so enjoyable for us also make it the perfect habitat for pests. Water (moisture) and heat create the ideal environment for roaches, ants, and termites to set up permanent residence in your treasured boat. Bilge areas, anchor lockers, clogged deck scuppers, and storage areas can all retain moisture and are common “problem areas” for bugs.

Whether your boat is small and stored on a trailer, or large and kept in a slip, all such watercraft are potential homes for insects. Some of these pests are merely inconvenient, while others may cause significant damage to your investment.

Let’s look at the most common bugs found on boats, why they arrive, and how to eliminate them effectively.

Palmetto Bugs, Roaches, and Ants

Palmetto bugs and ants in particular LOVE the moist nooks and crannies of your boat. They will find their way in by crossing dock lines or crawling up a trailer. Palmetto bugs may fly straight in!

The first reaction of many boaters, when confronted with pests like roaches and ants, is to “bomb” or attack them with aerosol foggers. I see two problems with this approach.

The first is that you wind up with pesticide spread out over the entire living space of the boat. Yikes! Second, it is very unlikely to actually control the bugs. It might even make the problem worse, because it’s nearly impossible to treat all areas of a boat with pesticide foggers or surface sprays. There are just too many inaccessible corners. As such, foggers and sprays will drive the bugs to more remote areas of your boat, where they’ll be even more difficult to reach.

Additionally, these products may wind up in the bilge and ultimately the water, making them both an ineffective and environmentally unfriendly choice for pest control. Baits are a better choice. They are readily available and can be used without harming the occupants of the boat and the environment. (Always make sure to follow the usage instructions printed on the label, of course.)

Subterranean Termites

While not as common as palmetto bugs and ants, termites are a grave concern for boat owners in Florida. Both drywood termites and subterranean termites are commonly found on boats in the water and on trailers.

There are distinct differences between the two species. In their natural environment, subterranean termites live underground in moist soil. They travel between their nests and the food source (wood) through a network of tunnels. We rarely see these transit tunnels, since X-ray vision remains tragically nonexistent. These unwelcome intruders need moisture to survive, and exposure to air will dehydrate them to a swift demise.

On a boat, sources of wood can range from interior furniture components to structural members. Here, the transit tunnels are often easily seen, as the termites move from moist areas near the bilge to wooden areas in the cabin or above deck. On infrequently used boats, I’ve even seen these tunnels form over engines and transmissions.

The least obvious subterranean termite infestations I have encountered were on smaller trailerable boats with foam flotation. In this case, the termites tunnel through the foam and remain unseen until the colony is quite large. In this situation, damage can be severe.

Control of subterranean termites on boats usually comes with the aid of termiticide foams and liquids. However, not all termiticides are labeled for use on boats. Owners and professional pest control operators must carefully abide by the labels on the products they intend to use.

Drywood Termites

Unlike subterranean termites, drywood termites require only a small amount of moisture to thrive. (Drat.)

Colonies of drywood termites can be found in almost any form of wood on a boat, including trim boards, structural components, and furniture. While not as destructive as subterranean termites, given enough time, repairs to the damage they do can be costly.

While subterranean termites are most often recognized by their telltale tunnels, drywood termites are discovered by the small fecal pellets they leave behind. These pellets are known as frass and usually appear on horizontal surfaces such as tabletops, shelves, and the cabin sole. If the frass (and the pest it represents) remains undiscovered, you may be joined by swarming termites in short order.

Similar to their subterranean brethren, drywood termites can be treated with foams and liquids. If the infestation is caught early, you may be able to get away with a spot treatment. Severe infestations will require fumigation of the entire boat.

Very often, boaters dismiss termites as merely inconvenient instead of the red alert that they are. While they might not cause the kind of long-term structural damage that will cause your house to fall, they can still cause enough destruction to make your boat sink!

Yes, even if your boat is fiberglass.

Keep in mind that the structural component of most fiberglass boats is still WOOD. Even well-made boats will have small voids in the fiberglass hull. These are often just large enough to permit termites into structural elements such as stringers.

Sinking due to severe structural damage may happen at the dock if you’re lucky, but is far more likely to occur when the boat is under stress. A boat underway experiences a great deal of stress, especially at high speed.

Not the time to discover that you have termites.

Pest Control for Boats

Over my 20-year career, I have inspected and treated many boats with both types of termites. Some had small, easily treated infestations. Others suffered severe structural problems. In some cases, post-treatment I strongly recommend that the boat be removed from the water and evaluated by a marine surveyor before spending money to attempt repairs.

As you can see, while pests on boats are often the same we encounter in our homes, the way we treat them is different. If you intend to treat your boat yourself, always follow the label instructions on the products you use. When misused, they might not solve your problem—or worse, harm your family and the environment we enjoy.

If the pest problem you have on your boat is beyond what you wish to tackle on your own, feel free to give us a call at 386-673-1557.

Having decades of experience in both boating and pest control, my team and I are uniquely positioned to help you find the best solution. We also carry Longshoreman’s Insurance and have worked with many local marinas for years. We are delighted to assist you.


Todd Stebleton is the owner and operator of Universal Pest Control, a family-owned business for over 25 years in Ormond Beach, Florida. He and his wife Natalie are proud to have built a company focused on conducting business with honesty and integrity: keeping customers first, protecting the environment, and providing trustworthy, personal service.

Universal: Honest, Environmentally Friendly Pest Control