The Battle of the Bugs

The long cold winter is just about over. The daylight hours are slowly getting longer and the warmth of the sunshine is beginning to be felt in the air and on the ground. The bright sunshine and warmer days entice backyard gardeners out the door. The same warm sunshine also brings out the bugs and the age old battle for territory between the gardener and the local bug population begins again. Waging  this battle has North American households using approximately 136 million pounds of pesticides every year, according to a report published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Pesticides are composed of synthetic and/or organic compounds. Many gardeners have shied away from the use of synthetic pesticides in favor of organic. Organic pesticides are those pesticides that come from natural sources, usually plant-based and therefore less feared, but while organic pesticides are normally safer than synthetic, safer does not mean harmless.  Even if the product is considered organic, it is still a pesticide and the consumer must be aware that many organic pesticides are more toxic than their synthetic counterpart.  Some organic pesticides that are considered nontoxic or only slightly toxic to humans can be very toxic to animals.  Some organic pesticides are very toxic to fish when carried away by storm water runoff. Pesticides are one of the main groups of Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs that are presently polluting lakes, rivers and streams throughout North America. Also, organic or plant-based pesticides aren’t selective; they will kill the beneficial insects such as honeybees and ladybugs along with the unwanted pests. The one benefit found when using organic versus synthetic pesticides is that many organic products break down much faster than do the synthetics. This means the threat to humans, pets, wildlife and beneficial insects is of a shorter duration than with most synthetics.

If both synthetic and organic pesticides are harmful, and all the available ammunition seems likely to backfire and cause more harm than good, how can the backyard gardener win the battle over the bugs? Victory in the garden will require ceding a little territory to the “bad” bugs and allying yourself with the army of beneficial insects. Entomologists estimate that better than 90% of all insects are beneficial, even necessary to lawn and garden health. These “Good Guys” may be the predators which eat the garden pests or they contribute to garden health by pollinating, burrowing air holes, composting garden debris and a host of other necessary duties. Half of the remaining 10% are considered neutral, a part of the garden food chain, leaving only 5% that create the damage.

Sometimes it seems that the whole 5% has settled in your garden but an ideal garden has small numbers of all common bugs, and the pests need only be controlled, not eliminated.

Call a truce and get to know your bugs! Brown ground beetles eat slugs and their eggs. Adding a few paving stones or other large flat rocks to the garden or flowerbed will make them feel right at home. Ladybugs are voracious aphid eater, consuming as many as five thousand in a lifetime. Grow plants in your vegetable and flower garden like columbine, creeping thyme, yarrow, English lavender, mint, dill, chamomile and fennel. These attract the beneficial insects that naturally prey on many of the pests. Check for signs of insect damage at least once a week. When possible remove insect pests and their eggs by hand.

Keep weed growths to a minimum. Resolve yourself to spend 20 minutes a week on weed control. (20 minutes with a hoe is an excellent workout so you can call yourself multitasking.) Routinely examining the lawn and garden will help determine when pests have reached the damaging stage. Damage thresholds include the damage a plant can tolerate, the injury threshold, and the amount of damage a gardener can tolerate, the aesthetic threshold. Giving up a few nibbles on the cabbage or green beans is sometimes a fair trade for chemical- free produce.  It is up to the individual gardener to determine when enough is enough. Developing good gardening habits is usually easier said than done, but in doing so you may be able to limit or possibly avoid the use of pesticides.

There are growing seasons when all else fails and it is necessary to pull out the big guns, pesticides. Following are a few guidelines that will help you protect your family, your garden and the environment.

  • Always be aware of the product you are using. Read the label carefully and thoroughly before you purchase it, know exactly what you are using.
  • Follow the instructions to the letter and use the pesticide only when and where the label says.
  • Use the least toxic chemical that will do the job and spot-spray infested areas rather than broadcasting over wide areas.
  • Use pesticides that degrade rapidly. Rapid degradation reduces the risk of the pesticide becoming stormwater runoff.
  • Never apply pesticides when rain is eminent. Look at the weather forecast and wait for a dry spell if possible. Even a small rain shower is capable of producing a runoff that has the potential of carrying pesticides to area waterways. Also, be aware of the wind. Apply pesticides early in the morning or late in the evening when the wind is the calmest.
  • When each individual within a community makes a conscious effort to do just one little thing differently, in a more environmentally friendly manner, the entire earth will reap the benefits.

More information on natural pesticides. Safety information for using any pesticides.