Some buzzes are better than others. Gardeners know this. The hum of the visiting bumblebee – good. The high pitched whine of the blood seeking mosquito – bad. Bugs in the garden are a good thing, unless they are after my skin which is why mosquitos and fire ants are my swore enemies. But in spring, I start seeing the biggest scare tactic landscape scam pulled on homeowners. It looks something like this…
I think the pitch would be less appealing to homeowners if branded like this …
You’ll have fewer butterflies, birds, frogs, lizards, and maybe mosquitos!…
But that would be a different marketing approach, and probably a failed one. People want to believe in the “smart weapon” approach. “I hate mosquitos. This bottle/company/sales rep tells me they will eliminate mosquitos. I’ll take it!” But what they aren’t leading with, is that these chemicals are general insecticides. They kill insects. All of them. Just because the bottle shows a mosquito, doesn’t mean the butterflies, dragonflies, bees, and ladybugs got a memo saying “not intended to kill you.” This process is the equivalent of controlling crabgrass in your yard by spraying Roundup on the entire thing. Many of these companies leave warnings to wait before using treated areas, cover pet food/water dishes, shut windows, and cover children’s toys. Why? To reduce exposure. You got the memo, but the bugs didn’t.
The active ingredient in these landscape pesticides is usually from the pyrethrin family, basically a nerve agent for bugs. To boot, most are organically derived! So it must be good. (Then again, arsenic is organic too.) These chemicals are USDA approved and are perfectly legal to buy and use. (It’s worth noting here that as a beekeeper, I need a vet to visit my hives and write a prescription for disease treatments. But insect killer is readily available at any big box store. Go figure.). Pyrethroids – synthetic pyrethrins – are highly toxic to fish and cats. Even dogs can show pyrethrin poisoning. That’s why you are warned to cover bowls and keep animals off treated areas until dry.
What makes these insecticides worse is the way they are applied. It usually involves the ‘more dead bugs is better’ approach. Backpack mounted sprayers are the weapon of choice for the residential service companies. They blast a fine mist of pyrethrins on to plants (flowering & not) in the middle of the day when beneficial insects are most active and the mosquitos are at rest. Homeowners contract these services to provide insect control inside their tidy property lines. Never mind that next door mosquitos could be breeding like rabbits (or mosquitos) only to drift back over come dusk. Every 3 weeks this scenario plays out as the company returns to terminate the offending bugs. And resistance builds. During the 2016 Zika virus breakout, the EPA acknowledged that mosquito control was less effective than hoped because of mosquito resistance to insecticides.
Full disclosure – I’m not a hater. I prefer natural measures but I do use pest control when needed. But the key to effective treatment is identification. Do I really have a problem and do I know what it is? Knowing your enemy allows you to choose the most direct and effective approach for control with the least unintended consequences. I realize alternatives may be less convenient than stroking a check for yard treatment, but they are often cheaper, more responsible, and more effective.
We generally overlook the natural (and FREE) lethal garden security forces already in our yards – beneficial insects. These are the real tactical threat to landscape pests. A strong force of frogs, toads, birds, birds, bats, spiders, predatory wasps, ladybugs and praying mantis is a hearty check on any runaway insect population. These guys are voracious feeders on just the pests we want to be rid of. Consider purchasing some of these beneficials to release in your yard. It’s great fun to release lady bugs whose cheery spots bely their hungry aphid appetites. Go get ’em girls.
Next level? Mosquito birth control. There are obvious ideas like eliminating standing water areas (birdbaths, empty pots, overturned toys,etc.). But you can go a step further and interrupt the population. It starts with those donut-shaped mosquito dunks in your local garden center. They are made with BTI, a bacteria larvicide toxic only to mosquitos – not humans, fish or wildlife. Early spring is the best time to start. Put out some small area of shallow water (empty cans, old tupperware, etc.) with a dunk in each. Female mosquitos will be lured in to lay their eggs, which will never develop into adults. This halts the breeding cycle. Leaving no one left to bite.
If you missed the boat there, consider the great advances in repellents. Our family has used Thermacell units with great success in buggy times. The newer models cover even greater distances. Permethrin clothing sprays are handy to apply to outdoor gear. (You can even buy clothes with it built in). This holds up for several washes and repels all sorts of biting things (chiggers and ticks most notably). Permethrin is made from the pyrethrin family but since it is in your fabric, not being broadcast across the flower bed, it’s activity is highly targeted. Then there is the standard issue citronella and spray-on repellents. Your mileage may vary.
Next time you see a ladybug scampering up a stem or a wren nabbing a beetle you can admire your volunteer pest control force. By combining several of these measures, you can work towards a landscape that is enjoyable for you and the insects we have working on our side. Thanks for thinking it through.