Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

A Few Good Reasons Not to Use Insecticides

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Insects, Caterpillars, Butterflies, Milkweed bugs, Integrated Pest Management, Cindy Murphy,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpg“Insects outnumber humans 500,000 to 1 and, if not controlled, would soon destroy the human race and rule the earth

Oh! The horror!!!!

“…a single pair of flies, beginning operations in April, might be the progenitors, if all were to live, of some 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 flies by August of the same year… this number would cover the entire earth 47 feet deep.”

Run! Run for your life before it’s too late!!!

Or just use Raid; it kills bugs dead.

The quotes above are not from a B-horror flick just-in-time for Halloween release. They came from a pamphlet I found while cleaning out Mom’s cabinets. “What You Should Know About Insecticides” was in an envelope from S.C. Johnson & Son, along with a bunch of other pamphlets about things like “How To Have A Prettier Room,” and “How To Make House Cleaning Easier.” “What You Should Know About Insecticides” discusses Johnson’s Wax Laboratories brand new product, “Raid.” The year was 1956, and the envelope is so old the zip code line of the address reads, “Detroit 4, Michigan.” Why Mom kept it for all these years, I don’t know ... just like I’m not sure why I put it into my bag to bring home. Maybe, like Mom, I thought I might one day find a use for it ... like writing a blog about how far we’ve come during the last 50 years, from the grab a can of insecticide every time you see a bug or a hole in a leaf mentality, to the concept of Integrated Pest Management, commonly referred to as IPM.

I don’t want the title of this post to mislead anyone into thinking I don’t use any kind of insecticide in my yard. There are times I feel their use is warranted. Our spring and summer was stormier than usual. Heavy rainfall oversaturated the ground in many areas – including our ravine, which did not drain for weeks. The standing water turned stagnant - the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I used Mosquito Bits, a biological control that attacks only mosquito larvae, and is safe for the environment, animals, and people.

That’s in a nutshell what IPM is all about – keeping pests to acceptable levels with as little disruption to the environment as possible. IPM is not about discarding the use of pesticides entirely; but those that are used are specific to the problem, with the least harm to non-target insects and the environment. It is not about “controlling” the insect population, but rather is an attempt to “manage” it. Not only is total control of a pest typically not possible, it has the possibility to cause adverse environmental consequences.

There are many reasons I live with insect damage in my garden instead of automatically reaching for a can of Raid. Here are a few of them, courtesy of Shannon, who went on a photo safari in our yard once I figured out how to take a close up picture without it being blurry (since then, I can’t find the setting again so any future blogs will be back to blurry photos).

Spiders; we’ve got lots of spiders in our yard. They come in all sizes and different colors. Tiny, dainty green spiders.

Dainty green spider

And big, hairy scary-looking spiders.

Big, hairy spider

Spiders are important predators in any ecosystem, eating tons of pests every year. Actually, they’re not choosy – they’ll eat the pests as well as the beneficial insects. Females will even eat the males ... just as the big, hairy, scary-looking spider did a few weeks ago as I watched with a kind of sick fascination. Despite the fact that they will eat beneficial insects, there are many advantages to having spiders in the garden. They are voracious predators and they are abundant. And since many spiders live through the winter, they can get to work eating those bad guys early in the season before other biological controls are active.

Honey bee

Bees are one reason I never use any insecticide on a flowering plant – even organic insecticides are toxic to some beneficial insects. Though insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils are comparatively less toxic than chemical insecticides, they can still be harmful to bees, the world’s most important pollinator. A honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a single collection trip. Albert Einstein once determined that without them, the human race would perish within four years.

Painted lady

Another important pollinator we have in abundance in the yard is the butterfly. Who doesn’t like to watch butterflies?

Quetta and tiger swallowtail butterfly

Even Quetta is fascinated by them!

Speaking of butterflies ... I was reminded of Lori Dunn’s blog “Of Parsley and Caterpillars” when I saw one of the parsley plants stripped of its leaves. Sure enough, it didn't take me long to find this caterpillar, which eventually will turn into a black swallowtail butterfly."

Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar

This summer the swamp milkweed hosted a dozen or so Monarch caterpillars, which is the reason I planted it.

Monarch caterpillar

It, and my butterfly weed (also a milkweed), don’t attract only Monarch butterflies. Along with the bees, butterflies and caterpillars there are a few undesirables – more than a few actually. Tiny, yellow aphids on the milkweed (aptly called yellow milkweed aphids) thrive in the kind of hot, humid weather we had this summer. This vampiric breed of insects sucks the juices out of the milkweed stems. Their bright yellow color makes them easily detectable, and I can usually spot them before their population explodes. Typically, I just cut the infested stem out and dunk it in soapy water. I noticed quite a lot of them one morning, but didn’t have time to deal with the problem; I had to get to work. I noticed a couple of ladybugs on the milkweed as well. Ladybugs eat aphids ... but I had no idea how fast. By the time I got home from work, there was not a single aphid to be seen. The ladybugs were gone too ... probably resting somewhere after a hard day on the job.

Sometimes I don’t have a clue what’s on my milkweed.

What is it

A grasshopper? Some kind of katydid? I saw only two of these this summer – this one on the milkweed, and one on my front porch. If anyone can identify this pretty lime-green insect, please let me know. I’m curious.

I didn’t know what these guys were either when I first noticed them.

Milkweed bug

There were probably about four or five dozen of them, and at first I was kind of worried. Though they were only on the milkweed, I was afraid it might be some type of horrible bug, threatening to “destroy the human race, and rule the world” ... or at least, eat my garden.

An Internet search revealed they are milkweed bugs, and are basically harmless. They tend to congregate on the pods, piercing them to feed on the seeds inside. Just like Monarch butterflies, they have few predators because the sap of the milkweed makes them taste foul. And like Monarchs, their orange and black coloring is used as an advertisement for their bad taste. Hundreds of these insects can often be found on just one milkweed ...

... as I soon discovered.

Immature milkweed bugs

Five dozen milkweed bugs produce hundreds of babies. I’ve never seen so many insects on one plant! It led me to another Internet two-minute drill; I thought surely one plant can’t support that many bugs without some adverse effects to its health. I learned that while they can affect it, it’s usually only cosmetically. I also learned though, that their large numbers can discourage Monarch butterflies and harass the cats. Harass the cats! In a brief “duh” moment, the image of Dusty and Ranger covered in black and orange bugs flashed through my head, and I was glad they are inside cats. It took me a second or two before I caught on to the Monarch enthusiasts’ lingo – “cats” are caterpillars. Duh.

Because the Monarch population is dwindling and the milkweed bugs seem to be much more prolific, after much debate, I ended up using the same method I use on the aphids; I cut the most infested pods, and dunked them in a mixture of soap, vegetable oil, and water.

I left quite a few of them though. I figured if I’m already outnumbered 500,000 to one, what’s a couple dozen more milkweed bugs going to hurt? Unless, of course, they are the masterminds behind the insect population’s plot to rule the world.

cindy murphy
10/23/2010 6:18:41 AM

It's never too late, Stepper; I appreciate you taking the time to comment. The monarchs are probably my favorite too, which goes all the way back to when I was a kid. My dad was fascinated by them, and once took us up north to a place where they congregate before making their migration. There must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of them! It was a sight I'll never forget. He also found a monarch caterpillar in the yard once and fitted a screen over an old fishtank, and filled it with milkweed, so we could watch the life cycle up close. It changed into a chrysalis, and when the butterfly emerged, we released it. It was a cool thing to see as a kid. I never did find out what the green bug was. I'm leaning toward some kind of katydid only because I've never seen a grasshopper that bright green.

chris davis
10/22/2010 10:34:04 PM

I know I'm late on this, but I appreciate your efforts for the Monarch Butterflies - they need the milkweed. There are many varieties of butterflies, but the Monarch has always been my favorite. And thanks to Shannon for the bug pictures. Good job! Did you ever find out about your green bug?

cindy murphy
10/15/2010 7:18:35 AM

Thanks, Vickie. Most of the photos were taken by Shannon, my nine year old. Good thing we're in the age of digital cameras - she took over a hundred pictures of things she found in the yard in just a few days! I bet once those chickens of yours get up and running around you'll have even less of a bug problem, (I wonder if they eat potato bugs?). Hope your chicken adventure is still going well for you. I'm looking forward to hearing about how it's coming along. Have a great weekend! Cindy

10/14/2010 9:56:19 PM

Cindy, Your pictures are fantastic they really are some cool looking bugs! About the only bugs I have problems with are potato bugs and they die by squishing and dusting them with flour (it seems to help). Great article. vickie

cindy murphy
10/14/2010 8:32:25 PM

Hi, Dave. I like milkweed - it's got a pretty flower and smells heavenly. It attracts the pollinators - the butterflies and bees, and is the sole food (not soul food; but that's good too) of Monarch caterpillars. We might be able to do without it, but the Monarchs can't. Without it, there'd be no Monarchs. But I'm not a farmer. Or a Monarch for that matter, (although I am Queen of the my own mind anyway). I guess it's all about perspective. It's often said, "it's only a weed unless you don't want it there". I don't remember all the particulars, but I recently read about a law somewhere in Canada that stated something to the effect that it was illegal to destroy milkweed (because the Monarch population is becoming threatened) unless it was an agricultural nuisance. Your compost sounds like wonderful stuff! Hope your next gardening season is as productive and pest-free as this past one. Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your day!

nebraska dave
10/14/2010 7:07:23 PM

@Cindy, it must be a riot living in your family. Your hubby needs to get a star award for saving the day. When bugs invade your plants, who ya gona call? Milkweed is another of those nasty farm weeds that we could do without. They rate right up there with the cocklebur, morning glory, and wild sunflower. Back when I had my farm experience, it was my job to walk the corn rows with a corn knife and chop the weeds out of the corn. Thank goodness it was only 80 acres and not 2000 like farms of today. It sure would build up the leg muscles walking all day in the soft dirt of a corn field. I don’t know that we really did anything about bugs. Some years we won and some years the bugs won. It wasn’t like now when any bad year means sudden death to the farming operation. I personally don’t worry about bugs. I try to keep my plants as healthy as I can and pray that the balance of nature will bring the best mix of good bugs and bad bugs. For the last three years of gardening, I haven’t had a bug problem. But then I start with eight inches of fresh still steaming composted soil in the spring. There’s no chance of left over bug eggs in the soil when I begin spring planting. I saw just a few holes in the potato plants this year but nothing to be concerned about. It didn’t seem to have really caused any damage to the plants at all. Have great bug free day.

cindy murphy
10/14/2010 7:35:15 AM

You are a brave soul, Shannon; I'm a wimp. I must admit I get kind of squeamish at the thought of squishing, which is why I use either the cut and drown, or the pluck and drown method. A couple of weeks ago, I found the biggest, fattest tomato hornworm I've ever had the displeasure of seeing. Although the tomatoes still on the vine here probably won't ripen before the plants die, I felt the need to pluck....but no way was I going to squish that big old, fat juicy thing! I stuck it under a glass vase that happened to be sitting on the porch, and hoped it would spontaneously combust in the sun....or to keep it contained and let Hubs do the squishing duties. Which he did...but not before I had some fun scaring Shelby with it. It's so fun having bugs and teenagers in the same vicinity.

s.m.r. saia
10/14/2010 7:03:04 AM

Cindy, thanks for this informative and, as usual, witty post. Great pictures, especially those caterpillars. Your pictures of the milkweed bugs reminded me of a photo I took of a brussels sprout stalk crawling with harlequin bugs - alas, not so harmless to the plants. I found a few on my broccoli yesterday and had to smush, since I've seen what happens when I let them go. They may not take over the world, by they can sure take over a garden row! That said, I have no problem with eating Swiss chard with a few bug holes in it. :0)