A Few Good Reasons Not to Use Insecticides

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“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.

And big, hairy scary-looking spiders.

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.

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.

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

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.”

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

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.

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.

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.

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.