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Your Own Little Slice of Earth: Pesticides & Insecticides

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Have you ever felt guilty for killing a mosquito or fly? I certainly haven’t and I bet you haven’t either. Insects can be annoying, no doubt, causing many people to resort to chemical warfare believing they are the only option for relief. However, using pesticides invites a new swarm of problems to your door. Not only are they a short term band-aid for the issue, but they do irreversible damage to the environment. You do have options though; ones that are safer, cheaper, and easier.


"Gardeners as educated consumers wield tremendous power." Margie Hunter "Gardening with the Native Plants of Tennessee"

What is pesticide? Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill vegetation, and if they had a child together it would be pesticide that kills both. I’ll use insecticide and pesticide interchangeably here because the primary focus here is on killing insects, which they both do. Also, we’ll only talk about the vast majority of pesticides. Not every single thing discussed here applies to everything on the market because of the massive variety that exists: gels, fogs, sprays (and more) that can block growth, sterilize, attack the nervous system (and more).


Using pesticides has more of an impact than many people realize. Most are indiscriminate, killing a lot more insects than just the ones annoying you at the moment. They kill butterflies, caterpillars, moths, fireflies, bumblebees, etc. The downside is not just missing out on their beauty but you also miss out on the things they give back to the environment by the jobs they do, called ecosystem services. Celebrities have been trying (and failing hilariously) to get people to switch to bug-based foods because they’re so dense with healthy nutrients. This is a new fad for people but birds and other bugs have known this for centuries! 96% of birds feed their babies an all or mostly bug diet [1]. On a larger scale, insecticides hurt birds whose populations are in significant decline [2]. On a smaller scale, without bugs you won’t have any backyard bird to enjoy. If there’s no food in your yard, they’ll just go somewhere else to find it. When you kill all the bugs in your landscape, you are also killing all the good bugs: ones that pollinate your fruits and vegetables and predatory ones that keep all the other bugs in check. People have tried to calculate exactly how helpful pollinator bugs are to the economy and one estimation is anywhere between $235-$577 billion [3]. Honey bees and native bees alone contribute $24 billion [3]! No small feat! As you probably know, in the wild there are predators and there are prey. This is as true in the bug world as it is on the African savannahs. Killing off everything means also killing your predatory bugs which means by using insecticides you can accidentally make the problem worse! Your pest population can come back stronger (called pest resurgence) or you may have suddenly have a new pest pop up (called secondary pest outbreak). Back in the DDT day (an infamous insecticide banned in the US in 1972), populations of citrus red scale (the pest) exploded after the insecticide also wiped out the red scale parasite (its enemy) [4]. When farmers tried to exterminate fall armyworm (the pest) from their corn crop using an insecticide, maize leafhoppers (another pest) suddenly became the new problem [4]. The reason why some bug species have population explosions and others don’t seem to is the same reason it is easier to farm rabbits than it is elephants. Pests typically become pests because they can multiply like rabbits in a lot of different environments. This is where the issue is: pest populations can outgrow predatory bug populations and the less diverse landscapes you have, the less types of predatory bugs, and the less chance you have of keeping all types of insects at bay. Some insecticides may not kill certain species directly but they may still harm them. In one study, bees ultimately died from parasites and diseases because their immune systems were stressed from sub-lethal insecticide exposure. In another, birds exposed to an insecticide lost a lot of weight and became completely disoriented to north and south, making migration extremely difficult and dangerous [5]. These are just a couple examples! There are plenty more examples of secondary poisoning, smaller clutches (number of babies), and slow growth!


If you have a pest problem, you’re going to be spending some money one way or another. Using some sort of chemical insecticide isn’t going to solve the problem at the root. If you’re going to spend money anyway, consider alternatives that are more natural and long lasting. For mosquitoes, the easiest (and free-est) thing to do is dump out any standing water and clean your gutters. They can’t breed without water. If you can’t then mosquito dunks are your best option. They’re small pucks containing a natural bacterium that kills mosquito larvae but is completely harmless to all other wildlife and people. One puck can cover 100 square feet of water for up to 30 days! Other options include essential oils body sprays, citronella candles, and (my personal favorite) a large fan. Mosquito season is also “feels like a sauna outside” season, so a large box fan is a 2-for-1 solution. Thinking more broadly, creating a more diverse landscape is going to help with a lot of your pest problems. Planting a wide variety of native plants and inviting an entire ecosystem of bugs to your yard will naturally keep all the bugs in checks and balance with each other. Put up bat houses and birdhouses for as many different species as you can. If you can, put in a pond that will attract frogs, dragonflies, and turtles (you need to add a water feature though to keep the water from becoming a mosquito breeding zone). Adding more natural elements to your yard will not only help with bugs, but you’ll have a beautiful outdoor escape to relax in!


The takeaway from this is simple: our actions have impact AND you don’t have to suffer. As individuals, you can’t force your neighbor to change, or in a greater sense, the world. What you can do is make decisions you can be proud of and do the best with what you’ve been given, whether that be a 1 acre home, a 35 acre farm, or a landscaped business. The world changes one decision for the better at a time. And for the creation that’s under your care, it will make a world of difference.

"We each have an opportunity to do to take this personal action and think about how our own little piece of the earth, our own yards or our own gardens in our neighborhoods or communities, are all opportunities for us to do something good for nature." David Mizejewski, National Wildlife Federation
 

Sources

[1] Are Declines In Insects And Insectivorous Birds Related? Doug Tallamy. 2021

[2] Silent Skies: Billions Of North American Birds Have Vanished. Jim Daley. 2019

[3] The Value of Pollinators To The Ecosystem And Our Economy. 2019

[4] Indirect Effect Of Pesticides On Insects And Other Arthropods. Manuel E. Ortiz-Santaliestra. 2021

[5] Imidacloprid And Chlorpyrifos Insecticides Impair Migratory Ability In A Seed-eating Songbird. Margaret L Eng, Bridget J M Stutchbury, Christy A Morrissey. 2017


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