Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eeeeeeek! A Bug!

Pity the poor insects. Misunderstood, loathed, and generally under appreciated. They provide us with honey and silk, wax and dyes, and tirelessly pollinate our crops and flowers. In return, we swat at them, squash them, stomp on them, and even try to electrocute them.

Insects make up 95 percent of all species on Earth. There are more than one million different insect species, although a growing number of entomologists suspect that the true number might be as high as ten million. And among that vast number, less than one percent are pests, with just a few hundred species posing a consistent problem to agriculture, gardens, homes and structures, or human health.

That reality has not really hit home with most people. Insects are pests – period. And so we light lemon-scented candles and set up ultrasonic devices to scare them away, with limited success. Unfortunately, those rather benign measures, like fly swatters, are the exception. For the most part, the twentieth century has taken a more toxic approach to this war on bugs. Chemical weapons for the first two world wars were adapted and modified for commercial and home use. We discovered and applauded DDT – and unleashed ecological Armageddon and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Globally, approximately 25 billion dollars are spent annually on pesticides, with a 1988 World Health Organization report reflecting that there were one million occupational poisonings from these chemicals. A more recent State of the World report from the Worldwatch Institute found indications that these poisoning estimates might range from three to 25 million annually. And closer to home, a study by the American Association of Poison Control Centers estimated that 79,000 children were involved in household pesticide related poisonings or exposures that year.

We are paying -- and overpaying -- a high price for this insecticidal conflict. Oh, and the insects are winning, by the way. They have been quickly adapting to our chemical arsenals and for decades have enjoyed our new agriculture systems which no longer take advantage of traditional crop rotations, plant adaptations, and beneficial predators. Meanwhile, we are contaminating groundwater supplies, poisoning surface water, exposing our children, pets, and selves to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and generally making a real mess of our environment. How’s the war going?

Perhaps before we do any more bug-bombing, spraying, dusting, trapping, or electro-zapping, we ought to take another look at the dominant lifeform on “our” planet. Perhaps we need to realize that there are good bugs and bad bugs, learn the difference, learn a little tolerance, and address pest problems sensibly. After all, our insect friends play an essential role in the global food chain, they help keep real pests under control, provide vital services as scavengers and decomposer organisms, and add fluttering beauty to our world with colorful, gossamer wings or the gentle chirping that lulls us to sleep in the summer.

What’s bugging you?

During my earlier life with the Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Environmental Protection, I had - each fall - the duty to respond to a combination of letters and phone calls which dramatically illustrated the far-too-common and irrational reaction people have to harmless insects. The dread menace was the same in each case: boxelder bugs. These black and orange insects, are nothing more than nuisances. They do not bite people and are harmless to property. They feed almost exclusively on the leaves and flowers of the female boxelder tree. They do not transmit disease, do not cause structural damage indoors, nor damage indoor furnishings. Further, they do not reproduce inside, and will only live several days if not otherwise captured and removed. Okay, they are not pretty butterflies and can be annoying for several weeks when they swarm -- but they are harmless.

Each individual wanted an immediate response from their local government. One person demanded that the host boxelder trees in the community be chopped down – or at least insisted that the government spray pesticides in their densely populated area to kill the bugs. Similarly, a mother who saw a bug or two on her children’s clothing insisted that the Department of Public Works spray her entire neighborhood. And the last caller, a mother concerned because she noticed a bug on her baby’s blanket, wanted to know about getting exterminators to come in and spray the inside of the house (nursery included), as well as the trees outside.

Clearly these people have issues with bugs, including harmless species, and yet they are willing to subject their children and environment to toxic chemicals (or deforestation) to eradicate them – while killing off all the other beneficial insects in the area. It might be a good idea for bug-phobes to stop watching Hollywood b-movies with giant insects and schedule a family outing to the "Insect Zoo" at their local natural history museum or zoological park. After all, fear is mostly ignorance run amok.

The real question in dealing with pest control is “Is it worth it?” Is it worth exposing your family to toxic sprays every time you see a pesky fly? Is poisoning pets and toddlers an appropriate response to a innocent line of sugar ants on a kitchen counter? Using sprays to kill perceived pests may seem like a good idea – but at what cost? And what are you killing anyway? More than 99 percent of all insects are either beneficial or benign. Chances are you are killing off pollinators and not pests; poisoning the food chain and yourself, either directly or indirectly.

Time to think before you reach for -- or consider purchasing -- that spray can or lethal bug dust. Learn who the good bugs are before you try to kill off the bad ones -- and learn how to prevent pest problems first, and how to deal with them without toxic chemicals. Knowing the difference could save lives and an important part of your local environment.

Cleaner is greener

Of course, not every bug is wanted or desirable in our homes and gardens. Some are pests. Real pests. But there are a great many preventative measures which can make our homes, schools and workplaces naturally pest-free.
  • Good housekeeping - Keep tables, counters, cupboards, and floors clean, and immediately clean-up crumbs and spills, and put away leftover foods. In schools and offices, do not eat at your desk, if possible.
  • Storage - Store breads, pastas, sugar, starches and grains in tight-fitting containers. It is believed that a bay leaf placed in rice, flour, or grain containers will discourage varmints. Periodically check containers and discard any infested materials. Do not store food items in desks or lockers.
  • Disposal and recycling - Do not store garbage indoors. Wrap up or bag unwanted food materials and place in a tight-fitting trash receptacle. Keep the interior of garbage cans clean. Rinse recyclables before putting them in the bin (unrinsed bottles and cans are among the top five rodent attractants). Keep meat, fat, shortening, and dairy products out of compost bins. Recycle or dispose of papers and other clutter in basements, attics, and garages.
  • Pets - Clean up and properly dispose of dog and cat feces immediately (another top five rodent attractant). Store animal feed and birdseed in tightly-sealed containers. Regularly clean up under bird feeders (another top five item), and clean up spills of animal feed at once. Clean animal cages on a regular basis. Wash all pet bedding thoroughly with hot water. Vacuum all areas where pets sleep or “lounge.” Groom pets regularly outdoors – and keep them on a leash to avoid contact with flee-infected animals.
  • Moisture - Keep outdoor areas and basements free of standing or stagnant water. Remove and properly dispose of water-damaged materials, such as wood, wallboard, carpeting or carpet pads. Place a vapor barrier between basement floors and carpets to eliminate moisture in fibers and backing, and also cover the dirt "flooring" of crawl spaces under the house with a vapor barrier. These inexpensive barriers keep out moisture and control pest infiltration. Check for damp spots caused by leaking roofs or backed-up gutters. Ensure good ventilation in attics and crawl spaces.
  • Outdoors - Clean up and compost leaf litter and other garden trimmings laying around foundations, or in window and tree wells. Do not use wooden mulch directly against foundations. Prune trees and shrubs to provide aeration and ensure dryness around the sides and foundation of the house. Store firewood above ground and never next to the house or other wooden structures, like fences; do not store firewood indoors or in garages; check periodically and dispose of any pest-infested logs.
  • Barriers - Caulk around windows and install or replace the seals on doors and windows. Use removable caulking around window-mounted air conditioners.
  • Monitoring - If you live or work in a location that you suspects harbors pests, set up sticky traps or other monitoring devices to check on infestation. Check for insect infestations in containers when bringing potted plants indoors. Regularly inspect and repair any openings into your home, especially damaged screens, around pipes and utility lines, and around windows and door frames.
Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

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