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Controlling Pests in your spring garden

Just about now, hungry bugs are finding your garden. Some are pests. Others are predators. In fact, 99.9 percent of all insects on the planet are either beneficial or benign.

Our job is not only to manage our gardens but to manage the organisms that benefit our gardens. Mass and indiscriminate spraying of pesticides kill not only the ubiquitous stink bugs but also bees, ladybugs, praying mantids, and other beneficial insect predators. But remember that the good bugs need something to eat, so don’t kill all the bad bugs in your garden.

As a youngster, I remember walking through a recently sprayed rice field and seeing thousands of dead bees, strewn out along a 10-yard-long path. The entire hive, which was obviously swarming when hit by the pesticide, died en masse. With the spread of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, our bees need all the help we can give them. And it’s not only honeybees. Along the Gulf Coast, there are at least 4,000 species of native bees that also contribute heavily to pollination.

Take wasps, for instance. Wasps are efficient and aggressive predators. They’re not out to harm us, though I’m sure that most of us gardeners have felt their painful sting at least once. If you watch red wasps, they fly under leaves, looking up to see the caterpillars and worms that camouflage there. Some people argue that wasps are indiscriminate killers and that they will eat monarch and other beneficial insect larvae. Of course, this is true. However, I make the suggestion that we cover our milkweed and passion vines with fine netting to keep the wasps out. They will then go on to find more natural prey.

Here are some organic remedies for bad bugs in your garden that actually work. Remember, most pests live on the undersides of the leaves, so don’t forget to treat there.

Soft-bodied insects: (aphids, whiteflies, mites, thrips, lace bugs).  Spray with orange oil or Neem Oil. You can also use organic pyrethrin, but remember that even organic pyrethrin is a neurotoxin, so you may want to go easy with it, or eliminate it from your organic repertoire.

Scale: these hard-bodied insects are pretty tricky, but not impossible, to kill. Mix orange oil and Neem Oil (1 oz orange oil, 2 oz. of Neem Oil to a gallon of water. Spray every week for three to four weeks. That should get them. If not, repeat the process.

Caterpillars, armyworms, sod webworms: We had large infestations of sod webworms last year, and they killed large swathes of lawns. Now, I don’t care much for lawns, but, if you do, spray with Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT). This is a bacteria that kills insect larvae by preventing them from eating. Be careful, though. BT only works on insect larvae, not the adult. And, though it is short-lived, spraying indiscriminately will kill all the insect larvae it comes in contact with. Don’t spray on flowers or vegetable plants where bees congregate. Bees will bring contaminated nectar and pollen back to the hive and feed it to the larvae, which will then die. New GMO crops like corn, sorghum, cotton, and soybeans have BT genetically bonded to the plant’s cell structure. Some scientists believe that plants genetically modified with BT splicing, have a much more lasting effect on all animal life. In fact, scientists are finding cells with the new GMO BT in human blood cells, particularly among women. Even with organics, we need to be very careful.   For sod webworms, spray the infected area on the lawn only.

Stink bugs and beetles: For stink bugs, I just carry around a small bucket with some warm soapy water. I flick the bugs off into the water, and they die instantly. It’s pretty easy and efficient unless you have a massive infestation. Then, there are other ways to handle pests other than spraying your vegetables with poisons.

Fire ants: Spinosad works, but I prefer the old Texas (or Cajun) two-step. Use Spinosdad on the mound (do it when it’s dry). Follow up a few days later with a good drenching of the hill with orange oil (6 oz. of orange oil to a gallon of water. 

Mosquitoes: for any standing water (for instance, birdbaths, rain barrels) use mosquito dunks. They also contain BT but are not harmful to birds or mammals, and since their use is very localized, it likely won’t affect any other insect larvae. For more widespread control, spray garlic oil around infested areas. Don’t be afraid to spray bushes, lawns, ground cover, decks, building walls, fences, and any other structure that might harbor them.

We gardeners should follow the same Hipppocratic Oath that doctors take: First, do no harm.

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