The Poison Cycle
In a balanced ecosystem, predators will be in the minority. In other words, in a natural environment, there are many more prey organisms to ensure a continuous food supply for the predators. In such an ecosystem, there are huge numbers of prey including, aphids, white flies, cabbage worms, leaf miners, mole crickets, spider mites, and others that may be eating your crops, lawns, and landscape plants, but relatively few predator bugs such as praying mantids, assassin bugs and relatively few bug predators such as lizards, toads, birds, and bats.
Let’s consider what happens when you attempt to poison pests. A general insecticide (organic or not) will kill the majority of bugs in an area, but more than 90 percent of them were beneficial or benign. Predators such as bats, frogs, lizards, and birds will go elsewhere to feed and even the microbes in your soil may die.
As your landscape recovers from the poisoning, bugs will begin to multiply again, but since you’ve killed off the beneficial insects that used to keep them under control, the birds, bats, lizards, and the toads that survived the poisoning have moved away to areas where they can make a living. Many harmful bugs, possibly including new pests that were previously controlled, will recover in even greater numbers than before. You spray again and the process repeats itself and each time the most damaging pests will recover in ever increasing numbers. Repeated poisonings often foster resistance to that pesticide, and people then switch to even stronger poisons in higher concentrations. It’s time to break that cycle of poison escalation and manage your landscape as a complete ecosystem by using Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
Relying on insect predators and other eco-friendly strategies to control your pests is not a matter of sitting back and doing nothing. As with any other effective gardening method, it requires awareness, education, experimentation, effort, and patience. While it’s easy to recognize the larger pest predators, identifying the good, the bad and the bugly bugs is more challenging, but it’s a vital step for ecosystem gardening.
Poison Propaganda: Can garden writers be bought?
Item #1: A few months ago P. Allen Smith invited some garden bloggers to his place in Arkansas.
Recently there was a post to his blog written by one of the event sponsors, Garden Safe.
Their claim is that it’s perfectly safe for edibles, because it’s made with pyrethrin, a botanical extract of the chrysanthemum flower. Maybe it’s not particularly harmful to humans, but it affects the nervous system of insects and kills them on contact.
I’ve read a couple of posts from the invited bloggers saying what a great time they’d had and how much they learned, but were they convinced by the sales pitch on the poisons?
Item #2: At last year’s garden writers’ association (GWA) annual meeting, I heard that if you wanted breakfast, you were subjected to Scott’s spiel one morning and a Bayer pitch the next morning. The association’s website claims that there are 1,700 members and promises that sponsors will have “direct contact with all of the GWA attendees through the special PR opportunities only available to sponsors.”
GWA limits its sponsors to only certain types of companies; agrochemicals is an allowed category. (Full disclosure: I am not a member of this group.)
What bothers me about these two items is that the chemical companies are targeting and trying to influence the garden writers in order to gain free publicity through supposedly unbiased articles. And that the garden writers are allowing this blatant lobbying to happen. It is a good thing that I was not at either of these get-togethers, because I would have spoken up for the ecosystems that are being destroyed by these supposedly safe insecticides.
I understand that it’s hard to run a good conference without a bevy of sponsors and that Smith is trying to make a living. But should makers of landscape poisons be on the programs? Is there anyone speaking up for the environment that will be damaged when poisons are used willy nilly because they are organic and therefore “safe”?
I also understand that in some cases poisons are an appropriate measure, but we must do our homework before applying any poison. We need to use most specific, the fastest to decompose, and the least amount possible. Case in point: A few years ago my Swiss chard looked like Swiss cheese! I don’t know what ate the chard, but I’d guess slugs. In this case will that insecticide do any good? Probably not. I’d have been better off with some beer-filled dishes in the area to trap those pests. So before any poison is applied you must determine if it will actually be effective against your particular pest.
What to do from here?
I think we, as environmentalists, need to respond with scientifically sound and unemotional arguments when someone touts these poisons as being a good thing in the garden. If we are to support wildlife, we must first support their food sources—the bugs! We do not need to support chemical companies’ bottom lines.
Here is one of the comments to the P. Allen Smith blog post:
i have a “question”—i have 3 butterfly bushes in full bloom-i have a water feature to supply water they need.why is it that i do not see butterflys arround my bushes??????-last season they were “loaded!!!
He may have been playing dumb to see if he could get a rise from someone, but I would have responded:
Dear Louis L., If you’ve been spraying your landscape with these poisons, you’ll kill the butterflies and their larvae. It doesn’t make any difference how cute the container is. A poison is a poison, organic or not. P.S. Replace those invasive butterfly bushes with natives that support not only the adults with nectar but also plants that are larval hosts.
As wildlife gardeners, we hope for a moth (or butterfly)-eaten landscape!
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