Think twice on using insecticides

A woman sprays insecticide on a garden

By Dennis Patton

Who doesn’t love nature? Strolling along the paths, playing in the parks or just relaxing in your backyard, the Kansas City area has a variety of great places to sit back and take in the many sights and sounds.

Just think of the things we might see and hear: birds singing and chirping, the flitting of a butterfly, the dance of a dragonfly or a lightning bug glowing rhythmically in the darkness. Do you realize that your actions have a profound and prolonged effect on these beauties of nature?

Did you know that most of the insecticides we use to control the more common destructive and harmful insects like bagworms, Japanese beetles, rose slugs, ticks, oak mites and mosquitos, will also wipe out the good bugs? Those that we enjoy and need for a healthy food chain?

It is estimated that of the thousands of insect species in existence, only 5% or less are considered harmful, cause damage or are life threatening to our crops. This means most insects are valuable and beneficial.

They control unwanted pests, pollinate the majority of the food crops we consume and support and feed a variety of vertebrates like our beautiful songbirds, frogs and toads.

Next time you reach for that bottle of insecticide to control some insects, think twice about what else you might be killing. Here are some tips for protecting the good bugs:

  • Reduce usage; tolerate damage as plants don’t need to be perfect.
  • Target only infested plants — do not spray areas not infested.
  • Don’t spray plants that are in flower to protect bees and other pollinators.
  • Spray in the evening instead of morning — there’s less pollinator activity overnight.
  • Use insecticides only at labeled rates and application methods.
  • Spray on cooler days with lower wind speeds to reduce pesticide drift.
  • Avoid random scheduled sprays that blanket the lawn, landscape, or garden.

When it comes to protecting ourselves from being bitten, think twice about your approach.

The best way to protect your body is through personal protection. That includes wearing appropriate clothing to reduce exposure, limiting time outdoors and applying insecticidal repellents directly to the body. These options are better than having the entire yard and garden fogged or sprayed to reduce the pest problems like mosquitoes. Just like sprays that target a specific plant, this global approach to treating the yard can also kill the beneficial insects.

Think organic insecticides are better for the environment? You may want to think twice. While organic pesticides may be naturally occurring substances that doesn’t mean they won’t adversely affect beneficial pollinators and insects. Like most chemically made pesticides, organic products are broad spectrum, which means they control a wide range of pest problems.

Even organic or natural based insecticides can wipe out the good guys such as monarch butterflies. Like the chemical options they cannot selectively target just the bagworm or mosquito. In the process of eliminating the bad guy the good guy also suffers.

In many cases, the best action may be no action at all. Research has shown there is often a “boomerang” effect.

What happens when a pesticide is sprayed is it kills the harmful insect along with the beneficial insects which feed on them. The harmful insect can recover, rebound and multiply faster than the beneficial insect. Without the natural predation, another outbreak can occur. This boomerang effect is common when treating for aphids and spider mites.

A strong spray of water may be one of the best defenses. Droplets of forceful water dislodge or smash the pest. Water works best on soft bodied insects. Many feed on the underside of the leaf so thorough coverage of the plant from all directions is important. But just like chemical and organic pesticides, even lifesaving water will also dislodge and reduce the number of beneficial insects on the plant.

These are simple tips to follow. But remember before any pesticide is sprayed to ask yourself this question, does it really need to be treated? Can I tolerate the imperfections?

If not, what is the best method of treatment? In many cases you will find that with just a little patience and tolerance the issue will become a memory.

Keep this thought in mind when you do spray: “It is just not bad bugs I am killing, it is also the good ones.”

This thought should make you think twice before you pull the trigger on your pesticide spray.

Dennis Patton is horticulture agent at the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office.