Pest Control

slug1cropAs an entomologist, I’m often asked, “How do you deal with (insert pest name here)?” What people really want to know is how they can kill said pest, so I usually give a two-part answer that goes something like, “Well, you can use (insert name of some agent of death), but what I do is…”

What I do is a reflection of my philosophy about humans’ place in the ecosystem, and how I believe we should treat fellow living things. If I had to boil it down to basic pest control strategies, it would be these:

1) Know thine enemy. Learn the life history and ecology of your pests. When do they emerge? How do they feed? How do they home in on your crops? Where do they overwinter? When you understand the pest, you can modify your garden to minimise trouble. For example, I’ve found that our aphids prefer green lettuce, so I plant mostly red ones, and get an extra month or more of pickings before the aphids get to them. I avoid cabbage white caterpillars by planting my broccoli as early as I can in spring. By the time the caterpillars infest the plants, they’re almost done giving anyway.

2) Don’t be squeamish. You can do everything right and still sometimes be overrun by pests. Before you reach for a bottle of some toxic brew, take the time to squish some bugs. Aphids are easily crushed with a swipe of the fingers along a leaf. Beetles make a satisfying pop when squeezed (Don’t try it with slugs, though—ick!) It’s amazing how easily you can knock pests back by hand, especially if you catch the infestation early. I apply the same principle to my vertebrate pests—though it’s more gruesome for me dealing with the bodies, a quick death in a trap is more humane than a slow death by poison. Also, don’t be shy about killing your beloved plants. If one plant is covered in pests, and the others aren’t, sometimes the best thing you can do is sacrifice the infested plant before the pests spread.

3) Share. You learned it in kindergarten, and it’s just as important in the garden. You are growing delicious food, and others will want some too. Be prepared to give a little, and accept that you will have some pests. In Panama, the farmers understood this. They planted three seeds in each hole—one for God, one for the pests, and one for themselves.

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