Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Green Pest Control, part 1

Gary Towne was kind enough to submit a detailed overview of green pest management for our readers, which I’ve broken down into 3 articles. Gary will help us find out how we can control pests around our home or office without poisoning or harming the Earth or the people in the building and the children or pets playing in the yards. He’ll show you that there are times when you can best deal with a situation yourself and give you some tips on what to look for when choosing a trustworthy pest control operator (PCO). Gary is formally of Dr. Price Pest Control and Towne’s Pest Control, now of Propec Pest Control. He is, actually, my brother and as such he comes from a family with a tradition of respect and appreciation for nature, and focused on being environmentally (and fiscally) responsible and self-sufficient. You can contact him directly at: gwtowne@hotmail.com

-- Green Pest Control, Part 1 --

So, you have some pests in your home or garden, say, mice or cockroaches or ants, or wildlife raiding your garden or invading your attic or walls. You want to protect your home, but you have distrust for man-made chemicals, so you want to be “go green,” meaning using natural or organic methods.

First, let’s look at the nomenclature, the terms we use. “Organic,” “natural,” and “green,” are socially deemed interchangeable and inherently safe, but they are not, and the common usage can be quite vague and amorphous, even emotionally charged. Does organic mean no chemicals? Are chemicals all man-made? Are pesticides all dangerous, evil chemicals? Are natural materials inherently, by nature, safe? Are pesticides all dangerous chemicals?  Is it safe to follow Internet home remedy recipes by using your kitchen blender that you also use for your breakfast smoothies?  A big, resounding nope, nope, nope on all accounts.

In elementary chemistry class we learn about H20, CO2, photosynthesis, oxidation, decomposition, the fixation of nitrogen by legumes, etc. These are all natural chemical products and processes.  Meanwhile, some commercial pesticides are organic, and some natural materials are so toxic that they are quite unsafe. You could ask Socrates about how safe the tea made from the hemlock tree is, or certain South American tribes about the efficacy of the frog-derived poison on their darts or arrows. You might also want to be careful about eating wild mushrooms, or even the leaves on your rhubarb plant. Yes, nature is full of various poisons. Just ask Steve (Crikey!), the Australian dangerous wildlife enthusiast.

So what does organic really mean? First, we have to put aside subjective, emotionally laden, politically-motivated concepts behind what we think words may mean, i.e. not focus on buzzwords. If you talk about organic material, it means the remains of something that was alive, or the discarded or by-product material of something that was alive: this is the food leftovers, egg shells, manure, leaves, grass clippings, bones, etc. that you can compost for your garden. Note: egg shells were never actually alive, any more than the shell on clams, but are the calcium covering deposited by the animal in question to protect the living part. Similarly, neither spider silk, skunk stink, nor the glue that wasps create to fasten their nests was never actually alive, but are created by glands in the creatures’ bodies, so we can call these organic. Scientifically, organic simply means material that includes carbon, so inorganic simply means not containing carbon. Organic does not mean not synthetic. A whole class of pesticides are called organic because they are carbon based, but some of them, such as the organophosphates, have largely been banned due to being deemed unsafe and excessively toxic, especially to non-target species. On the other hand, some of the safest pesticides are inorganic, meaning mineral derivatives, such as borax (from boron, a common and natural element) and diatomaceous earth (SiO2), derived from the skeletons of tiny marine life.

What are pesticides, exactly? Or for that matter, what exactly is a pest? In horticulture, a weed is technically any plant growing where you don’t want it. Similarly, a pest is simply any animal that are dangerous or otherwise problematic to humans, such as wasps, flies, mice and rats, cockroaches, ants, etc, but only if they are invading our space. Indeed, most insects are not pests but are actually quite beneficial, either to us directly or to the ecosystem as a whole, and thus should not be harmed. Wildlife, such as skunks, squirrels, or raccoons are technically not pests, and must not be harmed, but we can kick them out of our personal living space.

Pesticides are simply products used to either kill or deter pests, primarily the problematic insects or rodents, but also some birds, mites, nematodes. The range of products is quite wide, and some are very new while others have been in usage for many centuries. The mode of action is also various. Pesticides are one of the main sets of tools in pest control (or pest management) in general, which also includes many kinds of traps (including live or “humane”) traps, as well as other tools and methods, such as exclusion. This includes nets to keep deer and birds out of your garden, or birds of prey out of fish hatcheries, or spikes to keep pigeons from nesting on your veranda and pooping on your porch. The goal is not species eradication, but simply to stop a pest situation. A rat or ant colony in a forest is part of nature, but a rat in my kitchen or carpenter ants eating my house is another story. The ants just think your house is a tree that fell down, which it is. We don’t need to read too much ethics into the story. Pests are not evil and creatures in nature do not make choices based on ethics or rights, but on what they want and need, according to their station in the circle of life.

* In part 2  (scheduled for publication on October 23rd) of this series of articles Gary will explain his concept of green pest control, explains Integrated Pest Management and finding trustworthy pest control specialists.
In part 3 (scheduled for publication on October 25th) Gary closes this series with interesting tips and advice for Do-It-Yourself'ers

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