Friday, April 21, 2006

"We Don't Hate Insects"...or "Truth" in Advertising?

I am disgusted. For the umpteenth time in several days, I've just watched a pesticide ad on TV sweetly proclaiming, "We don't hate insects. We just love trees." - or some such blather.

First of all, I want to state up front that I hate pesticides on general principles. Like so many quick fixes, they usually make the problem worse in the long run. In the case of pesticides specifically, they usually kill a much wider spectrum of animals than just their "target" species, negatively affecting the ecological balance of the area they are applied to, as well as that of nearby areas. For example, a pesticide that kills "grubs" (aka baby beetles) will often kill the immature form of almost all insects. That includes the immature forms of "beneficials" too, including predators such as bees, wasps, and lady bugs. And don't forget that caterpillars are immature butterflies. Pesticides often kill butterfly babies too.

So what's the problem with killing all the insects in an area? Why should, for example, a gardener or a homeowner care? The answer is that, in nature, the plant-eating animals in a food chain generally greatly outnumber, and greatly out-reproduce, their natural predators. (Think of rabbits and coyotes, with their respective numbers and reproductive rates.) If you kill off ALL the insects (or all the mammals) within a given area, you are killing off the predators as well as the plant-eaters. It will take the predators much longer to repopulate than it will take the plant eaters. And while the predators are trying to ramp up their numbers, the plant-eaters will be busily eating every plant in sight. And doing much more damage than they were doing before you attempted to take matters into your own hands.

Thus in a typical home landscape/garden, if you use pesticides you generally create a much worse problem than if you had just waited for a few weeks, endured a few unsightly leaves or branches, and let "Mother Nature" do her thing. In the long run, beneficial insects and other predators, who work 24/7 for 365 days a year, will do a much better job of controlling pest populations than some ham-fisted human with a spray bottle guaranteeing "instant results."

(On a side note: if you, the gardener, have a plant that consistently does poorly, examine whether you've planted it in the wrong situation or whether you should even have planted it in your climate at all. Insect pests are usually attracted to plants that are stressed and unhealthy in the first place.)

But back to this imbecilic ad. The commercial makes using this pesticide sound so healthy and noble - you are "protecting" your trees and shrubs, but not hating insects, after all. So I looked up the pesticide they were touting. It's an analog to nicotine and works by effectively clogging the nervous system, especially of insects. All insects. Not just leaf-eating insects. Or tree-eating insects. Insects. As usual, it's a "broad-spectrum" insecticide, meaning that it kills the "good guys" as well as the "bad guys". (See my comments on the effects of such pesticides on an ecosystem above.)

Then think back to the ad. They boast that you only have to apply this product once for 12 months "control" - in other words, the pesticide is persistent in the soil and/or in the plants for at least 12 months. Persistently killing almost all of the insects that it comes in contact with. This is hardly benign to the soil ecosystem, many of whose insect members perform such essential tasks as helping to decompose organic material and return nutrients to the ecosystem.

And there's no data on what this chemical does to other invertebrates, other than a warning that it is "highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates." So what IS its action on earthworms or on beneficial nematodes or on rollie-pollies or on any of the myriad of other soil invertebrates? One reputable site listed the product as very toxic to earthworms, but the company literature says absolutely nothing on the subject.

As I searched further, it became obvious that there were other potential problems. There have been strong concerns voiced about this pesticide's rapid migration into groundwater, where it is highly stable and accumulates from year to year. Its breakdown products are apparently even more toxic than the parent compound and are also persistent. And to round off the good news, resistance to this chemical has appeared in as little as 2 years in populations consistently exposed to it. (That would be populations of insects, probably plant-eating insects.)

Does the company hate insects? Well, I wouldn't say they love them. More importantly, I would say that the company is being disingenuous at best regarding the "benign" environmental profile of their product.

Would I use this product? It's not very likely. Not impossible, but not very likely. Interestingly enough, I haven't used an insecticide in my garden in 5 years (except for a rare squirt of wasp spray to take out a poorly placed wasp nest) and I almost never have a problem with "eaten" plants.

As an added bonus, I have the joy of watching anoles (little lizards) patrolling my deck and fences and plants, toads hunkering on the porch when I go out in the evening, birds foraging high and low all day, and tree frogs clinging to our window glass during many summer nights. The link between all these animals? They eat insects...for breakfast, lunch, and supper, and at anytime in between. And I'll take their fascinating presence over a persistent bottle of chemicals any day.


qkslvrwolf said...

That was a great rant. :-) One to which I will point my friends and collegues next time they're talking about their lawn care. Which is terrifying.

Gaia gardener said...

Glad you liked it. Sometimes I just HAVE to speak out!