Tuesday, July 23, 2013

HotLine Questions: Searching for a Magical Potion

Sometimes people really depress me.

Each summer I volunteer to staff our Extension HotLine for one afternoon a week.  When it's good, it's very, very good, but when its bad, it's depressing.

Today, it was bad.  First of all were the summary sheets, detailing the questions that other staffers have taken over the last several days and summarizing the answers they provided.  We always read those at the start of our shift to get a feel for "what's going on out there" in gardening land.  (Generally each session is staffed by 3-5 volunteers at a time.  I am lucky enough to work with 4 other excellent volunteers.)

One of the big questions that our local HotLine has been fielding recently is, "What do I do about those great, big wasps I keep seeing in my back yard?"

The reasonable answer, to me, is to identify those wasps (cicada killers) for the caller and then to describe what they're doing (the males are guarding the nesting grounds to get a chance to mate; the females are digging nesting holes, catching cicadas, dragging them back to their nests, and laying eggs on them).  The male wasps can't sting, because they lack the requisite equipment, and the female wasps won't sting because then they'll probably be killed and therefore be unable to make any more baby wasps.  If, however, you do something really stupid like try to catch a female or step on one, the females can give a very painful sting.  So it's best to just leave them alone.  In a couple weeks time, this year's life cycle will be finished and you won't see any cicada killers around again until next July.  There's no need to spray anything to kill them unless you absolutely have no choice - say a young child with an allergy to bee stings.  Just leave them alone and they'll leave you alone.

Over the course of the next year, if you don't want the cicada killers back again, you can plant a groundcover, or put down thick leaf or wood mulch, to cover the bare soil that attracts these large wasps.

Otherwise, relax and watch them.  They're an important part of the balance of nature - a predator preying on a plant-eating insect.  It's a real eye-opener to watch the poor females struggling to pull a paralyzed cicada 2 or 3 times bigger than themselves back to their nesting hole.  (Where ARE those guys when you need them?  Oh, flying around looking for another female to hit on!)

However, that wasn't the answer given to all the callers that had called in with this question over the last 2 days.  No, until our crew got in this afternoon, callers were told to spray wasp killer down the holes.  Period.  No further life cycle explanation.  No discussion of alternatives.  No understanding of their role in the ecosystem.  Just kill the things with insecticide.

Then there were the snake questions.  The answer given to those was to use a liquid repellant product to "keep the snakes out".  No explanation about the fact that the vast majority of snakes are nonpoisonous and provide great rodent control around the yard.  No reassurance that the snakes are more scared of you than you are of them.  No suggestion that if you leave them alone, you'll probably never see them again.  And, most importantly, no explanation that said liquid repellant probably won't work anyway.

The big excitement for the day was when a woman brought in a snake she had killed 2 days ago, put in a plastic bag, evidently left outside in the heat, and then brought in for "identification" to be sure it wasn't poisonous.  When the sack was opened up, it sure poisoned the air, but the snake itself had not been poisonous.  The snake was black with a cream belly;  I didn't see it, but my cohorts thought it was a watersnake.  Why had it been necessary to kill it?

(As an aside, I was working a plant sale in Mobile about 10 years ago when 2 young men came up to me to ask if I wanted them to kill the rattlesnake they'd just found.  I said no, thank you, but asked them to take me to see the snake.  If it was poisonous, I wanted to warn the other workers.  The young men excitedly agreed.  When they pointed out their vicious viper, it was a red-sided garter snake.)

Killing is a huge theme among the callers into HotLine.  Another call today was from a woman with holes in her rose leaves.  We asked if she'd seen what was causing the holes.  No, she never went outside, but she wanted something to spray on the roses to kill whatever it was.  Why did she care if her roses had holes in the leaves when she never went outside to look at them?

A couple weeks ago, we got a call asking if the ladybugs that were all over the caller's tree were eating it...and what should she spray to kill them?  Nothing should be sprayed, we reassured her.  The ladybugs weren't eating her tree, they were presumably eating the insects that were eating her tree.  Leave them alone;  it'll be fine.

(Which reminds me of a neighbor down in Mobile:  she found 2 - TWO - caterpillars on her 50' tall oak tree and proceeded to spray as high as she could with as potent an insecticide as she could find to "save" her tree.)

"I have weeds in my lawn.  What can I spray to kill them?"

"My grass isn't as full as I think it should be.  What should I spray to kill the grubs I obviously have?"

"X is wrong.  What Y (a.k.a. what toxic chemical) should I spray to fix it?"

Sometimes I feel like telling the caller to tear up every living plant they have and put in AstroTurf and plastic plants instead.  It's obvious that they just want plastic "perfection."

This insistence on visual perfection on the part of John Q. Public, no matter what the biological cost, tells me that we have a major problem in this country:  our science classes are failing to teach people the basic information they need to successfully and safely live in our world, especially if they are home owners or do any yard care.  Fifty or eighty years ago, schools could assume that children were learning about the natural world while playing outdoors and working with their parents in the garden.  That no longer happens. The only place people seem to get information on lawn and garden care these days is from TV pesticide and fertilizer commercials - "Other than a honey bee, which will sting you, the only good bug is a dead bug" and "Every yard around the world should look like England in the spring, all year 'round" and "Oh, but this product will kill every living animal it touches, yet it's perfectly safe for your children to play on!"

On average, our yards seem to have become biologically sterile, chemically toxic "picture frames" for our houses.   Why in the world would anyone want to save life on our planet if they are convinced that almost all life outside is scary and evil and just needs to be killed off with some magic chemical potion?

We have seen the enemy, and it is us.


ProfessorRoush said...

"On average, our yards seem to have become biologically sterile, chemically toxic "picture frames" for our houses." This is like the most profound thing I've read in a week, Gaia. And it's exactly what's wrong with HGTV, Home Depot, Lowes, and many local nurseries that provide advice without ecological considerations.

Sunnyside Dru said...

no magic potions here, and we are harvesting lots of vegetables without ever spraying!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said! I couldn't agree more.

Bluestem said...

I can relate. I don't usually tell people at work that I like gardening, but sometimes word gets out and then the "how do I kill" and "how do I get rid of" questions start. Whether it is weeds, insects, snakes or some other form of wildlife, the want them gone. I don't bother trying to change their perceptions anymore. I just politely say that I have a different kind of garden and I generally try to attract whatever "pest" they want to eradicate. And then I change the subject back to work.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks to both Prof R and to Carla. Your support and understanding really have perked up my day.

Dru, I am constantly amazed at the wonderful foodstuffs you and your husband raise for your CSA and how careful you are about being totally organic. You guys are inspiring.

Bluestem, you too know exactly how I feel. Unfortunately, when I'm volunteering specifically to answer questions, I can't really just change the subject. I do try to do a lot of education, though I'm not sure that much gets through.

Melanie said...

LOVE IT!! Over the last few years, we have tried to do less and less chemical and do more tolerating. I don't like to spray killer on my weeds. .I like to hand pick. .and it looks like it. .because I have to tolerate what I can't get too! I too believe that, if not for people like you spreading good, valid information. .we will soon be in trouble with our future!! Keep up the great, if not frustrating work!!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks, Melanie. You don't know how much I need to hear encouraging words sometimes! Talk about feeling like I'm swimming upstream....

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

[hug] Hang in there reaching the people you can.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks so much, GonSS. I've certainly needed that lately!

Janet QueenofSeaford said...

Hooray!!! As a fellow MG, I applaud you and your correct answers.