…Don’t you know that you can count me out!

Destruction, you say? Yes, today’s post is dedicated avoiding the destruction caused from pesticide use. Pesticides are great for control of some species, the problem is that they tend to have deleterious effects on even more than the intended species. Our native bees, honey bees, and many other pollinators are affected by their widespread use. In my yard, my goal is to use them only occasionally and very specifically to treat individual problems, like Argentine ants or an individual plant that has proven difficult to remove. In doing so, the nuisance weeds are mostly under control and I can remove by hand what remains each rainy season. After three years of diligent effort, I’ve done a pretty thorough job of depleting the seed bank and their is much less germination each year. One of the keys is to pull the weed out prior to it flowering and setting seed, creating hundreds more just waiting for a little water.

Systemic herbicides are particularly harmful for pollinators as the poison residues can remain in the plant for months and can even wind up in the nectar and pollen. Try to source plants that are herbicide- and pesticide-free. Talk to your local nurseries and ask questions about how they start their plants.  As more people express interest in organic methods, it may encourage suppliers to change their practices and provide other options.  The same is true for native plant options. If nurseries know that people are interested in these choices, they may begin stocking a wider variety.

Pesticides and herbicides are usually indicative of other problems. Weeds popping up everywhere? Try changing the watering regime, or applying water only where needed to maintain desired plants. Even better, use plants native to the area you live so that you won’t need to apply supplemental water as often. Weeds germinate when there is ample water for them, so cutting off the water helps to cut off the weeds.

Pest infestations may be a symptom of a stressor such as drought, poor air circulation, or poor soil conditions. Remedy the larger problem and the pest will not be able to access the plant. This can be seen on a landscape scale in California where there have been beetle infestations that have severely damaged certain tree species. The issue is largely with the long-running drought, and the drought-stressed tree tissue created openings through which the beetle could enter. The beetle is a symptom of a larger problem with changing precipitation patterns. Killing the beetle simply results in certain individuals withstanding the poison and those creating more beetles that are resistant, requiring more and ever stronger poisons.

In other cases, pesticides are used to cure what is entirely an aesthetic issue. For example an aphid-infested milkweed is not pleasant to the eye, but those aphids, for the most part, will not actually harm the plant and a pesticide treatment is not usually necessary. Reserving pesticide use for cases where the plant may be killed is one way to reduce our use of these poisons.

In a properly functioning ecosystem, everything works in harmony. The small insects feed larger insects that feed lizards, birds, and other critters.

An unlucky bee wound up as this spider’s next meal.

Those fruit flies that swarm in the early spring are eaten by mama hummingbird who needs the extra protein to feed her rapidly growing nestlings. Adult hummingbirds also eat small insects as a small part of their diet. I actually leave fruit peels outside to “grow” more fruit flies for them to enjoy, or at this time of year, some of the guava fall to the ground and hatches new fruit flies. I can never eat all the guava we have, but I make some jam and leave the rest for the birds and coyote who we have observed enjoying them.

The bushtits also make their rounds through the trees, gleaning small aphids and other insects from the leaves. I can usually hear them coming, entire family in tow, with their bell-tinkling sound as they pass from the front of our neighbor’s succulents, ficus, and dwarf pomegranate to our guava, grapefruit, and apple trees.

An adult female bushtit, photo from http://www.birdnote.org

I noticed for the first time this year black phoebe in the backyard. Phoebes are in the flycatcher guild. They eat much more than flies, but they catch flying insects on the wing. I assume they were attracted to the bees and variety of other pollinators that were covering the elderberry and toyon this year. This was the first year that both of those plants flowered wildly, and the insects and birds were thankful for the abundance. I’m always ecstatic to see a new species in the yard, and phoebes are a particular favourite. They have a pretty, simple song and they’re quite handsome decked out in their tuxedos.

A very handsome black phoebe courtesy of http://www.utahbirds.org

You’re an apartment dweller you say and don’t have a yard? Or you already eschew pesticide use? There are other ways for you to help! You can select foods produced with fewer pesticides and in ways that benefit our pollinators.

There is a certification program recently created by the Xerces Society: Bee Better. To be certified, a company pledges to create pollinator habitat and to use less pesticides. So far, Haagen-Dazs is certified for certain almond-containing products, as are a California berry brand (Giant). Look for the logo when you’re selecting your groceries or look online for more information.

Our pollinators need help. According to the Bee Better website, 28% of bumble bee species in North America are declining. Try a few of these ideas and see if you can reduce your use of pesticides and herbicides to help our bees. Let me know how it goes! Whether it’s a success or abject failure, there is much to learn either way.