The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Novel Ways to Manage Pests

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Frustration is the grandmother of invention. For example I recently discovered a bevy of bagworms on my evergreens -- my very tall evergreens. I had two choices to manage the feeding frenzy of foraging fiends: spray with Bt or physically remove them. As long as the caterpillars were feeding, spraying was an appropriate remedy. If they weren't feeding, physical removal would be the only option. The bagworms easily pull off so I opted for the removal remedy. My frustration rose from my inability to reach the bags with lofty arboreal goals. With my towering 5-foot and 1/2 inch height and a 6-foot ladder, I needed about 6 more feet. Since no 11-foot person was offering to be a bag puller, my 6-foot pole pruner came to mind. So armed with my pole pruner I was able to squish, pull, cut, or guillotine all the bags I could find. I know a few probably made it to the ground alive, but at least they had a long walk back.

Frustration, however, doesn't always birth symbiotic invention. One day a woman called our Extension office and relayed her husband's ridiculous (her word) plan to get rid of the bagworms on the arborvitae. I often find myself in the middle of marital disputes so I welcomed my role as designated referee. His plan was to put a large plastic bag over the shrub and then shove the running lawn mower into the plastic tent to gas the caterpillars to death. Although I could appreciate his frustration and resulting ingenuity, I wasn't sure on where to start on all the ways I thought this was a bad idea. I did conclude his arborvitae worries would soon be over since the arborvitae would likely expire before the bagworms.

During a trip to Florida I was reminded of the commonality of people's frustration in managing pests. One night the local news highlighted a man with a fire ant problem in his front yard. No surprise there in the south but his attempt to get rid of them was unique, although a bit ill conceived. Evidently fire ants were dancing in his dreams. He was deliberating so intently that he mistook a short circuit in his thinking for a light bulb moment. He decided fire must be the remedy for fire ants. After dispersal of a gallon of gasoline, a raging grass fire, a 911 call by the neighbors, arrival of several fire trucks, and a written misdemeanor charge, the fire ants, which remained happily tucked into their underground home, were the only life left in his landscape.

Another incident reported in the newspaper described a man with a wasp problem. He decided to get rid of the wasp colony by torching the hive. Ok, not the best idea but really a lousy idea when the hive is attached to the house. He also set off bug bombs inside the house immediately before he lit his torch. And torch perfectly describes the resulting house fire. Luckily he lived to see another sunrise. The wasps, however, flew off to a less incendiary home.

So what is the "take home" lesson from these events? In order to appropriately and safely manage pests we need to: understand the life cycle of the pest; use methods that respect the environment; eliminate collateral damage; and to think twice before proceeding with a novel pest eradication method. Share the idea with someone. Plans sometimes sound less reasonable when stated aloud.

For a better understanding of insects and the amazing diversity of plants and animals that share our planet, check out the 150th anniversary celebration of the Illinois Natural History Survey Sept 26 and 27 in Champaign. Highlights include a family friendly natural history expo and world renowned insect collection.

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