Natural Insect Management

By MNR News posted 07-21-2022 01:57 PM

5 things you can do to deter pests without harming the environment
Summers in Minnesota are short, sweaty, and buggy. Though we dream of sun and outdoor spaces all winter, we forget that insects are ready to bite, sting, and pester us the moment we set foot in the backyard. Worse—they eat our veggie gardens, decimate our flowers, and ruin our lawns and trees. From bluegrass billbugs and cutworms to iris borers, Japanese beetles, and mosquitoes, bugs are the scourge of summer.

Or are they?

Although they can be irritating, insects play a vital role in our ecosystem and economy. They pollinate our crops, sweeten our food with honey, give us silk for clothing, and provide the raw materials for myriad products including floor and shoe polishes, varnishes, sealants, inks, dyes, insulators, candles, and cosmetics. The pollinating powers of honeybees alone produce $20-billion dollars of fruits, vegetables, and nuts in the United States every year. Plus, fierce competition among insects keeps some of the more dangerous bugs in check. And their knack for breaking down dead plants and animals stops the planet from becoming a giant garbage heap.

So, how can you get the bugs to back off without battering the environment? Fortunately, there is an array of time-tested natural solutions that can expel destructive pests from your yard and garden.

1. Send bugs packing with garlic-pepper-onion spray

Garlic and onions are members of the allium family, a group of plants that produce allicin and other sulfur compounds that repel insects*. Hot peppers are loaded with capsaicin, a spicy irritant that can damage the cellular membranes and nervous systems of many insects, including aphids, cutworms, grasshoppers, iris borers, and mosquitoes. It is so powerful that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as biochemical pesticide. Think about that next time you shake hot sauce on your burrito!

Garlic-Pepper-Onion Spray

2 garlic bulbs

1 onion

6 hot red chili peppers

2 cups hot water

2 tbsps. dishwashing soap

2 tbsps. vegetable oil (avoid olive oil)

Add finely chopped garlic, onion and peppers, and water to a blender, and process until smooth. Transfer to a glass container and steep eight hours or longer. Strain through cheesecloth and pour liquid into a spray bottle. Apply to plants as needed. Be sure to thoroughly rinse any treated fruit or vegetables before eating.

*Although bugs don’t like garlic and onions, your body does. In fact, eating 1 or 2 cloves of garlic a day can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and boost immune function.

2. Wash out their nasty little mouths with soap

Insecticidal soaps are great for dispensing with small, soft-bodied insects like aphids, earwigs, leafhoppers, mealybugs, spider mites, thrips, and whiteflies. Castile soap, a natural product with high concentrations of fatty acids, is the foundation of a highly effective, home-made pesticide. Simply mix 2 ½ tablespoons of pure-castile liquid soap with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and blend in a gallon of water. Spray directly on the insects early in the morning or evening when it is cooler* and pollinators aren’t around. The soap will penetrate and destroy the insects’ exoskeletons and dehydrate their interiors. Nasty business, but it gets the job done.

NOTE: Not all plants tolerate insecticidal soap. Avoid using on these species:

  • Cherries
  • Crown of thorns
  • Easter lilllies
  • Gardenias
  • Hawthorn
  • Horse chestnut
  • Japanese maple
  • Lantana
  • Maidenhair fern
  • Mountain ash
  • Nasturtiums
  • Sweet peas

 *Spraying in temps of 90 F and above can stress the plants. Also, avoid using liquid detergent soaps because they can damage plants.

3. Garden lime licks Japanese beetles (and other pests)

First, the good news. A home-made solution of garden lime, water, and soap will leave a nasty taste in the mandibles of Japanese Beetles and leaf chompers, driving them away from any plant you treat.

Unfortunately, lime also irritates beneficial insects like pollinators, so avoid applying it when plants and trees are flowering. If used too often, it can raise soil’s pH level and prevent plants from absorbing water and critical nutrients. It can also harm ants and certain types of burrowing beetles that help soil health.

Lime Spray Solution

Mix ½ cup of garden lime with a gallon of water, plus three tablespoons of biodegradable dish soap. Test spray small area of plant and observe how it reacts over three days. If the plant tolerates it, apply once a week to infested areas until insect population diminishes. Avoid spraying on windy days.

4. Mosquitoes: Repel, deter, destroy!

When it comes to these blood-sucking fiends, the best defense is a good offense. Start by inspecting your property for their favorite breeding ground: stagnant water. The average female mosquito will lay up to 1,000 eggs during her short life. Any container that holds water is a perfect nursery. This includes cups, bowls, vases, neglected bird baths, old tires, and other vessels. By dumping the water and removing these objects, you can prevent hundreds of thousands of eggs from developing into adult mosquitoes.

Of course, the clouds of mosquitoes rising from neighboring ponds and wetlands are beyond your control. Fortunately, there are numerous deterrents. Next time you’re dining out on the deck or patio, run an extension cord to the nearest outlet and plug in a fan. Mosquitoes are weak fliers and easily blown off course by a stiff breeze.

Stink ‘em and smoke ‘em out

You can also surround the area with fragrant, mosquito-repelling citronella plants. For an added boost, light up some citronella candles. When you’re grilling, toss sage and rosemary on the coals, the aromatic smoke sends mosquitoes flying for other yards. Next time you gather around the firepit, burn a stack of mosquito-repelling pinion wood.

5. Pest control is for the birds

Your greatest ally in the battle against bugs might be chirping right outside your door. Birds eat an extraordinary number of insects. Guinea fowl feast on ticks, hornworms, and Japanese beetles. Even the tiny hummingbird licks up over 2,000 small bugs a day. So, making your yard attractive to birds goes a long way toward keeping the insect population under control. Place bird feeders and keep them filled with seeds from fall to early spring. Create a “destination spa” by adding a bird bath (change the water frequently to deter mosquitoes). If your yard is thin on trees, consider planting birches, pines, beeches, and oaks. Fruit-bearing shrubs like black and red raspberry, American elderberry, and lingenberry are also irresistible to feathered gourmands.

How to stop swatting (and love the bugs)

Remember, bugs might ruin your picnic, but we’re ruining their world. Insect populations are in precipitous decline across the globe. The scientific journal Biological Conservation reports that 40 percent of the world’s insect species could collapse in the coming decades. Closer to home, the rusty patched bumble bee, a hard-working pollinator that once ranged from the East Coast to Minnesota, has decreased by over 90 percent. In short, without the micro but mighty contributions of insects, entire ecosystems and economies could collapse.

Many factors contribute to imperiling bugs: deforestation, drained wetlands, and swamps, shrinking meadows and pastures, and the widespread use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. As a homeowner, you have the power to make your yard a haven for beneficial insects, while keeping the peskier bugs out of your hair—all without harming the delicate balance of nature. What starts on a single lawn can inspire neighborhoods, communities, and states to adopt more earth-friendly practices, and create a healthier, sustainable web of life for people, plants, animals, and bugs.