Pest Control on the Yardstead

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If you’ve lived in Central Texas for any length of time and are fortunate enough to have access to nature here, you are probably well aware that we have some gorgeous scenery, plant life and animals surrounding us every springtime.

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My friends in the northern states and Canada often express envy when I post pictures of our family in February and early March wading in the creek, or sitting in our yard surrounded by greenery.  I always remind them that while yes, we enjoy our outdoor areas during the mild winters and springs, we will be soon enough be hibernating in 100+ degree weather in July and August!

Along with the breezy temperatures, Central Texas wildflowers and green grass comes a lot of beautiful plants, interesting animals, and…[wait for it]…BUGS.  

Lots, and lots of bugs. 

Big bugs, little bugs, flying bugs, crawling bugs, jumping bugs, glowing bugs, slithering bugs, biting bugs, stinging bugs, poisonous bugs, and even beautiful bugs… I could go on.

My girls love hunting for bugs, and we even consider them (some of them anyway) amongst our most interesting yard treasures.

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Cicada

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Cicada Killer

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Brown Butterfly I haven’t identified yet

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Dragon Fly Mating Party

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Haven’t identified this fuzzy fella yet.

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Swirly Snail climbing on my child

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Firefly

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I have no clue what this is.  Do you?

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Garden Spider

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Grub worm

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Queen Butterfly

However, my least favorite part about our Central Texas nature scene involves four bugs in particular, who resurface every spring:  fleas, ticks, chiggers and mosquitos.

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(My daughter drew this picture of a maniacal snail when she was 5 or 6 years old.  I don’t have anything against snails, but I do think this is how the chiggers, ticks, fleas and mosquitos really act when we’re not looking.)

And because we have dogs who enjoy time indoors and out, it’s very easy for Texans to end up with home infestations, particularly of the first two agitators listed.

About eight years ago, we had a flea outbreak in the home we had just moved into.  I can’t overstate this next sentence enough: It was a seriously stressful situation for me.

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Another of my daughter’s drawings, from age 7 this time, that perfectly captures the mood I experienced.

I had a baby crawling around the floor (the one who would later draw the pictures above), so I refused to poison the house, but was about to have a stroke when I found a flea on her forehead one morning in our kitchen.

To make matters worse, our vet informed us that fleas are now becoming resistant to popular topical prescription flea medications. We switched our dogs’ preventative medication and vacuumed diligently until we had eradicated the outbreak.  We also learned a lot about yard treatments that were less toxic to help stay ahead of future outbreaks. (We’ll get to that soon!)

I diagnosed myself with PTSD from that flea outbreak in 2009, so you can imagine my horror when last week I saw a flea on my dog.  Only to find another, and another, and another, as well as some on the our other dog, who sleeps with my child.

I went into warrior mode and gathered all of the dog bedding and human bedding, as well as vacuumed the floors and baseboards, purchased a flea comb, and bathed the dogs.  But my favorite helper of all from our last flea experience fortunately came to mind too: a white fluffy nontoxic powder called Diatomaceous Earth.

Diatomaceous Earth 

One of the most common uses for diatomaceous earth, and the way that we use it, is as a natural insecticide. Studies indicate this clay-like powder can kill the insects including, but not at all limited to, chiggers, fleas, ticks.  Hooray!

How Diatomaceous Works:

Diatomaceous earth is composed of the fossilized remains of microscopic plankton called diatoms that lived in the oceans and once covered the western part of the United States and other parts of the world. Deposits were left behind when the water receded that are now mined and have “several important uses in making paint, toothpaste, beer filtering and swimming pool filters. DE is approximately 86 percent silicon, 5 percent sodium, 2 percent iron and many other trace minerals such as titanium, boron, manganese, copper and zirconium (Dirt Doctor).

These plankton had hard casings around their bodies, and during the process of fossilization and erosion, the shells break into sharp, fragments that resemble microscopic shards of glass.  Insects that come into contact with diatomaceous earth are cut by the fragments. Once the exoskeleton has been damaged, an affected insect dies from dehydration. However, these shards do not injure larger animals enough to cause any ill effects, even if small amounts of diatomaceous earth are eaten. “It is common for diatomaceous earth to be mixed with grains during storage for this reason, as it prevents insects from consuming the grain but does not hurt the people or animals who eventually eat it. (Source).”

How to use it:

To reap the pest control benefits of diatomaceous earth, it is necessary to spread a light sprinkling of of the powder around your yard or yarden.  Some people may buy a fancy spreading device, others fill a sock with the powder and shake it around the yard as they walk.  I have wondered if a flour sifter would work well.  I typically just put a plastic glove on and sprinkle it everywhere with my fingers, and my technique so far has worked just fine for our purposes – although it may be that we are wasting a significant amount by spreading it this way, as a light dusting is all that is needed.  You do want to make sure that you don’t breathe the powder as you spread it, as DE is a lung irritant, so pay attention to wind direction or wear a mask.

We often wait until the yard is freshly mowed and no rain in the forecast for a few days before applying it.  It works on living insects within 2-3 days.  Then, after 7-10 days, we do it again.  The reason you must be diligent about reapplying is because DE does not kill flea eggs, and flea eggs hatch in 2 week cycles.  So, just when you think you’ve finished killing them all, a new generation has hatched and you’re back at square one.

What is “Food Grade” Diatomaceous Earth?

There are two kinds of DE available for purchase: “food grade” (often available at organic gardening centers and also on Amazon) and “pool grade” (easier to find but not what I want). Because we are raising a new generation of backyard chickens, we take particular care to purchase “food grade” diatomaceous earth.

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DE that is not food grade is often sold for swimming pool filters and is apparently ineffective for insect control because it has been heated and chemically treated (Dirt Doctor).  It also may have high levels of metals like arsenic and lead, whereas food grade must meet testing requirements for both.  Nobody needs heavy metals added to their yard, garden, or children’s hands.

One thing to keep in mind is that DE will kill beneficial insects too, so use it sparingly to kill problem infestations.  Texas’ beneficial insects are part of our area’s natural beauty, and they fulfill important roles in balancing our local ecosystem.

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We use DE only during flea or chigger outbreaks and peak tick larvae season times for this reason.

Mosquitos

Mosquitos just suck.  I hate them so very much.  I can usually find a food-chain benefit that makes me trust there’s at least one good reason every creature should be allowed to live.  But I am hard-pressed to offer that gesture toward mosquitos.  I’d be okay if they were wiped off the earth today.  I’d be really, really happy actually.

But, that being said, I don’t think it’s a good idea to fog or do a lot of spraying for mosquito control.  For one thing, it kills bees and other flying insects indiscriminately, and it’s pretty common knowledge that we’re all goners as soon as the bees are killed off.  We really need those guys to do their pollinator work and thrive on Earth if we expect to do the same.

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So far our favorite natural mosquito repellent for our yard are these granules by a product called Skeeter Screen.  It’s not perfect, but it smells nice, repells mosquitos and is not filled with toxic chemicals.  Unfortunately it does not last long term and has to be spread again often.  We tend to do it every 2 weeks during the peak of mosquito season.  We avoid spreading it in our chickens’ pecking area just to be safe.

Another option for Tick Control

We have probably all heard horror stories or know someone personally who suffers with Lyme disease. And we have probably all seen the scary data suggesting that this disease is on the rise in the US.  Beyond the overwhelmingly complicated and devastating health issues involved in Lyme and other tick born diseases, ticks just give off an aggressive vibe that is hard for me to forgive.  They are fast, they are relentless once they attach to their host, and they drop from trees like tiny ninjas onto their victims.

The area we live in now does have ticks, so we make sure that the flea preventative we use on our pets includes tick protection.  The DE is a nice helper in this area, as DE kills ticks, and we have also come to rely on a really random product called Tick Tubes.

Sometimes the simplest concepts work the best, and this method is no exception.  Basically, the Tick Tubes look like empty toilet paper rolls (biodegradable) that are filled with cotton balls soaked in Permethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid that kills tick larvae.  

Ticks rely on vectors like rats, mice, squirrels, and other mammals to host them and spread.  And, fortunately, all of those yard critters love to find fluffy materials outside with which they can create nests and bedding for babies.  So the medicated cotton balls essentially apply topical tick preventative meds to the many vectors of your yard.  If timed right (around peak tick larvae season: April – May and August – September according to the Tick Tubes company), this product claims it can significantly reduce ticks within a certain area range.  We have not seen a tick (knock on wood) since using this product over the last year during peak times, and we were impressed by the many positive reviews offered by others who said the same.

Fun Fact: Did you know possums, those horrible looking creatures with naked tails and scary faces, are awesome at ridding your yard of ticks?  Be nice to them if you see them lurking around your home (if you hate ticks as much as I do).

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What are your favorite pest control methods for your yardstead?

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