Pesticides. There, I said it. As time goes on, more and more people become wary of pesticides and it has become somewhat of a “bad” word or taboo subject and it’s time we address “the elephant in the room”. The fear of pesticides is not unfounded and there are very good examples of the harm long term widespread use of pesticides can cause. Bioaccumulation, ground water contamination, impacts on beneficial insects and pollinators, pest resistance, and human health issues are some of the most well know problems connected to pesticide use. Although these are very real concerns that should not be taken lightly, there is also a lot of misinformation and misconceptions regarding pesticides which we would like to clear up. So sit back, grab some popcorn, and get ready for your understanding of pesticides to be challenged (no matter what “side” you’re on).
What is a pesticide anyway? A pesticide is literally anything that kills a “pest”. A “pest” can be anything from plants, animals (including insects), bacteria, and fungi to your irritating neighbor (JUST KIDDING!!!). This means herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, anti-parasitics (de-wormers, etc…), fungicides, anti-microbials, etc… are all “pecticides”. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates pesticides and requires anything claiming to kill, deter, incapacitate, or impede development of an organism to be registered as a pesticide. That hand sanitizer with the label saying “kills 99.8% of bacteria”? That bottle of bleach with similar claims on the label? Yep. They’re pesticides according to the EPA. This also means that organic and biologically derived products intended to kill or affect “pests” are also pesticides. Since we deal with ants at the Hawaii Ant Lab, I will be referring to insecticides from here on out.
The demand for organic and biologically derived insecticides has and will continue to grow. It is important to understand that “organic” does NOT mean “non-toxic” or “environmentally benign”. There are some very toxic organic insecticides (nicotine, rotenone, and some pyrethrins). Other organic insecticides may not necessarily be toxic to people, but may adversely affect the environment through non-target impacts and the need to use very large quantities to achieve adequate control of your target pest. On the flip side, there are some non-organic insecticides that are practically non-toxic to people and wildlife or are formulated in a way to be effective at very low application rates and reduce non-target impacts (insect growth regulators, baits, etc…).
I’ll be the first to admit, I have tried all kinds of organic home remedies, like making a hot pepper spray with habaneros and water to control or deter various plant pests, only to make myself sick when I sprayed it. I basically made pepper spray and choked myself out when I sprayed it in the green house! Generally, those organic home remedies didn’t actually do much good unless I sprayed every-other day, so I started to think about insecticides use differently. Instead of thinking only in terms of “organic” vs. “non-organic”, I started to think in terms of “quantity” and “quality”. In other words; how much insecticide am I actually putting out into the environment, how often am I having to apply the insecticide, and how effective are the products I’m using? The goal is to not have to constantly use insecticides so I want something that will work the best while also using the least amount possible. If I can find an organic product that fits these needs, GREAT! But, if there are non-organic products that better fit these needs, I’ll use those. No matter what you choose to use, make sure you read the label and follow all directions for use.
When choosing an insecticide product, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the pest I’m trying to control?
- How do I use this product?
- How much do I use?
- How effective is this product at controlling my pest?
- Will this product affect beneficial insects and/or pollinators?
- How long do the effects last/how often will I need to reapply?
The best way to manage your pest problem is through integrated pest management (IPM) which combines different techniques in order to maximize results. Insecticides are only one of many tools that make up IPM. We will focus on different types of insecticides and what IPM is later on in this blog forum.