Flying over Saigon, you wouldn’t know if five decades ago, the night sky was light by fiery napalm explosions while the day time sky glowed with a deep orange hue as planes sprayed Monsanto’s lethal herbicide, Agent Orange.
You might be wondering “why the history lesson? I thought I you’d tell me whether I can use pesticides in my backyard without poisoning everything” We’ll get to that. But In order to know if you can safely use pesticide in your backyard, a little history lesson is in order.
Dosing an entire country with a cocktail of pesticides turned out to be a really bad idea for everyone. It didn’t matter if you were the one doing the spraying or you were being sprayed on. Agent Orange and other Vietnam-era pesticides were extremely bad. Returning U.S servicemen and the Vietnamese population who came into contact with the herbicides in sufficient concentrations all developed mild to severe psychological and neurological problems.
Did you know? Agent Orange and DDT, the two most popular chemical weapons used by the U.S during the Vietnam conflict contain a highly toxic chemical called dioxin.
Science would later tell us that dioxins, and a close relative, Furans, are some of the most dangerous toxins known to science. But it took them a really long time to tell us this. Since it’s invention and commercialization as a herbicide in 1961, over 20 million gallons of the stuff was sprayed over Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of scientists published papers showing dioxin as a cancer-causing agent with the most powerful dioxin being classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. That means there is absolutely no doubt that dioxins, and Agent Orange by association, will cause cancer in humans.
And that brings us to our topic. What are the effects of pesticides in our own backyards? What do we really know about their effect on what we eat, the soil we plant our food on, and the animals and insects that eat the chemical ridden plants?
What are the Effects of Pesticides in Our Backyards?
Granted, not all pesticides are harmful, so using them in your backyard shouldn’t be too big of a deal, right? In fact, there’s a study published recently showing that we all have significant levels of pesticides in our bodies and for the most part, it doesn’t make us sick. The study tested for common pesticides used in conventional agriculture and concluded that the presence of pesticide in urine isn’t always unhealthy or dangerous.
It’s tempting to agree with the study because we’ve been using pesticides in agriculture for the better part of the last 200 years and we’ve grown from 1 billion people to more than 8 billion today. We’ve been able to produce enough food for the entire world because those pesky pests don’t feast on the entire harvest.
“Well, that sounds like you’re saying I should go ahead and spray the tomatoes in my backyard with this can of pesticide I got from the store.” Not so fast – there’s more to the story than that.
Pesticides Kill Indiscriminately
One thing that pesticides do really well is kill pests like insects, fungi, weeds, and rodents. What they don’t do well is select which insects to kill, especially if you’re using contact pesticide. That’s the kind you spray on crops. Contact pesticides won’t discriminate against woodlice, wood lovers or bees!
Why Bees are Important
Using chemicals that kill every crawling creature they come into contact with has huge implications on the natural order of things. There’re many studies showing just how dangerous these chemicals can be, but perhaps the most frightening thing about them is their effect on the bee population.
Before we get to that though, a note on why bees are important to our very existence.
The number of honeybees outweigh all other types of bees and pollinating insects making honeybees the world’s number one pollinators. Without bees, we wouldn’t have enough food crops to feed our ever-burgeoning population. We depend on honeybees so much that 80% of the U.S food supply would supply if bees went extinct. That’s not all, the clover and alfalfa that keep our cattle fed would almost certainly disappear if we didn’t have enough bees to pollinate the plants.
That’s why you don’t want to live in a world without bees. Not only will you not have enough to eat, but lots of industries such as the meat and dairy industries would collapse. With their collapse follows the demise of a slew of manufacturing industries that rely on cattle and dairy produce.
In fact, the British Bee Keepers Association observed that bees contribute to the lion’s share of the country’s annual agricultural produce. They account for as much as $200 million generated by the UK’s agricultural sector. Einstein, one of the most brilliant physicists to ever live, predicted that humanity would go extinct if all bees disappeared. We wouldn’t survive more than 4 years for the simple reason that a third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees mostly.
If you don’t believe it, visit the Valgaudemar valley in France where the mortality rate of bees has risen from 5% to a worrying 30%. Farmers there will tell you that since the bees started disappearing, something strange started happening with the crops there. Plant flowers there are no longer the same in Valgaudemar. About 35 years earlier, farmers in the area would harvest their sunflower and oil seed plants after three or four weeks. Today, they have to wait longer. When they harvest them with their machines, bees have no time to collect nectar or pollen. The result? Lower harvests. And they’re not even using tons of pesticides there. If they did, the situation would get out of hand in less than three planting seasons.
We Are Killing Bees in Our Backyard
When they sprayed dicamba on killer weed in Arkansas, for instance, farmers had to contend with a new disaster. Their soybean plant survived the onslaught of the killer weed but bee hives that were producing hundreds of pounds of honey barely managed that capacity. Dicamba eventually ended up drifting from the farms and killing the weeds vital to honeybees resulting in the dissemination of the food system in the area. That’s the biggest adverse effect of spraying pesticides on crops.
Without honeybees, the entire flora order would go extinct. Bees are vital for crop production. When they go out looking for honey, they inadeptly collect pollen and disperse pollen helping maintain the crop population. When you kill the plants, bees rely on for food, you inadeptly put your future ability to produce food. And we’re not talking about the honey supply. We’re talking about your ability to produce fruits, nuts, and vegetables. If we don’t have honeybees to pollinate the estimated $15 billion worth of food crops.
Farmers are not the Enemy, Homeowners Are!
Before you start blaming farmers on the ever-rising price of honey or the fact that it’s getting harder and harder to find a non-genetically modified melon in your grocery store, just hold on and take a minute.
Even pesticides are commonly linked with folks with large tracts of farming land, regular home users are by far the worst offenders when it comes to destroying the natural order. Pesticides are expensive. People who get into farming as a way of earning a living want to do what every other business person does. They’ll cut down on their overhead to maximize their gain. So, if they can get away with applying small quantities of pesticide on their crops, they’ll do it. The rest of us who use pesticide in their backyards are less than judicious in its application.
Just think about it. The last time you saw an icky bug crawling along, you most likely smashed it with a flipflop or you emptied an entire can of bug spray on it. When we go camping, we tend to pack a dozen cans of bug spray, don’t we? We’ve become so reliant on insect repellents that between 2013 and 2018, more than 200 million people bought the pesticide. That means about three-quarters of U.S households use insect repellant regularly.
What’s the net effect of spraying mosquitos? You might want to check Knox County’s experience with the insecticide. When agencies confirmed the presence of the West Nile Virus in Knox County, everyone bought a can of insecticides. To the utter surprise of residents, the insecticides killed everything apart from mosquitos. Thousands of bees died as a result of exposure to the pesticide. Residents of Knox County rely on bees for about 85% of their food. If the bee population in the county were to go down, you can only guess what would happen.
We, the folks who buy pesticides for household use, are the biggest culprits when it comes to messing with the ecosystem. We are never judicious with the application of the chemicals, and if we were to be left to our own devices, our whims would decimate the entire insect population.
That’s something to ponder about. The person who killed all the bees in your hive or in your area isn’t some big corporate farmer. It’s most likely your neighbor’s aggressiveness when spraying chemicals in their backyard that put the final nail in your hive’s coffin. Heck, maybe your neighbor sprayed a ton of insecticide so that his kids won’t get stuck by your bees. Meanwhile, one of your worker bees was busy foraging for honey, got sprayed, returned to the hive and deposited its cache of nectar together with enough toxins to kill the entire hive.
And Your Lawn is the Biggest Culprit
Don’t think homeowners are monsters. Most of them don’t want to kill anything that crawls. But to keep your lawn healthy and green, marketers tell you to use their chemicals. We use everything from fungus killers to insect killers to keep those pesky pests away. There’s a pesticide for winter, summer, and autumn you can buy and have delivered in under an hour. In the meantime, the diminishing water reserves we use to water our lawns drain back to the water table spreading the chemical pollutants everywhere. Then we mow it with our gas-powered mowers helping the planet break its temperature records every year. Such is the cost of our attempts at trying to have a better lawn than our neighbors.
Worse still, the government forces you to maintain a well-manicured lawn so you must buy all those chemicals. If you don’t then there’s a fine to be paid or worse, you get cited for not following municipal regulations. Yet, every American household is contributing to the destruction of the environment and our natural food source.
Should you use pesticides in your backyard? By now, you’re probably thinking you shouldn’t. But if you live in an area where you absolutely have to use the chemicals to maintain your lawn or otherwise, there are a few things you can do to protect the environment and bees.
How to Safely Use Pesticides in Your Backyard
Here are a couple of things you should do before and while spraying chemical pest controllers in your backyard:
Look for an Alternative
The first precaution you should take when using pesticides in your backyard is making sure you need it in the first place. Make sure the pest you want to control actually does damage on your lawn or backyard garden. If it is, find out if there are alternative means of controlling the pest. There’s no need to by a gallon of insecticide just because you spotted a few caterpillars on your tomatoes. Only result to a dedicated pesticide as a last result.
There are lots of alternatives including changing the conditions that encourage pests or using the right pruning and watering regimes. You can even introduce other insects that prey on the pest you want to eliminate. There are lots of organic ways to control pests.
Choosing the Right Pesticide
Sometimes, your pest problem might be so bad that there’s really no other alternative other than using chemicals. When it comes to that, you want to choose the right pesticide. How do you go about choosing the right pesticide then?
Well, first you want to know the pest you want to control. If it is a weed, go for a weed killer. If it’s an insect, grab a suitable pesticide. If you don’t know the pest, or worse, if you misidentify it, chances are you’ll end up using tons of pesticide without any effect. If you try to get rid of moles in your backyard with a weed killer, you can’t do anything worse than soaking them. If you’re not sure on which pest is plaguing your home, it never hurts to consult an expert.
Another thing you want to think about when choosing a pesticide is whether it is effective against your pest and at the same time, it should not be harmful to humans, other creatures, or the environment. That’s a lot harder to do than it sounds for a couple of reasons. For one, pesticides work by poisoning pests. That means they must contain substances that kill living organisms. The concentration of those substances and their composition differ. Some pesticides have awfully high concentrations of toxic substances while others have lower concentrations. It’s always best to go with pesticides with lower concentration of toxins. Read through the label on the pesticide you’ve just picked up and see if it contains sulfoxaflor, chlorpyrifos, or methyl iodide, some of the most dangerous chemicals used in making pesticides. It goes without saying that if you find any of these chemicals are in the pesticide, look for another one.
Picking up cans of pesticide and reading through their ingredients list is a lot of work, however. No one wants to spend their afternoon reading a bunch of chemical names. So, here’s a handy list of safe pesticides you can use in your backyard.
Pesticides You Can Use
Hailed as the organic farmer’s best friend, neem oil kills a variety of garden pests like aphids and mites as well as fungal infections like mildew without killing anything else when used in the correct dosage. That means you won’t be killing pollinators or poisoning your family when you use neem oil. Unlike chemical pesticides, neem oil is biodegradable meaning it breaks down after use. It won’t end up in your water supply after use.
Not many people know this, but vinegar is a potent pesticide. Take some white vinegar or apple cider vinegar and pour it on those weeds trying to set up a home in your garden and watch it go to work. You’ll want to fill a spray bottle with a solution of water and vinegar and spray it on the weeds. You may even add a cup of Epsom Salt and a tablespoon of castile soap to make it more potent. Bees will love you for using vinegar.
You don’t have to add Epsom Salt to vinegar to kill those pesky pests away. It’s non-toxic, so it won’t be killing each and every other living organism in your garden. It is also filled with all the magnesium goodness the soil needs. Using Epsom salt keeps away slugs and snails and keep your tomatoes and pepper plants healthy and productive. Simply sprinkle the salt around the base of the plants affected by weeds or its leaves to keep the critters away.
This naturally occurring pest repellant is your best bet at keeping almost all kinds of pests like fleas, ants, and mosquitos. You can plant it in your garden or you can make tea out of it and pour it on affected plants after it has cooled down of course.
Pepper, Onion, Garlic
If you’re looking for a pest pepper spray, you probably have it in your fridge. Onions, garlic, and pepper, in the right concentration, are irritating to insects. Just throw them in a blender, pulverize them, and add a few cups of water and you’ve got your very own insect pepper spray. You’ll need to be a bit careful because, in high concentrations, the concoction will burn plants leaves and stems. The good thing is, you won’t be responsible for a small bee genocide when after using pepper, garlic, and onion in your backyard.
You wouldn’t think of castile soap as an effective pesticide given its reputation as a gentle and non-toxic detergent. It does a great job at keeping pests away due to its fatty acids though. Make sure you use the real thing though because dish soaps and other detergents will harm your plants and any insect that feeds on them. Don’t turn your backyard into another Saigon. If you have to use pesticides, use ones that aren’t harmful to humans or other animals and plants. You’ll be doing the world’s bee population a favor.