Five reasons not to spray the bugs in your garden this summer



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play4smee/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, University of Sydney, and Kate Umbers, Western Sydney University

The weather is getting warmer, and gardens are coming alive with bees, flies, butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantises, beetles, millipedes, centipedes, and spiders.

For some of us it is exciting to see these strange and wonderful creatures return. For others, it’s a sign to contact the local pest control company or go to the supermarket to stock up on sprays.

But while some bugs do us very few favours – like mozzies, snails and cockroaches – killing all insects and bugs isn’t always necessary or effective. It can also damage ecosystems and our own health.


Read more: The hidden secrets of insect poop


There are times when insecticides are needed (especially when pest populations are surging or the risk of disease is high) but you don’t have to reach for the spray every time. Here are five good reasons to avoid pesticides wherever possible, and live and let live.

1. Encourage the bees and butterflies, enjoy more fruits and flowers

Hover fly.
dakluza/flickr

Flowers and fruits are the focal points of even the smallest gardens, and many of our favourites rely on visits from insect pollinators. We all know about the benefits of European honey bees (Apis mellifera), but how about our “home grown” pollinators – our native bees, hover flies, beetles, moths and butterflies. All these species contribute to the pollination of our native plants and fruits and veggies.


Read more: The common herb that could bring bees buzzing to your garden


You can encourage these helpful pollinators by growing plants that flower at different times of the year (especially natives) and looking into sugar-water feeders or insect hotels.

2. Delight your decomposers, they’re like mini bulldozers

Slaters improve your soil quality.
Alan Kwok

To break down leaf litter and other organic waste you need decomposers. Worms, beetles and slaters will munch through decaying vegetation, releasing nutrients into the soil that can be used by plants.

The problem is that urban soils are frequently disturbed and can contain high levels of heavy metals that affects decomposer communities. If there are fewer “bugs” in the soil, decomposition is slower – so we need to conserve our underground allies.

You can help them out with compost heaps and worm farms that can be dug into the ground. It’s also good to keep some areas of your lawn un-mowed, and to create areas of leaf litter. Keeping your garden well-watered will also help your underground ecosystems, but be mindful of water restrictions and encouraging mosquitoes.

3. An army of beneficial bugs can eat your pests

Mantises and dragonflies are just some of the hundreds of fascinating and beautiful bugs we are lucky to see around our homes. Many of these wonderful creatures are predators of mozzies, house flies and cockroaches, yet people are using broad-spectrum insecticides which kill these beneficial bugs alongside the pests.

It may sound counterproductive to stop using pesticides in order to control pests around the home, but that’s exactly what organic farmers do. By reducing pesticides you allow populations of natural enemies to thrive.


Read more: Even ‘environmentally protective’ levels of pesticide devastate insect biodiversity


Many farmers grow specific plants to encourage beneficial insects, which has been shown to reduce the damage to their crops.

This form of pest control in growing in popularity because spraying can result in insecticide resistance. Fortunately, it’s easy to encourage these bugs: they go where their prey is. If you have a good range of insects in your yard, these helpful predators are probably also present.

Jumping spiders are great at eating flies and other pests.
Craig Franke

4. Your garden will support more wildlife, both big and small

Spraying with broad-spectrum pesticides will kill off more than just insects and spiders – you’re also going after the animals that eat them. The more insects are around, the more birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs will thrive in your backyard.


Read more: Four unusual Australian animals to spot in your garden before summer is out


Baiting for snails, for example, will deter the blue-tongue lizards that eat them, so cage your vegetables to protect them instead. Keeping your garden well-watered, and including waterbaths, will also encourage a balanced ecosystem (but change the waterbaths regularly).

5. You and your family be happier and healthier

Engaging with nature increases well-being and stimulates learning in children. Insects are a fantastic way to engage with nature, and where better to do this than in your own back yard! Observing and experimenting on insects is a wonderful teaching tool for everything from life cycles to the scientific method. It will also teach your kids to value nature and live sustainably.

It’s also a hard truth that domestic pesticides present a significant risk of poisoning, especially for small children.

In reality, the risk of exposing your children to the pesticides far outweighs the nuisance of having a few bugs around. Instead, integrated pest management, which combines non-chemical techniques like cleaning of food residues, removal of potential nutrients, and sealing cracks and crevices, is safer for your family and your garden ecosystems.

Think globally, act locally

Your backyard has a surprising impact on the broader health of your neighbourhood, and gardens can make significant contributions to local biodiversity. Insects are an important part of ecosystem conservation, and encouraging them will improve the health of your local environment (and probably your health and well-being too).


Read more: Conservation efforts must include small animals. After all, they run the world


The ConversationIn the end, insects and spiders are not out to get you. For the sake of our kids and our environment, you should give them a chance.

Lizzy Lowe, Postdoctoral researcher, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney, and Kate Umbers, Lecturer in Zoology, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Mozzies are evolving to beat insecticides – except in Australia



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Mosquitoes are the main vectors for dengue and zika. Insecticides are our best weapon against them.
Anja Jonsson/Flickr

Ary Hoffmann, University of Melbourne; Nancy Margaret Endersby-Harshman, University of Melbourne, and Scott Ritchie, James Cook University

Chemical pesticides have been used for many years to control insect populations and remain the most important method of managing diseases carried by pests, including mosquitoes. However, insects have fought back by evolving resistance to many pesticides. There are now thousands of instances of evolved resistance, which make some chemical classes completely ineffective.

The Aedes mosquito, largely responsible for the spread of viruses like dengue and zika, has globally developed resistance to commonly used chemicals, including pyrethroids. Pyrethroids are the most used insecticides in the world, which includes the control of dengue outbreaks and quarantine breaches at air and sea ports.

In Asia and the Americas, pyrethroid resistance in Aedes mosquitoes is now widespread. In Australia, our mosquitoes have not developed these defences and pyrethroids are still very effective.

The difference lies in our stringent and careful protocols for chemical use. As the global community fights zika and other mosquito-borne diseases, there are lessons to be learned from Australia’s success.

Developing resistance

Mosquitoes usually become resistant to pyrethroids through the mutation of a sodium channel gene that controls the movement of ions across cell membranes. Mutations in a single gene are enough to make mosquitoes almost completely resistant to the level of pyrethroids used in insecticides.

The mutations first arises in a population by chance, and are rare. However, they rapidly spread as resistant females breed. The more times a mosquito population is exposed to the same chemical, the more the natural selection process favours their impervious offspring.

Eventually, when many individuals in a population carry the resistance mutation, the chemical becomes ineffective. This can happen where insecticide “fogging” is common practice. Overseas, fogging is sometimes undertaken across entire neighbourhoods, several times a month, despite concerns about its effectiveness as well as its environmental and health impacts.

A pest exterminator carries out insecticide fogging in an apartment block in Singapore.
EPA, Wallace Woon/AAP

Once resistance develops, it can spread to non-resistant mosquito populations in other areas. Pest species, including mosquitoes, are often highly mobile because they fly or are carried passively (in vehicles, ships and planes) at any stage of their life cycle. Their mobility means mutations spread quickly, crossing borders and possibly seas.

We can still control Australian mosquitoes

Despite this, Australian populations of Aedes mosquitoes remain susceptible to pyrethroids. Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito) is the main disease-carrying mosquito in Australia. Its population is restricted to urban areas of northern Queensland, where dengue can occur.

Recent research found that all Australian populations of this species are still vulnerable to pyrethroids. None of the hundreds of mosquitoes tested had any mutations in the sodium channel gene, despite the high incidence of such mutations in mosquito populations of South-East Asia.

A female Aedes aegypti mosquito during a feed.
James Gathany, CDC Prof Frank Hadley Collins/Wikimedia

We believe these mosquitoes remain vulnerable to pyrethroids because in Australia pressure to select for resistance has been low.

Australia does not carry out routine fogging. If dengue is detected in an area, pyrethoids are used in highly regimented and limited fashion. Spraying is restricted to the insides of premises within selected house blocks, and then only for a short period.

Importantly, water-filled artificial containers, which can serve as a habitat for larvae, are treated with insect growth regulators, which do not select for the pyrethroid resistance mutations.

Exporting resistance

With chemical resistance growing around the world, it is more urgent than ever that we co-ordinate action to control and reduce risk of resistance. Unfortunately, no global guidelines exist to minimise the evolution of resistance in mosquitoes.

Adopting pesticide resistance management strategies has proven to be effective against other pests – for example, the corn earworm (Helicoverpa armigera). Guidelines include rotating different class of pesticides to deny pests the chance to develop resistance, and investing in non-chemical options such as natural predators of target pests.

Resistance management strategies are particularly critical for new pesticides that have different modes of attack, such as preventing juvenile insects from moulting, or attacking various chemical receptors.

The ConversationTo prolong the effectiveness of pesticides, we must develop these strategies before resistance begins to develop. North Queensland may be an example to the rest of the world on the best path forward.

Ary Hoffmann, Professor, School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne; Nancy Margaret Endersby-Harshman, Research fellow, University of Melbourne, and Scott Ritchie, Professorial Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.