Spring is in the air, which means it’s time to enlist some help to stay pest free and chore efficient throughout the summer and fall.
Who are the helpers? And how can you tell who is friend and who is foe?
The easiest way to see what helpers you might already have, and to consider which ones to attract, is to grab a cup of coffee and take a long, slow walk around your property. Bring your horse along too for a few bites of fresh spring grass. Stopping here and there to let your horse graze will enable you to observe what’s working, and where problems might arise.
Is it quiet? Too quiet? Or do you hear robins, flickers, chickadees and towhees calling; see them foraging around for bugs and nesting spots? Are there any obvious pests, rodent fecal matter or problem areas? Do you see carpenter ants scurrying around, or damage from termites or mice? Are mosquitoes buzzing your head while you walk? Are the dreaded flies already out?
Fly and Mosquito Control
If you live in an area that had a mild, wet winter, like the Pacific Northwest, you may already be seeing the signs of a long, pesky fly season approaching, or notice an unusual abundance of mosquitoes.
Starting a fly predator program now can help. Fly predators (gnat-sized, parasitic nocturnal wasps) will help control adult fly populations in and around manure piles, paddocks and pastures. It is often cost-effective to set up a season-long program and have these helpers delivered to your door on a monthly or bi-monthly schedule.
As for mosquitoes, check to see if you can eliminate breeding grounds by noticing where standing water has collected - it doesn’t take much for a mosquito to breed - they will breed in clogged, leaf-filled gutters, ‘pools’ in tarps and in discarded flower pots. Try to dump your standing water weekly, including bird baths and livestock water buckets. If you have ponds or large stock tanks, there are many non-toxic controls for mosquitoes available on the market you can add, so you don’t degrade or waste the water.
Enlist the help of bug eating birds. In addition to flies and mosquitoes, birds also help keep slugs, ants, subterranean pests (like crane-fly larvae), grubs and other flying insects at bay. To attract and keep beneficial birds around your place, provide habitat zones of varied-height grasses, hedgerows or native plants, and if possible, leave some dead trees or snags to provide forage and nesting spots, in other words, it’s good to be a little messy when tidying up your place. You can also hang species appropriate nest boxes for the birds you want to attract, such as violet-green swallows. A fresh water source is the only other thing you need to provide your bird helpers, to ensure they stick close by all season long.
Crawling Insect Control
Besides attracting birds, another way to control crawling insects is to introduce beneficial insects. Beneficial nematodes can be sprayed on areas where there are persistent problem pests. Beneficial nematodes (non-segmented roundworms which naturally occur in soil) are easy to purchase and use and are harmless to pets, aquatic life and birds. They can help control over 200 species of insects by invading their host and injecting symbiotic bacteria into the host’s body.
Other popular beneficial insect predators you can purchase include praying mantis, green lacewings, damsel bugs, assassin bugs, ground beetles and more. Even certain wasps, like the paper wasp (that very rarely sting and only inhabit their umbrella-shaped nests a short time) eat a good amount of bugs.
There are also beneficial insects that help control weeds, like tansy ragwort, which can quickly kill livestock if ingested. Cinnabar moths are one of the species used - they lay their eggs on the plant and the developing larvae burrow into, and feed on the tansy’s root system.
In addition to enhancing your environment with birds and insects, encouraging raptors, bats, snakes, frogs, and small amphibians will also add to your pest management arsenal. Simple piles of rocks (you can enhance these nesting areas by adding conduit pieces at the bottom of the piles), areas of taller grass, and small natural debris mounds can provide habitat for these helpers.
It can feel overwhelming seeing patches of weeds starting to flourish and bugs of every specter awakening. Especially when all you want to do is get out there and ride your horse. Be patient and don’t panic! Identify your bugs before you stomp - if you need help, your local extension service is always glad to assist. And remember, less than 3% of the estimated 20-50 million insect species inhabiting the earth are considered bad; the rest are considered beneficial or benign.
Before reaching for a pesticide and killing off the beneficial insects along with the bad, consider attracting and using nature’s natural predators - it may take a little time, but the pay-off is creating a beautiful, safe environment for you and your horses.
Check out our tip sheets:
Keep the beneficial bugs coming - mark your calendar:
Attend all or part of the upcoming Beneficial Insect and Pollinator Workshops, June 3rd - 5th, in King County, WA
If you'd like to find out what beneficial species you can purchase online, here's one of the many options to take a look at: Arbico Organics
“When we kill off the natural enemies of a pest, we inherit their work.” –Carl Huffaker