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Bug Patrol

06/26/2013 05:45PM ● Published by Enjoy Magazine

We’ve come to accept that bugs are bad, in any form. Spot a spider. Squish it. Spy a praying mantis. Get rid of it. Cruise the gardening aisles at any home center and you’ll find significant shelf space devoted to all manner of bug-killing potions.

In reality, large numbers of what home gardeners consider pests can make good predatory pals.

Sinthya Penn, president of Beneficial Insectary, a producer of organisms used in biological pest control, has made it her life’s work to help commercial growers naturally integrate their pest management systems. As validation for her company’s mission, she points to a moment in agriculture when, in 1927, the citrophilus mealybug endangered more than 3 million acres of California citrus crops. The introduction of two species of natural predatory enemies resulted in complete control of the mealybugs within two years. “It literally saved the citrus industry,” says Penn.

While Penn admits she isn’t in business to evangelize growers to go green, it’s difficult to ignore that the company, with a home office in east Redding, plays a huge part in contributing to a growing awareness of what natural ecological balance can look like.

Movies such as “Food, Inc.” and grassroots movements like Food Not Lawns surfaced awareness of how pesticides affect people and their families. Christen Smith, a customer service specialist with Beneficial Insectary, says, “In the 11 years I’ve worked here, people’s reception to what I do has changed. They used to wonder why I would work with bugs, but now they’ve started to understand.”

Every home gardener will have problems with pests, she says. It’s how they look at them and coexist with them that will make the difference between a healthy or toxic patch of land. “My son picks and eats tomatoes right off our plants,” says Smith. “I don’t have to worry about him ingesting toxins or getting it on our skin.”

“It’s a paradigm shift,” says Penn. People have been trained to accept only the greenest of lawns, but “going green” doesn’t always mean green. “Yards can still be attractive. They don’t have to be weed patches.” Gardeners can naturally landscape with ground covers and vegetables, creating an environment where pests will surely want to play.

Making the change to natural pest management is both simple and not-so-simple. Because gardeners can’t necessarily see the process happening, they might be inclined to think it isn’t working. Patience, coupled with desire, interest and an investment in knowledge, is the key to biological pest control. “You have to look at your plants,” says Smith. It is important to notice and identify pests in order to address them. UC Davis offers a statewide pest management program with specific information targeted to home, garden, turf and landscape pests.

Using bugs isn’t as creepy as it might seem. If the idea of reaching bare hands into buckets of bugs has you running for pesticide, think again. Modern products look much like any other store-bought product. For instance, nematodes, used for grubs, fungus gnats and other soil-dwelling pests, come in microscopic form, in a powder-like substance that is activated in a watering can or sprayer.

While home growers still have complete choice about whether to use beneficial organisms, commercial growers are discovering that integrated pest management is a must. Similar to bacterial resistances of antibiotics in the medical field, pests are developing resistances to traditional pesticides. Even for growers not committed to fully organic processes, beneficials now play an important role, helping crops survive until effective pesticides can be used.

Consider making friends with natural garden visitors. Squelch the urge to squish first and ask questions later. Spend a moment getting to know your bugs. You might discover they are doing your tomatoes huge favors. •

Home gardeners can order beneficial organisms from: Greenmethods.com • GrowOrganic.com

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