Mariam Ellman, a senior scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says, “People have a knee jerk reaction, when first spotting an [insect] pest. Often, they reach for the poison, without considering the fallout.” Since the end of World War II, common household insecticides have grown into a one billion dollar plus annual business. There are poisons on the market to control everything from ants, to bees, all the way down to termites. Though, in recent years, we’ve learned that not only are insecticides dangerous for a home’s occupants, (the average American has 43 different poisons in their bloodstream, according to NRDC) they often aren’t as effective as previously thought.
Some ants, termites and other common pests, will adapt to being treated with insecticide. For example, when a carpenter ant colony is hit with insecticide, they will split up, forming two distinct colonies, and and increasing reproduction. In this sense, insects act almost like a bacteria adapting to the use of antibiotics. It’s these type of adaptations, that often lead to constant treatment with poison to reach effectiveness. However, this constant treatment increases the risk of human/insecticide interactions, especially in children who spend a lot of time playing at ground level.
Enter Integrated Pest Management (IPM):
In an effort to prevent pest infestation, and also provide a more environmentally friendly and safe alternative to poison, IPM is growing in popularity, becoming the go-to method of choice for pest control professionals. IPM looks at the entire home, and property as a system, working to identify weak-points pests could inf. Denying pests food, water and shelter is a large part of what makes IPM effective. With IPM, pest control pros look for areas of wood, which allow for infiltration by boring pests, or areas like tattered screen or consistently damp siding, all environments conducive to pests.
IPM pros also work to identify the species of pest each individual home owners is dealing with. One of the biggest problems with using poison, is that few poisons are a one-size fits all solution. Without a clear diagnosis as to what pest has invaded the home, it can be difficult, if not impossible to successfully treat them. IPM uses poison as a last resort, and favors natural solutions, which are concentrated forms of plant’s natural defense enzymes. Often these enzymes and oils, are what plants use to deter pests, and are equally as effective at deterring pests from entering a home. If a natural solution fails, IPM pros may turn to poison, but only once they are certain precisely what type of insect they are dealing with, and often the poison is applied at a very controlled concentration.
IPM requires consistance:
One of the main factors that determine IPM’s effectiveness, is a consistent approach. IPM isn’t a poison your spray once every six months, and only re-apply twice per-year. The methods that make IPM successful, require attention to detail and an a pro-active approach. IPM has a foundation of six principles, which guide anyone, from farmers to home owners in implementing it:
- Acceptable pest levels—The emphasis is on control, not eradication. IPM holds that wiping out an entire pest population is often impossible, and the attempt can be expensive and unsafe. IPM programmes first work to establish acceptable pest levels, called action thresholds, and apply controls if those thresholds are crossed. These thresholds are pest and site specific, meaning that it may be acceptable at one site to have a weed such as white clover, but not at another site. Allowing a pest population to survive at a reasonable threshold reduces selection pressure. This lowers the rate at which a pest develops resistance to a control, because if almost all pests are killed then those that have resistance will provide the genetic basis of the future population. Retaining a significant number unresistant specimens dilutes the prevalence of any resistant genes that appear. Similarly, the repeated use of a single class of controls will create pest populations that are more resistant to that class, whereas alternating among classes helps prevent this.
- Preventive cultural practices—Selecting varieties best for local growing conditions and maintaining healthy crops is the first line of defense. Plant quarantine and ‘cultural techniques’ such as crop sanitation are next, e.g., removal of diseased plants, and cleaning pruning shears to prevent spread of infections. Beneficial fungi and bacteria are added to the potting media of horticultural crops vulnerable to root diseases, greatly reducing the need for fungicides.
- Monitoring—Regular observation is critically important. Observation is broken into inspection and identification. Visual inspection, insect and spore traps, and other methods are used to monitor pest levels. Record-keeping is essential, as is a thorough knowledge target pest behavior and reproductive cycles. Since insects are cold-blooded, their physical development is dependent on area temperatures. Many insects have had their development cycles modeled in terms of degree-days. The degree days of an environment determines the optimal time for a specific insect outbreak. Plant pathogens follow similar patterns of response to weather and season.
- Mechanical controls—Should a pest reach an unacceptable level, mechanical methods are the first options. They include simple hand-picking, barriers, traps, vacuuming and tillage to disrupt breeding.
- Biological controls—Natural biological processes and materials can provide control, with acceptable environmental impact, and often at lower cost. The main approach is to promote beneficial insects that eat or parasitize target pests. Biological insecticides, derived from naturally occurring microorganisms (e.g.—Bt, entomopathogenic fungi and entomopathogenic nematodes), also fall in this category. Further ‘biology-based’ or ‘ecological‘ techniques are under evaluation.
- Responsible use—Synthetic pesticides are used as required and often only at specific times in a pest’s life cycle. Many newer pesticides are derived from plants or naturally occurring substances (e.g.—nicotine, pyrethrum and insect juvenile hormone analogues), but the toxophore or active component may be altered to provide increased biological activity or stability. Applications of pesticides must reach their intended targets. Matching the application technique to the crop, the pest, and the pesticide is critical. The use of low-volume spray equipment reduces overall pesticide use and labor cost.