The gnats are back, and so are the mosquitoes.
With all the recent rain, we can expect a new flush of mosquitoes this weekend. They have had seven days since the last rain flushed the earlier hatches away. Our first line of defense is to drain all those containers in our yards that hold water: old plant pots, the odd tire, even that fast-food paper cup you left out in the rain from last weekend. You would be surprised how many mosquitoes an 8-ounce cup of water can grow.
Next is to wear repellent when you go outside. Third, try mosquito dunks in any standing water you cannot or do not want to drain, like bird baths or a reflecting pond. If you have moving water, like a small pond with a waterfall, the dunks are not necessary. Sheep do not drink from moving water, and mosquitos do not breed in moving water. Still water for seven days is required for mosquito breeding.
Mosquito dunks are a concentrated form of a naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis v. israelensis. I know; that’s why we call it Bti. It is harmless to everything in the environment except mosquito larvae; it keeps them from maturing. Trout fishermen love this stuff because it makes the larvae hang around to feed the fish.
All of the above you can do with very little chance of harming the environment and the critters in it.
Here is where the problem starts: We are spoiled and want the mosquitoes dead now, now, NOW! We don’t want to plan ahead or have to think about how what we do affects others — it’s all about me! So we grab a general bug spray that kills just about whatever it touches and fog the yard. That’ll teach ’em. Those nasty mosquitoes bit my kid who was not wearing repellent and was playing around those water-filled pots and spare tires. And, of course, it’s late afternoon and the bees are buzzing around the flowers, and if it kills them, no problem. That is one less bee for my kid to step on.
Except that it is not just one bee.
Do all y’all like eating? I thought so. One-third of the food we produce is pollinated by insects. That means that you need to thank those bugs for every third bite of food. Honeybees do 80 percent of that pollinating, which works out to 1 in every 4 bites of food eaten by people on average has been pollinated by honeybees. Seems it might be a good idea to give a little credit and respect where they’re due.
There has been a lot of interest in native pollinators as well as honeybees. Honeybees are not native to North America; they were brought over by European colonists. The Italian honeybee is the predominant strain because of its efficiency at flower pollination, honey production and tolerance of beekeepers. We have a lot of native pollinators as well, but they do not seem to have the work ethic of the honeybee.
Here in coastal Georgia, solitary bees are encountered often. They are called solitary bees because they do not live in a congregation in a hive but singly, usually in the ground. During summer, you may encounter a couple dozen of these bees running what looks like a Formula One road course in the air just 3 feet above a lawn. I have had a score of these bees buzzing over my lawn as I mowed the grass. They have never bothered me. The males cannot sting, anyway, and they make evasive maneuvering an art form.
Occasionally, I get calls from folk wanting to know what to spray to kill them, and I try to educate them out of it. For many solitary bees, the surest way to kill them is to destroy the native-plant species on which they depend. Clear out native wildflowers and woody plants, and wipe out the solitary bees.
Some solitary bees are generalists, like the honeybee, and can survive the loss of some of their food base. But other solitary bees depend entirely on one species of plant to flower to complete their life cycle, and that solitary-bee species is the most-effective pollinator for that plant species. It brings new meaning to codependency. If we want to keep the tapestry of plants that help define the South, we need to pay attention. A weed is a plant whose virtues are as yet undiscovered. Yellow nutsedge is a weed in your lawn and there are herbicides we recommend to kill it, but hunters buy and plant it in field plots to attract turkey. They call it chufa because you can’t get $4.60 a pound for nutsedge.
The point being, we need them both. Being careful and stingy with insecticides is important to conserve insect pollinators. So is habitat protection. For three weeks, it’s a wildflower, and the rest of the year it’s a weed. Maybe, but let’s give it a chance anyway. Keeping native pollinators around means making sure we keep plants the eggs are laid on or in, plants the larvae eat, plants the larvae pupate on and nectar plants for the adults. We can’t just plant milkweed and think we have met all the needs of the monarch butterfly. If our environment is healthy enough for native pollinators, the odds are good the honeybees can make it, too.
The hysteria over Africanized honeybees seems to have reduced to a simmer. So while no one is panicking and your ears may still be open to hear, please hear this. The best defense against Africanized honeybees is vigorous beekeeping. Those people working their hives wearing their veiled hats and using their smokers are indirectly reducing the opportunities for Africanized bees to become established.
Beekeepers and their bees are our most-effective line of defense to protect this community from the Africanized honeybee. Native bees can’t do the job. The honeybee is a Type A personality when it comes to working nectar sources, and this is a case where we need to fight fire with fire. If there is no nectar left to support the Africanized bees because our Italian bees got there first, well, that’s a good thing! “Youse guys can’t have deez flowars. Deez are our flowars. Dis is our neighborhood. Besides, youse gotta join da union before ya can work here. Ya come buzzin’ around here again, and Benny here will break one of your six legs. You come ’round here after dat, and da big man will smoke ya.”
Hey! Buddy! You with the spray can. I’m workin’ here!