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Pest control

August 9, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald
Mike Gilchrist in The Toledo Chronicle -

OK, so stop your whining! This is not the hottest summer on record; it’s not even close. There are not more lightning bugs, nor more mosquitoes, nor more biting flies than ever before. And the next person who says to me, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” will surely learn it’s not the two by four in my hand either, but the sudden impact!

Iowans like to talk about the weather. It is sort of a social lubricant which opens the door to casual banter. “Hot enough for ya?” is a common opening, and lately, you are apt to be dismissed by an Iowan with, “Stay cool!”

I’m thinking this is what Iowa is supposed to feel like in the summer. I grew up here before AC, when an open window and the hopes of a cooling breeze were your only comforts on a hot August night. This was way before ceiling fans made their way from the Bahamas to Florida and eventually to Iowa. I lay in bed, feet sticking out of the sheets, the side of my face searching for a cool spot on the pillow, listening to distant trains rumble through that open window.

Don’t even start whining to me about how hot it is! I’ve detassled corn in 110 degree weather when you couldn’t even tell you were wearing tennis shoes because they were the same color as your legs: black mud. I’ve swatted more biting flies, more annoying gnats, more pesky mosquitoes than any X-Box playing, AC loving, IPad listening member of the current generation.

I’ve been doing my own private whining about the effects of the weather here lately, but enough is enough. I can at least give you a little update on one member of the menagerie here at Gilly Hollow. In years past, we used to be plagued by moles in a certain part of the yard, and I know why. I had to dig a very long ditch by hand a couple years ago to attach a new bathroom we built to the septic system. I dug up quite a few white grubs. Moles love white grubs. In Iowa, if you have white grubs, you have moles.

When I investigated what to do about them, I was told I had two choices: put a broad spectrum pesticide down and kill the grubs, or just get used to bouncing around on the seat of the mower. I opted to bounce; the environmentalist in me didn’t like the idea of upsetting the balance of nature by eliminating the bottom of the food chain.

Enter Wink, the little white one eyed cat. Wink has perfected a new skill. Besides chasing the off the lane and into more friendly territory, she has learned to hunt moles.

With practiced precision, and patient demeanor, she stalks the prey. Once she has isolated the underground lair containing the vermin, she digs a dainty little hole with her front paws and snatches the back peddling mole in her razor sharp teeth. If I’m around, she will parade the kill in front of me before she eats it. It’s interesting to see how she enjoys her kill too. She rips the hapless mole open and eats the heart and liver. Frankie and Holly, the ever vigilant Labrador retrievers stand at the ready to receive the spoils and scarf the remains like a wolf eating mice. As is usual in most things regarding food, Holly, the rather large golden Lab generally wins.

Parts of the yard are now smoother than they have been in recent years. A good soaking rain and some good old summer thunder settles those now abandoned mole hills level with the rest of the lawn. The balance of nature prevails, at least in this little microcosm.

This whole grub / mole / poison thing reminds me of a similar pesky conundrum I solved in the past. During my twenty-four year stint in Florida which ended several years ago, I had an orange tree in my yard. That tree was a Parson Brown, and bore amazing quantities of late oranges. I resisted the temptation to pick them early and always waited until they were just ripe, sweet and juicy. I started noticing the leaves were curling and caked with this black, oily, sooty substance. Because this was before the Internet, I couldn’t just Google a solution. Instead I drove to the Extension Service and asked them what to do.

The prevailing technique, I was told, was to mix dish washing soap with water and Malathion, and spray the leaves. The Malathion would kill the aphids which were causing what is called “city smut,” that black sooty residue. The soap would wash off the black stuff the next time it rained. I did that for a couple years, but it was always a challenge to keep up with those aphids and the rain, which washed the poison from the tree. Also, I didn’t like the idea of using poison to control pests.

I was telling my tale to an old cracker, (that’s what you call a Florida native), and he set me straight. He told me to sacrifice a few oranges and leave them hanging on the tree, even after they were really ripe. He explained these little fruit wasps would build a nest in the orange and proliferate. Well maybe he didn’t use that word exactly. But the point is, the only natural enemy the aphids have is a small benign little fruit wasp. Their sole mission in life is to clean the aphids from the tree, be fruitful, and multiply. I did as he instructed, and sure enough that first year we had a few little nests of wasps and NO city smut. Chemical science zero, nature won!

So fast forward back to the present, I don’t need any fruit wasps to control my pests now; all I need is a sleek little one eyed cat!

I believe my insistence on living in harmony with nature, and refusal to use pesticides is paying off. There have been no hoards of mosquitoes here this summer, but lots of swallows. And those moles, well their days are numbered!

Until next time—

You can read past columns by visiting tamatoledonews.com and clicking on the “Local Columns” button at the bottom of the page.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at mike@aweiowa.com via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.

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