This year, home gardeners in the U.S. will apply tens of millions of pounds of pesticides to their vegetable patches, flower beds and lawns.
Travis Birdsell of the N.C. State Cooperative Extension would like gardeners in Ashe County to be conscientious about it.
“Just the other day I saw somebody spraying their apple tree, which was in bloom,” he said.
Applying pesticides when trees and plants are blooming kills not only pests, but also bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects, he said.
Gardeners can avoid potentially harmful situations like this by following directions on product labels and applying integrated pest management (IPM), he said, a method of balancing risks between pests and pesticides to achieve long-term pest suppression. Gardeners using IPM can also cut down on the amount of pesticide put into the environment, he said.
According to a 2011 EPA report, an estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides were used in the U.S. in 2007 — 22 percent of the 5.2 billion pounds used worldwide that year. The same year, eight percent of all pesticide active ingredient in the U.S. — $2.7 billion worth — was used on home gardens and lawns.
Pesticides have been in news recently. On April 29, the European Union placed a two-year ban on a class of pesticides believed to be a factor in a massive die-off of honey bees over the winter.
In March, beekeepers and environmentalist groups sued the EPA for approving the registration of the same pesticides.
“People freak out about things they hear in the news, but don’t pay attention to what they’re putting in their own yard,” Birdsell said. Their own backyard is where controlling pesticide use should start, he said.
Pesticide use is reduced through IPM by setting action thresholds, “a point at which pest populations or environmental conditions indicate that pest control action must be taken,” according to the EPA Website. Seeing a single pest doesn’t mean it’s time to break out the insecticide.
Integrated pest management programs use cultural controls, such as selection of pest-resistant varieties, and take into consideration the life cycles of pests. Available pest control methods, which may or may not be pesticides, are is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, with the least risk to people, property, and the environment.
The safest way to apply pesticides is all cases is to follow recommended use on the label, Birdsell said.
“More-is-better is the worst,” he said. “People think, ‘well, if this much will kill it, twice as much will kill it real dead.”
The more-is-better philosophy of pest management is not only ill-advised, he said, it’s also illegal. Pesticide labels all carry an EPA warning that the consumer is liable for improper use of the product.
“People don’t realize, when you buy these products, you’re signing an agreement,” Birdsell said.
Timing of applications is also crucial. “Watch the weather,” he said, “If the product says it has to be left to dry on the plant for 12 hours, and it rains, most of that is going to wash off.”
Pesticide run-off harms non-pest insects in the garden and lawn, eventually contaminating streams and rivers and harming aquatic life, he said.
Misapplied pesticides also pose risks to pets and children, Birdsell said. In November, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement linking prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.
Birdsell said many people are not aware that the active ingredients in pesticides used in their home garden are the same as those used in agriculture. This is partly due to marketing.
“A lot of the names are meant to seem safer,” said Birdsell.
Pesticides marketed in agriculture have a brand names that imply dangerous potency, like Sniper, Venom or Malice, while the same chemicals sold to home gardeners bear innocuous-sounding names like Merit, Bug-B-Gon or Sevin.
With massive decreases in the honey bee population linked to certain pesticides, gardeners who want to avoid using them should avoid anything with active ingredients clothianidin, imidacloprid or thiametoxam, Birdsell said. These belong to the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids which was banned in Europe last week.
“Any Bayer product contains imidacloprid,” he said.
“Ant killer is also lethal to bees,” he said, as well as “anything that says ‘systemic,’ ‘long-lasting,’ ‘12 months,’ ‘3-in-1’ or ‘2-in-1.’”