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Natural Insect Control


2013/08/02

By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D., with contributions from Kristin Lamberson, Interpretive Gardens Specialist at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center

Summertime is when insects are most active, and the most nuisances to our equine friends (and us). So, when looking for ways to get relief from insects, consider your feathered friends.

Did you know that nearly all the birds in our area eat insects? During breeding season, they are all feeding insects to their young. Young, growing birds need protein and insects are a good source. Yum, yum!

Native plants are the base support for the insects that feed not only birds, but also frogs, salamanders, snakes, turtles, foxes, raccoons, numerous other mammals and amphibians.  The more diverse the planting/habitat, the more diverse the “critters” that rely on that landscape, and nature is always working towards a balance. 

You may think that it’s difficult to have a diverse planting on horse farms, where all available acreage is devoted to horse forage. But creating areas with native grasses and plants can attract many of the birds and insects that provide nature’s free ecosystems’ services. Remember that not all insects are undesirable and not all “weeds” are undesirables. For example, our food supply would not be possible without pollinators.

On your horse property, you could create swaths for native grasses. If you have turn out pastures and possibly a few acres that you just mow, those areas or portions of them, or areas between paddocks, could be planted in meadow/prairie grasses, which would create the diversity in wildlife. It will also cut your labor time and fuel/machinery costs of mowing. How would you like to spend less of your leisure time mowing grasses and more of it enjoying your horses and their surroundings?

Your barn and/or covered arena can be desirable locations for Barn Swallows to nest in the rafters. Unfortunately, in many places house sparrows are out-competing them and destroying their nests. Barn swallows are aerial insectivores, like Martins and Chimney Swifts, which catch their prey in flight. These birds are a barn’s best friend!   Having an active plan to limit house sparrow nests and birds, the Barn Swallows can be successful at breeding and will help diminish the fly population in your barn.

Chimney Swifts are another great insect controller. Did you know that Chimney Swifts eat nearly one third of their own weight in flying insect pests such as mosquitoes, biting flies, and termites every day? Building Chimney Swift towers near your barn would invite those birds who, pretty much, spend their whole day in flight -catching insects! To find out more about Chimney Swifts and how to build a Swift tower, visit www.chimneyswifts.org.

Purple Martins are renowned for their mosquito control. But that myth ignores the myriad other insects that Purple Martins eat. Martins, like all swallows, are aerial insectivores. They eat only flying insects, which they catch in flight.  Their diet is diverse, including dragonflies, damselflies, flies, midges, mayflies, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, June bugs, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, wasps, flying ants, and ballooning spiders.  Martins are not, however, prodigious consumers of mosquitoes. Martins are daytime feeders, and feed high in the sky, whereas mosquitoes stay low in damp places during daylight hours, or only come out at night. But don’t let that discourage you from constructing “condos” to attract Martins to your land! For detailed information on the proper construction, location, and maintenance of Martin houses, visit: http://purplemartin.org/.

Beneficial bats are another organic method of pest control. The primary predators of night-flying insects, one bat can eat between 600 and 1,000 mosquitoes and other insect pests in just one hour! Bats are an important part of the ecosystem in other ways, too. They pollinate fruits and perform an extremely important function as seed dispersers.  Nectar-eating bats are important pollinators, and many plant species depend almost entirely on bats for pollination.

Sadly, bats are succumbing to a disease called white nose syndrome, a fungus which was first documented in caves on New York in 2006. It has spread rapidly, infecting colonies and taking a high mortality toll on localized populations. To protect bats, it is important to learn about them and their important niche in the ecosystem. For more information, see Land Marks, winter 2013, pp. 20-21 – a publication of Mississippi State University.

The Strawberry Plains Audubon Center near Holly Springs, MS conducts short hikes to teach visitors about “Nature’s Tiny Titans:” where they live, what they eat, and why they are so important. You can also see the construction of bat houses at the Center.

Don’t forget frogs as insect eaters! They principally eat insects, worms, spiders, and centipedes. If you have a pond on your farm, you’ve probably heard the night-time chorus of a variety of frogs, from bull frogs to tree frogs. Frogs are an integral part of the ecosystem. Their tadpoles keep waterways clean by feeding on algae. Adult frogs eat large quantities of insects, including disease vectors like mosquitoes.

Like the “canary in the coal mine,” frogs are important bioindicators. They have permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals, a trait which makes them susceptible to environmental disturbances. In fact, the health of frogs is thought to be indicative of the health of the biosphere as a whole. Frogs have survived for 250 million years, but amphibian populations have been rapidly disappearing worldwide, and currently one-third of the world’s amphibian species are on the verge of extinction. Up to 200 species have completely disappeared since 1979. The six major factors negatively affecting amphibians, all due to human activity are: habitat destruction, infectious diseases, pollution and pesticides, climate change, invasive species, and over-harvesting for the pet and food trades. So, save a place for frogs at your home! Vernal pools make great places for tadpoles, and other amphibians, to grow up, since they don’t contain fish that would eat them.

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