A&M bug expert says to look beyond insecticides in dealing with garden pests

Alan DeGorostiza peers through a magnifying glass to get a close up view of a bug during a presentation on insects last month at the Stinson House in Quitman. Next to him is his father, Joe DeGorostiza.
Alan DeGorostiza peers through a magnifying glass to get a close up view of a bug during a presentation on insects last month at the Stinson House in Quitman. Next to him is his father, Joe DeGorostiza.
(Monitor photo by Hank Murphy)
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When an East Texas garden is invaded by destructive insects, resorting first to chemical warfare isn’t always the best line of defense. The common approach of bug-therefore-poison might eliminate your enemies, but it’s a good bet you’ll slaughter plenty of allies as well.

When confronted with an infestation of plant-killing insects, the most common mistake gardeners make is to first reach for a chemical poison, says Alan Smith, an entomologist for the Texas A&M Forest Service.

“I’ve got a problem. I’ll put a spray on it,” says Smith, describing the mindset of many gardeners. “That is not necessarily the best option at the beginning.”

Not only does it have the potential to kill beneficial insects, but through extended overuse of a chemical agent, insects can develop resistance, according to Smith.

The A&M Forest Service bug expert was in Quitman in May to lead a program at the Stinson House as part of the Wood County Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s “Nature U” series titled “Insect Friends and Foes.” He talked about methods of controlling damaging insects, resources for identifying them, and, when the situation does call for an insecticide, how to select and apply the proper one.

Smith notes that when a person is armed with knowledge, many pest problems can be prevented. When infestations do occur, often they can be dealt with through natural processes and effective gardening techniques. Those options should always be explored before “we reach for an expensive spray and before we start putting poison into the environment.”

For instance, one way to eliminate a pest is to disrupt its habitat, Smith says. He cited the example of insects that like to live in the crooks and crannies of garden mulch. Eliminate their habitat, and you can eliminate them.

He pointed to natural predators – like bees, wasps and spiders – as another line of defense. And knowing that insects such as Spined Soldier Bugs and Pirate Bugs are good guys while Mexican Bean Beetles and Pill Bugs are destructive pests is useful knowledge to environmentally conscious gardeners.

Smith estimates that 1.3 million varieties of insects inhabit planet Earth. The biggest misconception people have in general about bugs in their home or garden is that “all of them are bad. When I see a bug I’ve got to spray it. I think that is the biggest problem we have. A lot of the stuff we see around our homes, those insects are actually beneficial. We don’t like wasps, because they sting us. But wasps are very beneficial because they take care of a lot of different things. They eat mosquitoes, all kinds of things. If you learn to live with some of this stuff, it’s cheaper, you’re not contaminating the environment and putting poison out there, and you’re solving a lot of problems before you even have to worry about it,” said Smith.

So if reaching for poison first isn’t the best way to save a row of pole beans, what should a person do?

The stock answer is “it depends,” says Smith. Much depends on variables, such as time of year, the stage of an insect’s life, the ease of disrupting a habitat and numerous other factors. He suggests that people consult with their local Extension service, the Texas A&M Forestry Service, or federal agencies before first reaching for the poison or enlisting a pest control business.

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