The Case for Doing Nothing about Pests

Reader Contribution by Jason Akers

The highest form of generalship is to balk at the enemy’s plan.  The next best is to prevent junction of the enemy’s forces.  The next in order is to attack the enemy in the field and the worst policy is to besiege walled cities.  – Sun Tzu 

I see a problem with the way pests are handled in the garden.   

The question that is too frequently asked is:  What can I spray on my garden like magic juice that makes pests just – POOF – disappear?  Hardly ever does one ask if they should do anything at all.  I contend that in most cases you don’t need to do anything!  Sometimes it’s better to let nature take its course.   

We are too quick to use the nuclear option.  We spray everything in the garden with our favorite organic spray and hope it works.  I call that “spray and pray”.  The organic label allows us to retain an air of nobility and justice.  That’s a little like beating someone with a stick and telling them they got an organic beating – at least I didn’t use an aluminum bat.  That would be unnatural! 

There’s an irrefutable law in nature that most people seem to overlook when dealing with pests.  The things lower on the food chain are greater in number.  I call this the rabbit to wolf ratio.  There will never be more wolves than rabbits in a given area for a sustained time.  The population of prey must support the population of predator.  Thus, anytime you spray a pest you – by proxy – get rid of a few beneficial insects.  It doesn’t matter if they even come in contact with your “remedy”.   

This is the logic.  Some people will point to the fact that they used an organic spray that doesn’t harm beneficial insects.  But you are depriving them of a food source.  And if you remove their food from the equation you will either starve them out or give them the message that they aren’t welcome in your garden. 

Another general rule is that prey reproduce better than predators.  If they didn’t they would go extinct.  Ladybugs make it from egg to larval (predatory) stage in about 5 days from as few as 3 eggs per “nest”.  It takes a ladybug up to 6 weeks to reach adult (egg laying) stage.  Conversely, an aphid hatches from a nest of 50-100 eggs.  The aphids that hatch only take about a week to reach adulthood (and thus egg laying potential).  And that disregards the fact that if the aphid female cannot find a mate it can simply clone itself (in a process known as parthogenesis) and give birth to a live juvenile copy!  So I ask you, if you nuke both insect groups, which will come back quicker? 

And that’s me assuming that the sprays are effective.  Over time the target insect will likely develop immunity to the spray or just learn to hop away when it detects your movement.  As my friend Jack Spirko from The Survival Podcast likes to say:  Aphids don’t develop immunity to ladybugs.  They just get eaten.   

It might be easy to disregard my barely coherent ramblings as pure theory and one might be smart to do so.  However, I have seen these principles in action.   

Just last year in my garden I had my first major aphid infestation.  I watched in early spring before my grapevines had set a single leaf as ants packed little packages of aphidness up my bare grapevines.  One single egg might have done the job but the ants took no chances, packing up egg after egg after egg.  

My wife:  “Aren’t you going to do something?” 

The leaves were on the grapevine for about two weeks before I noticed they had large black blotches.  The black blotches were in fact thousands of aphids, setting up shop.  I had a lot of interesting afternoons sitting on the deck that I used for a trellis and watching the ants harvest the dew from the aphids.   

My wife:  “Would you do something?” 

Eventually the leaves were so covered that some of them were no longer green at all just due to the covering of the aphids.   

My wife:  “I give up!” 

Then a few days later the cavalry came.  As usual when the ladybugs show up I say, “Welcome to the party.  What took you so long?” 

At first it was just a few; hidden on the back of a leaf or clinging to the stem.  A week later all of the ants had abandoned their crop and went to ground.  Before long I was watching full-scale attacks.  The ladybugs were defiant – mating in full view of their aphid adversaries.  I think they were sending a message! 

Then came the lacewings.  They made home base in my corn patch.  But they were happy to fly over and place some eggs on the grapevine as well.  A few weeks later and my grapevine was just a little worse for wear.  Some of the leaves had holes in them.  But my grapevine had grapes.  The ladybugs had moved on to other plants and other prey.  The lacewings stayed in the corn patch and propagated like mad.  Not a single plant in my garden that season succumbed to pests.   

So maybe doing nothing is the wrong way to look at it.  I didn’t do “nothing” I just provided the habitat in the form of the big bright flowers on calendula and large hiding places in the corn and lots of nectar from sunflowers. I was going to plant those things anyway. 

I might be extra lazy but I say this spring, when the pests come – do nothing!   

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