My certification expires in April, so I've been preparing for the exam by reading the 270-page manual; a hefty study guide that doesn't quite match the readability of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. The test isn't easy either and continues to get more difficult every time I take it. You need to read through the entire book to do well.
The Wisconsin DATCP folks take it seriously too. They recommend a 30-day study schedule for first time test takers, as 44 percent of them fail the 70-question exam. 44 percent!!
BUT, if you're NOT in the “for hire” category, aka average homeowner, you have the green light to apply all but restricted use pesticides without any training or certification or licensing whatsoever.
This makes me crazy.
Got yucky green caterpillars eating your primroses? Bt to the rescue!! Watch them slowly die as the toxin punches holes in the lining of their guts, spilling out millions of spores…wait, what was that pretty moth on my screen door last night? Hmmm…Google images points to White-Lined Sphinx moth. That’s the caterpillar that I just killed! Did I just kill its baby?
Are you freaked out by that 13-lined ground squirrel in your asparagus patch? No problem! Throw out some tasty bait laced with anticoagulants! They’ll run away and slowly bleed to death! Hey, is that a red-tailed hawk that just picked up that dying rodent? I wonder if the hawk will be ok…I love those hawks….
You get the picture. I'm preaching to the choir no doubt.
What’s crazy is that those stories are really out there; stories that clearly indicate a less than mindful approach to pesticide use, even in the native landscaping industry.
Some of my favorites:
Man Who Clearly Did Not Read the Round-up Label
When discussing a prairie project with a potential client, he told me that his site was all ready to be seeded. That he had eliminated all of the existing vegetation and “killed” the soil with Roundup seven times over the course of the summer. Knowing that glyphosate only works on actively growing vegetation, which allows two to three applications over the course of the summer, I asked him for more detail. Turned out he sprayed live vegetation once, then continued to spray the bare soil surface instead of letting any existing weeds grow to an active stage (where they would incorporate the chemical). Spraying the soil was a waste and actually against the law.
Woman with Holstered Bug-B-Gon
I had to convince a client during a consult that yes, she should like the Black Swallowtail caterpillars that were eating her Golden Alexanders. She was so concerned with the health of her native plants that she didn’t think about the bigger picture; native plants support native butterflies. Had I not given her permission to like the caterpillars, they would have met their demise with her bottle of Bug-B-Gon at the ready.
Woman Killing Monarchs with Kindness
A client called expressing her concern over the striped caterpillars that were eating her milkweed plants; milkweeds that she had planted to attract monarch butterflies. She was shocked to learn that the caterpillars that she was spraying were monarch caterpillars. She just didn’t connect the dots.
I'm not knocking these folks. They were all well-intentioned homeowners promoting native habitat by planting native plants. They just needed to expand their knowledge base in the direction they were already going.
This is the reality. If people who use pesticides are not required to read the pesticide applicator's manual as part of the certification process, they typically lack the baseline knowledge surrounding pesticide use. If they knew that the label was the law and that they were breaking the law if they didn’t follow the directions, they would scrutinize instead of glossing over said label and not spray Roundup on the soil surface. If they knew the difference between broad spectrum and selective pesticides, they would do less damage to non-target organisms. If they knew some insects undergo complete metamorphosis, they may have more empathy for the perceived “ugly” caterpillar stage of the final “beautiful” butterfly stage. If they knew that a low LD50 or LC50 meant the pesticide was relatively more toxic, they may choose to use another product or avoid it entirely.
Let’s look behind the simple red curtain of the perky Bug-B-Gon label.
And dive down the rabbit hole of bifenthrin, a chemical in the pyrethroid family and the active ingredient of this widely available over-the-counter insecticide. Although considered a restricted use pesticide, i.e. needs to be applied by a certified applicator given the risks associated with the use of the chemical, it is available for public use in formulations with lower concentrations. Yippee!
But If we all skimmed the four page MSDS (material safety data sheet) for the product and the 12 page informational document on the active ingredient, we may be convinced to limit our pest control with this product, seek alternatives or just not worry about those caterpillars.
And if we focused further on the fact that bifenthrin is included in the draft list of initial chemicals for screening under the U.S. EPA Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) because of its exposure potential (i.e. it’s used frequently) or that it’s classified as a Group C, possible human carcinogen, it may make us seriously think through pesticide applications as knee-jerk, right-of-growing season rituals. If this bottle of insecticide could potentially cause cancer, what about the arsenal of other pesticides in my garden shed? What about those old containers?
Suddenly Bug-B-Gon has become more complicated.
I don't have my head in the sand. Insecticides have saved many a corn crop from rootworm and many a child from malaria. I wouldn't be alive today without bactericidal antibiotics to treat my serious bout of pneumonia in second grade. Pesticides most certainly have their place.
BUT, in an era of over 7 billion people on a planet that relies on pesticide-addicted agriculture for its sustenance, the least we can do is practice mindful pesticide applications to the landscapes that we nurture.
Consider the following:
- If you need to use pesticides, read through the manual or, better yet, study and take the pesticide applicator certification test even if the law doesn’t require that you do so. Even better yet, hire a certified applicator.
- Limit pesticide use to controlling invasive species or preparing a plot of land for the re-introduction of natives.
- Most importantly, reinvent the aesthetic that you have for your landscape. Monarch caterpillar-chewed milkweed leaves are reason to celebrate not mourn. Mole tunnels are not life threatening.
Once that grip on the all-my-plant-leaves-must-look-perfect mentality has loosened, you will LOVE the White-Lined Sphinx moth caterpillars that are eating your primroses, and the Grosbeak that eats the White-Lined Sphinx moth caterpillars, and the adult White-Lined Sphinx moth that escaped the Grosbeak to rest on your screen door on a summer evening. That is perfection.