My nine-year-old son can pick up any toad in our yard and classify it by species. Our toads have been captured so often they submit placidly to an amphibian version of alien abduction. They gaze emotionlessly at my sons like, “Oh, that pink monkey-alien again.” Once caught, they’re stuffed silly with all the worms my sons can grub out of the humus. The toads like it. They don’t hop away. I watch my kids catch them while I throw down coffee on my front porch. I like to listen to the birds in the mornings: the flitting cardinals and quarreling sparrows and singing wrens. We love our toads and birds. So unlike everyone else in my state, we don’t spray pesticides to kill mosquitoes.
People think we’re nuts. My own mother-in-law thinks we’re nuts.
I try to explain. Amphibians absorb toxins really well. If we spray for mosquitoes, we will kill off August’s beloved toads, and I will no longer spot teensy tiny baby toadlets, barely tailless, hopping on my sidewalk in late spring. We will kill off Spigot Frog, the treefrog who lives near our garden spigot and sing-screams deafeningly whenever the air gets moist (i.e., all the time, because I live in a formerly malarial swamp). Big Green Treefrogs will no longer stick to my windows at night, which might freak other people out, but they’re cute.
If we sprayed pesticides, we would kill not only mosquitoes, but also all the other bugs. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, because screw bugs, but it’s a big deal to the birds. 96% of them rely exclusively on insects to feed their babies. So far this year, we’ve had doves built a nest in our carport and cardinals nest next to our trampoline, and those are the nests and the babies we can look at. Every morning, cardinals hop through my yard, cruising for bugs. So do sparrows, wrens, and thrushes. If we sprayed pesticides, they’d go away.
Pesticides would also hurt the lizards. And the bees, which are dying out anyway, and everyone knows we need to save the bees. The list goes on.
Pesticides Leave Us With … Mosquitoes
So we have to live with the mosquitoes. And mosquitoes are shit neighbors. Yes, we’re hashtag blessed that ours no longer carry malaria or yellow fever, which killed local European colonists in droves (they probably deserved it, what with their smallpox and genocide, but I’m not saying any more). But they bite viciously, constantly. They can also carry West Nile and Zika. By late June, we’re so used to their bites that they only swell a little and usually disappear in ten minutes. We compare: what’s worse, getting bitten on your palm, or the bottom of your foot? What about your armpit? Between your fingers?
This is a Dantean hell most would find intolerable. We’re part of that most, so when we go outside (which is constantly), we use lemon eucalyptus-based insect repellent, which is only slightly less effective than 98.1% DEET. I wake up, stumble outside, and spray myself. Yes, I smell like lemon-eucalyptus most days. Yes, so do my children. We also employ strategic mosquito netting (I have some over my hammock in the backyard and my hammock chair on the porch; our pool is covered in a mosquito-proof tent).
Because mosquitoes bother me more than the heat, I generally wear jeans with massive holes in their knees, and in the mornings, a long-sleeved shirt. We also dump all standing water — and for five people with ADHD, we manage a remarkable diligence about it.
Most People Would Say Screw It — But It’s Not An Option
Most of our neighbors spray pesticides. Their first concern comes from their pockets; anti-mosquito supplies — mosquito netting, a mosquito tent, spray — cost up-front money. People don’t want to pay for it. But they’re paying more for two months of spraying than we’ll pay for a whole year’s worth of supplies.
Most don’t want to be inconvenienced by bugs. I get it. I’m sitting on my porch, sprayed and slapping. But according to Scientific American, since 1970, the North American bird population has plummeted by three billion.
Read that number again. We have lost three billion birds. Total bird loss could be higher. Pesticides have played a huge role, and while many of those are agricultural pesticides, at least a little bit of that loss probably comes from backyard pesticides.
I won’t add to that three billion.
And everyone knows the bees are dying. We have to protect bees. Even at tiny doses, pesticides commonly used to spray for mosquitoes disorient bees and prevent them from returning to their hives. That is, if the bees aren’t killed on contact or a few days later. The bees can also bring pesticides back to their hive, where they can wreak more damage.
One of my kids has an anaphylactic reaction to bee stings. We have a zero-tolerance policy on wasp nests. But I won’t kill bees if I can possibly help it.
I also don’t want to kill butterflies. I don’t want to kill moths, like the giant one we found on our door a few days ago. I don’t want to kill those icky red-sided millipedes my kids love to pick up, and I might hate them for skittering through my carport, but I don’t want to kill off the fat bronze skinks. I especially don’t want to hurt Trashcan Anoele. He lives on our supercan and has for years. If he couldn’t find insects, he’d get skinny and die. So would Mailbox Anoele and Shutter Frog.
My kids need to live as wild as they can. We don’t have a vast property of woodland for them. We’re forced to be good stewards of what we have. If we want them to catch toads, butterflies, and fireflies, if we want them to see hummingbirds, we can’t spray pesticides.
I smell like lemon eucalyptus. But wrens sing at each other on opposite ends of my yard.
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