The nastiest looking insect I’ve ever seen crawled out of a hole near a dead stump in my garden the other day. I was weeding there, and I’m sure I disturbed it. To be honest, I was scared. This thing looked like it could bite me and it would hurt. I briefly considered the possibility that it was benevolent. Was it a spider? I tried counting its legs — six, not eight.

Figuring that this thing was as terrible as it looked, I killed it. I’d never seen a termite, let alone a termite queen, but I couldn’t think of any other explanation for this monster. A quick search online confirmed my hunch. She wasn’t just a termite queen — she was full of eggs!

I panicked. I grow a lot of my food in the little patch of soil I call my garden. I garden organically, encouraging the biodiversity of microbes, plants, and even bugs. Pesticides aren’t welcome.

That said, termites are bad news. So what’s an organic gardener to do? Again, the Internet came to my rescue. For an outdoor soil infestation like mine, you can get nematodes (tiny worms) that kill termites. No pesticides needed — and the nematodes cost much less than you’d pay the exterminator.

It’s amazing how often we reach for pesticides to take care of bugs — not just in our gardens. A can of Raid gets rid of bugs indoors, a terminator service regularly sprays outside the house, pesticides kill head lice on your kids and fleas on your cats, and you can even buy clothing treated with pesticides to keep the mosquitoes away. And all of these chemicals are supposedly safe if used according to the label instructions.



That’s where I see a disconnect. If all of the pesticides and other chemicals we are exposed to in our food, our water, our homes, and our environment are safe, then how does one explain that two out of every five Americans will get cancer during their lifetimes?

Getting rid of pests without pesticides requires creativity. Preventing the problem is the best cure, but what do you do once the pests have moved in?

My first tactic is finding out about the pest’s diet, habitat, and life cycle to see if it can easily be exterminated. Instead of spraying down all of the kids’ stuffed animals for head lice, the toys can go in the garage for a few weeks until all of the lice and their eggs die of natural causes.

If that doesn’t work, there are the old standbys of soapy water, diatomaceous earth, or ash. They kill a wide range of insects. In the worst situations, I opt for organic pesticides like pyrethrum, which is made from chrysanthemums.

However, the best way to get rid of bugs is with other bugs — or bacteria, fungi, nematodes, or anything else that eats the pest you’re trying to vanquish. Beneficial organisms are uniquely adapted to seek out and kill the very pests you want to get rid of, and they don’t stop until the job is done. Compared to a chemical pesticide, they are far more targeted and thorough — not to mention safe.

Let’s cut down on pesticide use when there are easy, affordable, non-toxic alternatives.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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