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Ditch the Pesticides; Try Integrated Pest Management

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I didn't truly know hate until my first fruit fly infestation.

Out of nowhere they struck. First congregating in the fruit bowl, then the compost bin, then making a nest in the sink drain. From there, it was pandemonium. Cupboards were soon overwhelmed. The insides of my hands were a constant purple bruise from stupidly trying to counter their advance by smashing them, one by one. (Their strategic positioning on wall corners was something to admire.) And then, they finally made their way into the bathroom.

At that point, all I could think of was calling an exterminator to bomb the entire building with a pesticide. But after a frantic hunt for tips, a friend recommended putting vinegar in a cup, topping it with Saran wrap, and poking holes for the little suckers to get in. Soon enough, after setting out those traps, they were gone.

Without knowing it, I'd delved into the realm of Integrated Pest Management.

Integrated pest management is, according to the EPA's website, "an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices." In NormalSpeak: They get rid of pests using as few pesticides as possible.

"I relate what we do to solving a medical problem," said Cheryl Wilen, Area IPM Advisor for UC Cooperative Extension. "If someone has a heart condition, the solution might be bypass surgery, which is very hard on the body. But if someone were predisposed to that kind of risk, the doctor would recommend changing their diet, exercising more, doing those preventative things."

Pesticides, then, are invasive surgery, a method that may be applied if absolutely necessary. But here are a few other things to try first. And it's not just about saving the environment. Because while the avoidance of pesticides comes with the benefit of not polluting waterways and air with potentially harmful chemicals, it's also simply more effective.

Some pests are already being regulated by natural biocontrol like, say, ladybugs. And if you haphazardly spray a bunch of pesticide, you may be killing the ladybugs as well. So, the next time the pests come back, they'll do so with a fury, seeing as their natural predators have all been killed.

"People are very reactionary," said Wilen. "When they see some kind of pest on their plant, people don't really look at whether there's a lot of damage. They immediately go and buy pesticides."

This can not only be potentially harmful, but also costly. While pesticides for home gardens may only cost a few bucks, when you're dealing with thousands of acres, that begins to add up. This, actually, is how IPM first came to be used.

"It was first adopted by people who are growing things for profit," said Wilen. If there was a bug causing problems, rather than simply spraying the entire crop, growers instituted a threshold for the amount of pests that were allowed to inhabit the plants. If the pests surpassed the threshold, then they'd spring for the costly pesticides. But in the meantime, they tried to control the spread using more natural methods like diverting water or introducing a natural predator.

(One more recent development is the introduction of pheromone traps. In this method, a pests' pheromones are captured and placed in traps far away from the crops being ravaged. The pests are attracted, caught in the traps, and the crops are free from their wrath.)

Usually, the IPM program tackles larger scale infestations of these sizes. (Another example: To control California's Mediterranean fruit fly population, teams release tens of thousands of sterile fruit flies into the wild in order to trick the fertile flies into thinking they've mated, bringing about a smaller next generation of flies.) But the folks at UC Cooperative Extension also tackle issues for home gardens.

Homeowners can visit the website for solutions to their own pest problem. If a problem isn't addressed or they need more information, they can personally call up UC Master Gardeners for tips on their issue. While they won't actually head over to your house, they will offer low-impact tips for controlling the pest population. If you have a problem with snails, say, Witten suggests not putting so much water in your garden, and removing the hiding places for snails to inhabit during the day.

Best of all is the cost of the program. "In California, it's absolutely free," said Witen.

Can't get much more cost-effective than that.

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