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Pesticides are chemicals, either man-made or naturally-occurring, that we use to rid ourselves of unwanted life forms. In addition to chemicals used to kill or repel insects, rodents and other pests, chemicals used to kill fungi (fungicides) like molds and mildew and weeds (herbicides) are also considered pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the Pesticide Action Network, pesticide use by homeowners outweighs agricultural use by a ratio of 10 to 1. The chance that many homeowners are not choosing the right pesticide or are using the pesticide improperly is high. Storing, handling or using pesticides improperly can result in injury or death to the user and damage to the environment.

Dangers of Pesticides

When pesticides wash into water bodies, they often damage or kill aquatic organisms, and they can also be toxic or fatal to honey bees, the major source of pollination to our home garden and agricultural crops. In fact, colonies of honey bees are dying off around the globe (colony collapse disorder), and scientists are struggling to find the causes and solutions to the problem before we lose honey bees altogether.

Another danger of improper pesticide use is that many pesticides are broad spectrum, which means that they kill many types of life forms without discriminating the true pests from the beneficial organisms that keep the pests under control. If you decide to use a pesticide, use one that targets the pest organism that has been identified, such as beneficial bacterial spores (called BT) that kill only caterpillars or grasshoppers or other pests.

Overuse of pesticides can also cause something called genetic resistance in a pest organism. Many organisms we consider pests reproduce quickly and in large numbers, and there are always some survivors when we apply pesticides. The pests that survive are able to do so because something in their genetic makeup allows it. Those that have this genetic resistance then go on to reproduce, passing this characteristic along to their offspring, and eventually the entire population. As their resistance increases, so does our use of the amounts and types of pesticides.

Natural Pest Controls

A natural service provided to us by the environment is pest control. Birds such as swallows, purple martins and bluebirds, amphibians such as frogs and toads, reptiles such as lizards and insects such as lacewings, ladybugs and spiders are all predators that eat insect pests; predators such as hawks, owls and snakes eat mice and rats. Using such natural pest controls can help us cut down on the use of pesticides or eliminate them altogether. This can save us money, exposure to personal hazard and exposure of the environment to the damaging effects of pesticides. Taking advantage of natural services to control pests is a step toward integrated pest management and sustainability. Integrated pest management is an approach to pest control that uses monitoring of pest types and numbers to determine if and when treatments are needed and employs physical, cultural, biological and chemical tactics to prevent damage or serious infestation by pest organisms.

So how do we take advantage of this natural service of pest control?

Providing habitat such as native plants and water will attract these natural predators to your yard, where they can control pests before they enter your house.

If you find you need to use a pesticide either inside or outside your house, use the least toxic ones first. Remember, your family and pets will be exposed to anything you use inside or outside your house, and pesticides used outside your house have the ability to be washed into water bodies, poison wildlife and be carried by wind to non-target areas.

For more detailed information on pesticide use, check out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agendcy (EPA) Citizen's Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safetypdf icon. Be sure to also check out the many sites available on the internet for further suggestions on alternate strategies for handling pests.