Updated: Nov 2
One evening last summer as Lee and I were walking the dogs, I noticed him swatting at his head and grumbling. I prepared to say something unhelpful, but then I saw the cloud of mosquitoes hovering over him. Generally, I only have to swat at the occasional tormentor, but Lee it seems is mosquito candy.
Southeastern Pennsylvania has received bucketloads of rain this spring. While this tends to work out for gardeners, it doesn't bode well for folks like Lee. When temperatures hit the 80s, these predators will come out with weapons drawn. (This weekend temps are expected to bypass the 80s and hit the high 90s in the Philadelphia region.)
Judging from all of the little lawn signs in this area, many people resort to spraying. We're not willing to go there. Yes, I know, marketers swear these products only target mosquitoes and are safe for children and pets, but that is a fairytale. In reality, unsponsored research shows sprays are harmful to cats, and deadly to pollinators like bees, butterflies, and the birds who eat tainted insects. So we're going need a less convenient strategy.
Last Sunday on another walk, we encountered a neighbor working in her yard. She has covered her lawn with compost in preparation for extending her native plant garden—a haven for pollinators. She explained that the composting would be a lengthy process requiring patience, but it will be worth it in the end.
Scientists have been ringing the alarm bells about beehive die-offs and the decline in global pollinator populations for years. News reports tell us that the loss endangers our supply of foods like apples, almonds, peppers, broccoli, and cucumbers. According to research from the Great Sunflower Project, bees are responsible for one third of all food produced in the US. If more of us turned to native gardens instead of lawns, would the statistics change? Or what if we at least refused toxic pesticides and herbicides?
The honey bee population decreased 40% in the winter of 2018 to 2019 alone, and the annual rate loss for the 2019 to 2020 winter was also 40%, declines that experts described as "unsustainable."
Another option for turning the tide involves putting on our amateur scientist hats and observing local pollinators. It's easy to share the data with dedicated research organizations. (Links below) This week I spent some time sleuthing in the garden and found the sweat bees flocking to my fleabane daisies more interesting than I would have imagined. I recommend it as a fun learning activity for children, or anyone for that matter.
Still, we will soon be confronted by those bloodsucking mosquitoes. I have found some non-toxic strategies that make a difference. Because mosquitoes are not strong fliers, a couple of fans around the patio table enables us to eat outdoors—a big win in my book. In addition, before the season gears up, I put mosquito dunks in places where water collects. This includes the basins of potted plants and in our gutter extensions where water lies sometimes after a rain. These dunks kill mosquito larvae only. They're also said to be safe to use in birdbaths.
However, none of this adds up to a perfect solution. My arborist friend, Gene McMillen, suggested bat boxes, so I decided to look into it. When I was a kid growing up on a small farm in Maryland, I never remember mosquitoes being more than a mild annoyance, but we had bats. We learned not to be afraid of them because while they did sometimes swoop down nearby when we swam in the pool at night, they never touched us.
But Lee is not a country boy, so in preparation for my discussion with him and the neighbors, I tried to think of all of the arguments against bat houses. The first thing that came to mind is the widespread concern about rabies. In my research, I was surprised to learn that bats carry no more rabies than other mammals common in our communities. They look alien, so that may be the source of the fear.
After getting the okay from the neighbors, we found a Bat Conservation International, BCI, approved bat house on Ebay and had it hung on the south facing wall of our garage. Bat houses need some sunlight and do best when mounted on rough wood or stone. They should be optimally 12-20 feet above ground vegetation, and ideally, not close to trees that may harbor predators. Additionally, successful bat boxes usually have a water source like a lake or a stream within a quarter of a mile. Our location isn't perfect, but it hits most of the marks.
Now we wait. I understand that it can take up to two years for bats to locate a properly placed house, but we're prepared to be patient. In the meantime, we’ll be gearing up those fans.
I’m curious to learn what works for others. What do you do to protect yourself from mosquitoes as the weather heats up?