Part 2 of 2-part series, ‘War on Pests’
by TIFFANY RONEY
No matter how judiciously growers use pesticides, Kansas crops will never be insect-free. That would be unnatural, Kiffnie Holt, coordinator of KSU Insect Zoo, said.
“It’s one thing to have zero tolerance for pests indoors. It’s a completely different ballgame outside,” Holt said. “Everything outside has to do with balance and if you get rid of all the pests, then the predators don’t have anything to eat. Then the predators leave and then the pests come back stronger. There’s a balance outside and that’s the reason we’re very careful with how we recommend people use chemicals, and people like Jeff do a lot of studies to help people use them as effectively as possible with the least impact on the environment. It’s a big deal. I mean, if you want to spray something in your house, that affects you and your kids and your pets. If you want to spray something outside, you’re affecting everybody.”
Upon learning about the risks associated with pesticides, some people who would like to get rid of insects on their property are inclined to try home remedies. Jeff Whitworth, Abilene resident, professor of entomology at K-State and co-author of the book, “Crop Insects of Kansas,” said someone recently sent him an e-mail about a natural remedy they wanted to try.
“There’s a nursing home having a problem with ants and they can’t use a chemical insecticide,” Whitworth said. “They heard that vinegar and cinnamon and some of these other things would work and most of these home remedies don’t work. I mean, they might work occasionally, but not consistently.”
Whitworth said he only recommends solutions he and his team have tested and found consistently successful. He said he does not think highly of tiki torches that aim to repel bugs, nor of citronella candles that claim to ward off mosquitoes.
“Those little things that get me are those ultrasound things you can plug into your electrical outlet that say they ‘repel insects and mice,’ and they don’t,” Whitworth said. “I mean, they absolutely do not work. But people buy them all the time. So, it’s their money. If they think it works, that’s fine. I’ve got no problem with that.”
Whitworth said some anti-bug products play well on the placebo effect.
“I’d like to see the data, but it’s their money,” Whitworth said. “I mean, my parents asked me if those ultrasound things worked and I said no. And so they bought six of them. What are you going to do?”
Moving into the house
Whitworth and his team are currently working on a second book, “Household Insects of Kansas.” The team includes Holly Davis, graduate student in entomology and Abilene resident, and Philip Sloderbeck, K-State’s southwest area extension specialist. The book covers most insects that affect households, like crickets, silverfish and common spiders.
“Household pests are one of the most common concerns to people, and we don’t have a book like that, so I think that’s a huge hole out there that the public could really benefit from,” Davis said. “Being able to put together something like that that’s actually going to help the regular person on a regular basis. That’s what I got into this for.”
Like “Crop Insects of Kansas,” “Household Insects of Kansas” aims to reduce chemical waste, lost funds and unnecessary insect elimination through proper identification of insects.
“There’s a lot of you who ask your neighbor, ‘Hey, what kind of spider’s this?’” Whitworth said. “There’s a lot of misidentifications. Because of that, there’s a lot of times that insect sprays are used when they don’t need to be.”
As an integrative pest management specialist, Whitworth said he sees insecticides as a last resort. First, he looks to other management strategies.
“When all else fails, spray, but spray’s easy so a lot of people just do that first,” Whitworth said. “If you have cockroaches or fleas or any other household insect, the best way to help manage the problem, first, is sanitation. Make sure you clean up everything first. Get rid of all their food and then that will help to go a long way. Then sometimes you don’t have to spray insecticide.”
Other times, no management techniques are needed because the insect is not even harmful.
“A lot of people think an insect should be eliminated, regardless,” Whitworth said. “They think every insect is a pest. The only good insect is a dead insect.”
Whitworth said his reason for writing book No. 2 is to help homeowners of Kansas learn more about insects – which ones are harmful and which ones are not.
“We’re in the business of education. That’s what Kansas State University is doing,” Whitworth said. “I know a lot of people think it’s just a football school but really we are in the business of education, so that’s what we’re trying to do from an entomological standpoint, and from an insect standpoint – trying to educate folks as far as what insects are important on crops and hopefully what insects are important as far as household customer concern. So, that’s the reason – education.”
When speaking of education, Whitworth puts his money where his mouth is. He receives no funds from the sale of the books. All proceeds go to K-State Research and Extension.
Though the books vary in readership – the first being primarily targeted toward the agricultural community, and the second being created for Kansas homeowners in general – Davis said the books are similar in many ways.
“I think they’re great resources, and the more you can know about the things around you, the better off you are,” Davis said. “I mean, it reduces fear, helps you understand what insects are good, which ones to look out for. And you know what I like about these books? You can go get the North American Guide to Insects but that’s got everything in it, and these books focus in on the common things that you’re going to run into in your backyard in Kansas or your cornfield in Kansas. You don’t have to wade through stuff that’s only found in the tip of California.”
In addition to Whitworth’s written work, he appears in educational videos produced by the K-State’s department of communications and agricultural education.
Elaine Edwards, news media coordinator of the department of communications and agricultural education, said staff decided to create entomology videos to highlight research activities that they thought would be of interest to Kansans.
“I think people are intrigued by insects. They have an interest in the world around them, and insects are a huge part of that,” Edwards said. “We’re doing great research at K-State and Jeff’s been a part of that.”
Whitworth has taught about insects on camera in about a dozen videos. The most recent video educates the general public on brown recluse spiders.
“Everybody has brown recluse spiders in their house or their building,” Whitworth said. “Most people don’t want to hear that but for the most part, they do.”
Other videos have covered alfalfa weevils and insects specific to soybeans, corn and milo.
“I keep telling them my face was made for radio,” Whitworth said. “We probably need to hire Brad Pitt or the Peterson boys or somebody to spruce it up a little bit, but they’re educational.”
The videos are online at www.youtube.com/user/KSREVideos.
“Crop Insects of Kansas” is published through K-State Research and Extension and is available for purchase online at www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore or in person at the extension office, 712 S. Buckeye Ave., and at KSU Insect Zoo in Manhattan. “Household Insects of Kansas” is set to print in October 2014.