We’re sick and tired of people in pursuit of the perfect lawn. Because it comes with a cost.

Toxic pesticides are responsible for the indiscriminate poisoning of pollinators and entire ecosystems—not only do they kill essential pollinators like bumblebees, butterflies, moths and beetles, they are devasting to the birds, bats and small mammals who eat insects to survive. And by the way, they are pollinators too.

It’s easy to go pesticide free as organic lawncare has become mainstream. So you can have a beautiful lawn and safeguard all the little creatures who run the world.

Think before you spray
Picture this. An innocent skunk is eating bugs in someone’s lawn. The homeowner panics and hires an exterminator who proceeds to spray toxic insecticides all over the lawn and under the porch. Six weeks later, the skunk is brought to a wildlife rehabber emaciated and covered in ant bites. A few days of a nutritious diet, meds and hydration has him up on his feet. Sadly, the skunk has neurological damage from the pesticides and cannot walk or run without falling over. He can no longer hunt for food and would die if released. This is a true story. And not an isolated one. Skunks, birds, armadillo, possum and many others are at the mercy of those who spray toxic chemicals to kill bugs.

● Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 30 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 29 are toxic to bees, 14 are toxic to mammals, and 22 are toxic to birds.

●Tick-control boxes are dosed with insecticides such as fipronil, which is toxic to birds, and bees. The boxes attract mice, which then spread the poison around the environment. Worse are broad spectrum insecticide sprays, which can kill butterflies, other pollinators and insects while being ineffective against ticks, as they spend most of their lives in sheltered areas, like mouse burrows rather than on vegetation, where the insecticides hit. 

● Insect populations have declined 45 percent globally since 1974. The declines in many bird species likely have close links to insect declines. Recent research finds that three billion birds, or 29% of bird abundance, have been lost since the 1970s in part because of pesticides on lawns.

● A notable example of how pesticides affected a local bird population is the extinction of Florida’s Dusky Seaside Sparrow, who was native to the salt marshes of Merritt Island in Florida. Its habitat was flooded and sprayed with pesticides to control mosquitoes, plus human development quickly changed the ecosystem, so much that the bird could not compensate.

● The plummeting mayfly “count” caused by neonicotinoid is especially alarming because mayflies are a critical, primary food source in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. In the Northern Mississippi River Basin, the seasonal emergence of burrowing mayfly adults declined by 52% from 2012 to 2019; in the Western Lake Erie Basin, from 2015 to 2019, the reduction was a shocking 84%.

● In 2013 the largest mass bumblebee death was recorded after a pesticide application—50,000 bees representing 300 colonies.

● Toxic pesticides are one of the reasons behind dwindling firefly populations. Lawn chemicals are very toxic to the small insects that sustain firefly larva. They spend most of their life, 1-3 years, living in soil and leaf litter as bioluminescent larva before emerging as the adult firefly.

How do I transition to organic lawncare?
Organic products are readily available at reputable lawn-care centers, such as those that have earned Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) certification. NOFA’s organic land care goals are maintaining soil health; eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and increasing landscape diversity.

● First, test your soil to determine what organic supplements you should add to make it healthy. Use organics and natural fertilizers, such as leaves and compost, to add nutrients to soil. If your soil is hard, compacted and full of weeds or bare spots, aerate it. Apply corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent for weed prone areas. Weeds that are not pulled and removed can be sprayed with horticultural vinegar. Contact local organic lawn and garden care companies for a consultation or visit beyondpesticides.org for online resources.

● The safest way to reduce the tick population around your home is by discouraging mice, a tick’s main vector for disease. Seal off access points and food sources and place trash in tightly lidded containers. Remove piles of leaves or other debris that provide shelter for mice. Store wood piles by elevating them and keeping them away from your home. 

● For mosquitoes, avoid foggers that use permethrin or other synthetic chemical insecticides—it will often wipe out bees and butterflies. The city of South Miami successfully combatted an outbreak of Zika virus with BTI, a bacterial larvicide. The best defense is personal defense.  According to Beyond Pesticides, an effective non-toxic personal defense is Neem oil used as a cream. Various studies show that its protection against common skeeter species is greater than 75%. Herbal repellents, such as essential oils of cedarwood, lemongrass or lemon balm (citronella), can be good natural treatments but work best if reapplied frequently.

What else can I do to help pollinators?
The more native plants you have in your yard, the better. Some ornamental plant varieties may look pretty in gardens but often have no habitat value for pollinators! Showy double petals in place of anthers have little or no pollen and nectar is inaccessible. Yikes.

● Research by Entomology Professor and author Doug Tallamy has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals. He points out that in the U.S. gardeners often plant Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone.

● Native plants and native insects co-evolved together. Many pollinators are dependent on specific native plant species, such as milkweed, which is the only source of nutrition for the endangered monarch butterfly. Plus, a more robust population of native insects benefits many other species of wildlife as well, even seed-eating birds, which often need plentiful amounts of insects to feed their young.

● As far as what native plants to choose, it depends on what area of the country you live. You can visit the Xerces Pollinator Conservation Resource Center at xerces.org/pollinator-resource-center for region-specific collections of publications, native seed vendors and other resources to aid in establishing pollinator habitat.

Spread the word in your community
Contact your local and state elected officials and ask them to support legislation that requires nontoxic, organic lawncare practices at schools, parks and other public properties, as a growing number of communities around the U.S. are doing. And please share this info in your community.