Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city.

Category: Biophilia (page 2 of 3)

Things you didn’t know about wasps

I once wrote about small paper wasp hives at residences. Today’s post is because when August sets in, wasps can become rather bothersome. The reason wasps are so pesteriferous! lately is that they are male and it’s the end of the season. They’ve served their purpose of gathering food for the larvae, so they’re no longer getting nectar rewards. Starving, they are looking for anything sweet to eat.

That’s not the only way in which the female wasps cut off the males. They also “stuff” them into cells to starve them.  

My neighbour’s tree was dropping apples all over the ground, so that’s where the wasps were. They were very peaceful, and were probably drunk (like moose get, too).

In 2014, I had a bunch of hornets hanging around drinking sap from a wounded sumac tree. A nylon cord I’d used to keep the tree upright when it was flopping over had restricted its growth, and so it was cutting into the new bark. Of course, hornets are big, so I was worried about the potential for stings.  The sooner the wound would stop seeping, the sooner they would go away. So to hurry the process along, I hosed the tree down a few times a day, and cleaned the wound while the hornets were stunned.

Not all wasps are dangerous to people. They can be beneficial, too. 

Moral: If you are getting bothered by wasps this time of year, put out some sugar water or juice a little ways away from you’re sitting, and don’t panic.

Sugar ants aren’t pests – they’re helpful!

Photo caption: A legion (hah, get it  – not army, but part thereof!) of sugar ants committed mass suicide in my bottle of honey. In honour of those that might resurrect – and I can see some of them will – I pooled it in the sink for what chance they get to extract themselves. A few less foolhardy brothers and sisters are supping from the edges.

People don’t know what to make of the teeny-tiny ants that march indoors like school children on spring and summer days (when they should be outside!). They can’t be mistaken for carpenter ants – like the many other species that aren’t carpenter ants, but get killed as if they were as dangerous (carpenter ant infestations are dangerous to your house).  All people think is “ew!” If you do a quick search on Google for “sugar ants,” it zones in on how to kill (“get rid of”) them.

However, when they first made their appearance in my kitchen in June of 2010, killing them was never my thought. Yes, there were many of them, but I’m curious: why are they here? Answer: I left the maple syrup out on the counter, and they were attracted by the sugar in the ring mark from the bottle. Once they ate all the sugar, they marched off to look for something else sugary.

No sugar? Not that much of a problem. I don’t consider 10, 15, even 25 ants smaller than a grain of rice to be a problem in my kitchen. Why should I begrudge them eating what I cannot?

One time they got into a tray of dates that I had left out. Once I picked up the tray, exodus! I tapped it a few times, and even those snacking on the cracks in the date skins (the dates were gooey, leaving a syrupy residue in the tray) pulled themselves away and fled. So I made them a bargain: I took out all the dates, washed them off and put them in the fridge. I left the tray for the ants to clean.

NPR did a special on sugar ants in “The Tiny Ant that’s Taking Over the Big City.” The comments for the article are illuminating of this ant’s background and context in the American city.  Sugar ants are able to create supercolonies that they could not sustain if they were in the forest. However, for all the preventions and solutions the article included in its sidebar “Keeping Ants Away,” I failed to see a compelling argument why.

I have an umbrella plant –  I don’t know what kind – and I’ve had it for a long time. With the onset of spring, I put it out on the deck for its own good. It immediately produced new branches and leaves, and I noticed how the sugar ants laid eggs right at the junction on the underside of the growing terminal leaf, with several “nurses” remaining with the small clutches. They look like they are aphid farming. Yet the plant wasn’t damaged in any way.

But, just when the plant was in reach of the balcony rails, along came my rabbits and ate a few of these terminal leaves and their sisters – annihilating the sugar ant eggs and their nurses in a few quick nibbles. The poor plant had to regroup and send out new terminal buds – to which the ants responded again. What’s more, the attacked part, with the new growth, seems little worse for wear. Could this be a symbiotic relationship?

In 2007,  Mathews et al published a paper titled EFNs Enhance Biological Control of G. molesta (Environmental Entomology 36(2)) about the sugar secreted by peach tree leaves and how, if ants have access to the canopies of the trees, they competitively exclude (or predate upon) oriental fruit moths. They then become a biological pest control agent.

The moral of the story is, though this isn’t the same plant, and it isn’t the same ant, the view of “pest” needs to be more rigorously applied: are those sugar ants doing you any harm? For me, no – they help clean my counter and then they go away. It seems, perhaps, their going about their business is an overall good.

A new wildflower lawn when the herbicide stops

My dad, an old farmer in a very conventional Ontario town, must have applied herbicide to the lawn because now that he’s gone, the lawn has gone to a heavenly variety of plants. Here’s a pictorial of what happens to a lawn with some disturbance, no herbicide, and left to grow.

Tiny wild forget-me-nots. Notice the lichen on the walk!

Unknown name, a less prickly thistle that is quite pretty

Ragweed, the kind that sets off people’s allergies. Pull them up! Luckily the rabbits eat them.

White and pinkish clover

Oxalis on the left, something I don’t know in the middle, and forget-me-nots

A nicely filled-in patch where the rabbit hutch used to be

Lambs quarters, which are edible, by the fence. Lots of oxalis, edible with a lemony tang for salads

Creeping Charlie is the dark purple flower in the corner; the white flower would be open on a sunnier day

The white flower is just as unknown as the leafier one from above; you can see a thistle on the right

Where the ground is bare: cultivated pepper plants

Cultivated rhubarb, this patch about 4 years old. I have gathered seeds from a mature plant that I will hopefully harvest from in the next three years.

While this is not my lawn, I would continue to allow it to grow and diversify. I’d pull the ragweed and thistles and whatever weeds surrounded the pepper plants (we weed vegetable gardens so that the vegetables can get the resources and thrive. I’d also mow only the paths that foot traffic might take, to strengthen the things that like to grow low.

But of course, I also might consider having a bunny-renting service. Dad really did say that when they were living there, he only had to mow a couple of times that season.

“Nuisance” wildlife control strategies in gardening

We have a lot of strategies to attract the animals and insects we want, and repel the ones we don’t. Here I discuss nuisance wildlife that we might want to control, as well as beneficial kinds.

Having food and shelter for insects and wildlife means that if you garden, you’ll have visitors. With some experience, you’ll know which animals and insects are pests, and which are merely hazards of gardening. You might want to actively welcome them – putting a dish of water out for the squirrels will reduce the number of tomatoes and cucumbers they steal, because your vegetables are an easy source of water on a hot, thirsty day. They’ll go for the water bowl, so put it out sooner rather than later, and the birds will benefit too.

If you see anything unusual, ask for advice from a local wildlife service that knows the area’s ecology (some are humane removal companies; they may know, and they may appreciate having a place to release unwanted guests). Otherwise, ask your nearest university’s Biology department or other ecology organization.

Non-gardeners have funny ideas about what a pest is: usually something that gets into your unsecured garbage, something that has a “bad reputation,” something that they haven’t seen before and isn’t necessarily cute… People who need to get used to sharing the outdoors with non-humans, and the best way is through education. Of course, don’t leave garbage unsecured, and for the animals’ own security, don’t feed the wildlife – except with good bird feeders.

Gardeners have to protect our work and our harvests from being made off with. The Canadian Wildlife Federation has a tip sheet on dealing with problem wildlife. Strategies begin with

  • repellents and exclusion – such as fences, chicken wire coverings, and netting
  • companion planting with strong-smelling plants that herbivores don’t like such as chives, onion, garlic, lavender, rosemary, and marigolds (which are known for repelling insects) – a list of repelling plants here.
  • Do not use cayenne or hot pepper as a repellent. It can get into the animal’s eyes, causing it extreme pain, and it is vindictive and hardly instructive to do so. Coffee grounds are one recommended substitute.
  • A high-tech repellent that works for cats and other animals is to install a motion-detector sprinkler.

In the city, we rarely have to consider rabbits and hares and we don’t have to consider deer getting into our gardens and eating our vegetables and shrubs. But if we did – if we live on the riverside – use trunk wrapping on trees, made of plastic or wire, to keep the deer or beavers from eating the bark or cutting down the tree. You can see this in various parks with watercourses in them.

If you did have wild rabbits, low thorny shrubs can become welcome refuges from predators, just as evergreen trees are refuges for birds in winter. Just keep your vegetable plot fenced!

The SPA de l’Estrie has a site in French what to do if you’re having problems with a small mammal – and explains why removing the animals won’t help the situation. Nature abhors a vacuum. If, on the other hand, you find a baby wild animal in your garden, you can start with the Sherwood Park Vet (Beaconsfield, QC) blog post about what to do with them.


This is a spurge.

I’ve also recently found out that repellents for moles are hyacinths, spurges (Euphorbia, one variety pictured above) and castor oil plants. Moles don’t like their odour, so they may not hang around.

Alternatively, the following sound repellent might work: Stick an empty soda bottle in the ground near the mole nest, right side up. The sound of the whistling wind in the empty bottle drives the animals away. Caution: don’t use a rodent-repellent sound emitter device outdoors. It could interfere with more animals than rodents, and eventually, they will become desensitized to it.

You can also plant with thorny plants such as roses, which will attract bees and other pollinators, or hawthorns, which are native and will feed birds in the winter. Don’t plant buckthorn, which is an invasive species that produces allelopathic chemicals in the soil to ward off other plants competing with it.

If there are birds that you want to repel, such as pigeons, starlings, and others (personally, I’m a fan of house sparrows, though only where the native birds have gone away), you can read up on strategies at the Audubon FAQ website.

While one doesn’t want a colony of fire ants, especially anywhere where people are going to sit or dig in the garden, the only other ants that we should concerned with are carpenter ants. They eat wood from the inside out and are highly destructive to structures. As for the rest, the videos on YouTube and eHow of attracting ants with boric-sugar mixes just angers me: the ants they are killing are harmless and in fact can be beneficial! The biggest “danger” of sugar ants, who are ubiquitous this time of year, is that they are aphid farmers – this is good. Aphids live off your plants, and the ants live off the nectar the aphids secrete. I know that sounds like “well the aphids are still killing my plants,” and if your plant is suffering, spray it down with soapy water. However in my observations with sugar ants and terminal growth buds on plants outdoors in the summer, the plants have not suffered, and the new growth has been as shiny as the old. It’s actually worth further research (note to self, comment below if you know more!)

If repelling ants is the goal, I recommend sprinkling cinnamon or talcum powder in the path where you don’t want them to go. It reportedly confuses their sense of direction, or they just don’t like it. Keep your sugar sources in airtight containers. Don’t let yourself be bothered by them, even if this doesn’t seem to be normal at first. We were, after all, raised on cans of Raid. (You are now weaning yourself off.)

As for insect pests, when you choose your vegetables for planting, read up at the same time which pests they tend to attract. For cucumbers, squash, zucchini, and melons, beware the many kinds of cucumber beetle. They can decimate your crop in less than a week by transmitting bacteria that causes wilt.

The best prevention for this is a daily inspection of your plants, and if you see an infestation, use a dust-buster or hand-sized vacuüm. Flip the leaves over and look for masses of eggs. Be as thorough as possible. A big country-sized garden (say, a 5 x 10-meter plot) takes about an hour a day to inspect during pest season. That’s one advantage our small city gardens have: we can do the tending and watering in a fraction of that time.

If you have other questions about insects, ask Étienne from AnimaNature.

If you appreciated this piece, subscribe to the mailing list! Once I’ve attained enough subscribers to begin, it will take place monthly, in between blog posts. And there will be critter pics!

Older posts Newer posts