Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city is hip and urban – and you can, too.

Category: Biophilia (page 3 of 4)

“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, DO NOT KIDNAP IT. Start by leaving it alone, but watch it from afar. Wild animal mothers often leave their young alone while they feed, but they are still around. It is a MYTH that they will reject their young if a human touches them. Just put the animal back where you found it (safely), and leave to observe them from afar.

If the animal is injured, start calling vet clinics and search for a wildlife rehab, but first secure it from further predation (which is why cats should all be wearing the BirdBeSafe collar).

If you want to learn more about how to deal with different wild animal interventions, watch the videos on the Ontario Wildlife Removal Facebook page.

Euphorbia
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.

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Pollinator Week; building a Mason bee house

We’ve had a rainy June so far, after a brief warm spell in May. I prefer rain to heat at this time of year, but I’m watching my plants, wondering “why is it only the perennials and native weeds are lush?” So many of my plants have sprouted and stopped. They’re waiting for something, and I’d say it’s the sun. Still, with all the transplanting I’ve done, the rain and coolness have helped them take root, rather than die like they did last year. With that, pollinators haven’t been around a lot, with fewer flowers to choose from even if the blooms have been on time.

In the interest of serving bees (and having the bees serve us), I’m celebrating bees because NEXT WEEK, June 17 – 23, is Pollinator Week! (I had to use all caps because I’m excited about it.) The Pollinator Partnership has tons of information about pollinators and what we can do to be as hospitable to them as possible.

As the website explains, it’s not just about bees: “Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.” Even rats have demonstrated a role in pollination.

Bees that pollinate are honeybees, bumble bees, and many solitary types such as Mason (or orchard) bees. To learn more about bees, check out the videos on the Pollinator Partnership website, put together by Burt’s Bees, Wild for Bees, and Isabella Rosselini.

Even more fascinating is the CBC Ideas radio documentary “Dancing in the Dark.” If you want to learn a lot about bees’ variety, language, complexity and sheer sophistication in a short time, listen to this! 

Why should you care about bees?

Because despite their ubiquitous presence, honey bees are suffering from a disease called “Colony Collapse Disorder” and there is no human intervention or cure for it yet. I’m a biologist by training, and so the basic tool I know of to do something that might help is throw numbers at it – and help by buying honey from local beekeepers, and not at the grocery store. We need to drastically increase our beekeeping, even with expected losses, to increase the number of bees that have a natural resistance to the disease. Those that do, survive and go on to make queens and drones that help increase the surviving population.

I’m pleased to share an event on June 18th: “Nos abeilles sauvages en ville : une diversité insoupçonnée en lien avec l’aménagement urbain”“Our wild bees in the city: an unexpected diversity in relation to urban development.” That’s in a few days. Members of CRAPAUD will be in attendance at the wild bees discussion, and they have hives of their own at UQAM. (A Google translation of that link can be read here.)

Two years ago, an apiary installed some hives downtown. The Ville is not planning on regulating the practice so count on seeing more of this, everywhere.


This past weekend, I created a Mason bee house. I first got the idea last year because of an interesting rant on the Montana Wildlife Gardener blog against honey bees (It’s interesting – here’s a link to all of his posts on the topic of bees.) I also received a comment about doing it, which spurred me to action. Here’s the process, in pictures:

log suitable for turning into a bee house

A good-sized triangular log of wood

Drill bits

Drill bits! Choose 1/4″ or 5/16″ and at least 3″ long, but don’t drill all the way through the wood.

hole drilled suitable for a Mason bee

I drilled in rows that cross-hatched along the long sides of the triangle. This is the first hole.

hanging the bee house log

Hung with a cup hook and a chain, with a notch on the triangle, on the tall fencepost in my garden.

Now, the Mason bee house isn’t finished yet, as it needs a “roof.” It also needs more holes (what can I say, except I drilled what I could in my drill battery’s short life). Only half as many holes are drilled on both sides as there will be when it’s done, but already I see activity around it. This is good!

UPDATE: the Mason bee house is occupied, and I have also seen it being used as a source of fibre for other bees, gathering material for their hive. They chew up the wood and build paper for nesting cells. This includes the wasps who are again succeeding in occupying the upper corner of my garage door.

Middle hole

Middle hole

paper wasp

and a fibre gatherer

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Wasp hive observations

Yesterday I hosed down a wasp’s hive that they built in the corner of my garage door, with its attendant seven or eight nurse wasps. Last year, they’d built hives in the corners of the house windows. It wasn’t a problem, but people usually don’t let this happen. I started the hose slow, and after a few passes of knocking the nurse wasps off, I turned on the jet and knocked the hive down.

The “girls” spent the rest of the day recovering, rescuing the larvae they could – I could only presume they were pulling them out of the husk, with the intense, careful work they were doing – and then they installed a new hive in the same place, with fewer cells. They’re back to tending it and sealing the larvae in. I think the ants took care of the rest of the non-viable hive, plus at least one wasp that appeared she didn’t make the dowsing.

I felt bad about it afterward. They’ve been rather peaceful – no threatening buzzing around humans. With the reduced size of the brood, I’ll leave the new one alone. They put a lot of work into it.

eHow used to have a good article on how the wasps made their hives, and I used to link to it, but eHow has now been taken over by people who want to kill everything. I’m so tired of this mentality, but it’s about selling a product.

Everything has its place, and it’s up to you to tolerate the tolerable. Not all insects will sting you, and you don’t need to control all “risk.” 

Soil structure improvement – assisted by rodents

Over the years, the soil underneath my back deck has been a home to ground-dwelling bees, a rat or two, and a skunk. I don’t mind the wildlife, especially the skunk, who is a good neighbour (aside from eating my water lilies). Dirt is a living expanse, it’s not supposed to be sterile.

This week, I reconfigured the deck as I was changing the set up of this year’s garden. As I lifted various parts of the deck, I noticed the soil was quite moist and rich, sheltered from the heat. It had been tunneled, turned, and fertilized by the rodentia species of animals, and others. (Tip for dealing with the skunk’s latrine: throw down some dolomite lime).

I took a course at McGill in Organic Soil Fertilization late last year. I learned that my yard’s soil type is loamy clay (with a lot of rocks in it – I actually look forward to digging them out and collecting them on the surface, if they’re bigger than a quail egg).

I also learned that soil microfauna, like isopod “pill bugs,” centipedes, and worms, are essential for soil fertility. They are our little decomposer friends, grazing on bacteria, fungus, carbon sources, and occasionally on each other. Soil macrofauna, like rodents, amphibians, and others who burrow to make nests and passageways, are soil engineers. They are particularly responsible for distribution of seeds and nutrients.

I’ve since found a chapter, published in two different books on ecological management of rodents as pests (and not as pets as we know them over at Mooshika). The chapter Rodent-Ecosystem Relationships discusses the positive aspects of rodents in ecosystems. Considering how we belabour the economic damage they do to crops and the public health issue of plague (which isn’t that relevant over the past 100 years), this perspective is long overdue. Let’s hope it’ll take about a quarter as long to put those issues into their proper perspective.

I’d like to hope that we could be free of scapegoating rats and mice or any other creature as being  pests, but really, we must try to see them as they actually are. The above book chapter is a welcome addition to the literature. It’s by Dr. Chris Dickman, an Australian desert ecologist, of whom you can see on ABC Television here: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3251977.htm

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