Dear Miss Floribunda,

 

I’ve heard reports of dead birds being found in gardens recently and seen a few downed sparrows myself as I walk my dog. Some people are blaming the cicadas, but since my dog scarfs those down and hasn’t gotten sick, I don’t think so. Some people have blamed cats, but I know that a hungry feral cat wouldn’t leave much more than feathers. These birds are intact. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed signs in various yards posted by private mosquito-control companies, and now there’s a notice going around that the Maryland Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the City of Hyattsville, is going to monitor Hyattsville for mosquitoes and probably start a spraying campaign on Mondays. This notice includes a warning to close windows and bring in pets at that time. I’m thinking that if people and pets aren’t safe outside, what about birds, butterflies and other pollinators? 

 

Alarmed on Livingston Street 

 

Dear Alarmed,

 

First of all, the spraying is generally done in response to community concern. There is an online form at the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) site one can use to register complaints about mosquitoes and other pests (www.doit.state.md.us/selectsurvey/TakeSurvey.aspx?SurveyID=740Kl54#). 

 

The City of Hyattsville’s mosquito control website (hyattsville.org/255/Pests) has a similar form as well as a form requesting that spray trucks bypass your home. Additionally, the site offers good advice on how to control mosquitoes yourself with such commonsense practices as just regularly changing the water in your birdbath. 

 

The chemicals used in the MDA spraying program are BioMist 30-30 and PermaSease 30-30, permethrins that are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some private companies use pyrethrins, which are related to permethrins but are synthetic rather than derived from the chrysanthemum flower. Although these chemicals are not usually harmful to birds, concentrated dosages pose a real danger to beneficial insects and fish. 

 

Based on an exchange with my mentor for mosquitoes, Dr. Greengenes, I suspect that the death of the birds may well be due to efforts of homeowners to combat the Brood X cicada invasion. Unfortunately, it isn’t difficult to get very strong insecticides over the counter, and people in fear or exasperation could be spraying anything they see a cicada hanging from. If there’s a breeze, these chemicals can travel to other yards. Professionals would moderate and control dosage, but homeowners can just keep spraying at will.

 

If you must use a spray, try one made with garlic. It is more effective than any chemical for the real problem in our area, the Asian tiger mosquito. This mosquito can survive on almost no water — just dew on grass is enough to keep it alive — and it doesn’t wait till dusk to come out and bite. You might also consider planting allium, citronella grass and herbs that repel all mosquitoes. Along with mints, lavender, sage, rosemary and basil, such flowers as marigolds,  bee balm and scented geraniums emit fragrances that mosquitoes don’t relish. If you can afford it, installing a small fish pond or water garden is an extremely effective remedy — if counterintuitive. Mosquitoes will lay their larvae there, and minnows and other small fish will devour them. Minnows are not only efficient larvae-eating machines, but have the advantage of not attracting the raccoons who prefer koi and other expensive ornamental fish. These are all just short-term solutions, however.

 

Those of us who have maintained poison-free gardens over more than two decades have developed actual ecosystems that keep mosquitoes at bay. Our gardens harbor the mosquito-eating bats and toads that too many people abhor for their peculiar appearance — despite the fact that these helpful creatures are shy and rarely seen. In fact, they are not at all fearsome when they are actually seen, but their symbolic depiction in literature and films has made them objects of loathing. These innocent creatures are far more effective than any chemicals against mosquitoes, and are harmless to pets — as long as those pets leave them alone. Dogs have been known to vomit after attacking toads, but I know of no fatalities. By the way, dogs are also getting indigestion from eating cicadas. They apparently can’t eat just one — just as we can’t eat one salted peanut — but in sufficient quantities, the rough carapaces of the otherwise harmless insect can irritate a dog’s digestive tract. You might want to monitor your canine’s cicada-snacking.

 

Please check the Hyattsville Horticultural Society website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, for updates on meetings and events.