Pesticides don’t just kill insects

Bahama cassia adds wonderful color to the landscape. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A healthy chrysalis for a monarch butterfly.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A healthy chrysalis for a monarch butterfly. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A Monarch chrysalis after being sprayed with a pesticide.

A Monarch chrysalis after being sprayed with a pesticide.

Toxic pesticides kill these caterpillars as well as the whiteflies they target.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Toxic pesticides kill these caterpillars as well as the whiteflies they target. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

This zebra Heliconian caterpillar is also threatened by pesticides.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

This zebra Heliconian caterpillar is also threatened by pesticides. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

An atala butterfly.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

An atala butterfly. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Many species add color, depth and texture to a small space and provide habitat and nectar for pollinators and birds.

Many species add color, depth and texture to a small space and provide habitat and nectar for pollinators and birds.

Firebush adds year-round color to the garden and is a hardy native that resists heat, drought, disease and pests.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Firebush adds year-round color to the garden and is a hardy native that resists heat, drought, disease and pests. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A healthy atala butterfly.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A healthy atala butterfly. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

An atala butterfly, killed by pesticides.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

An atala butterfly, killed by pesticides. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A healthy atala caterpillar.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

A healthy atala caterpillar. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Red-tipped cocoplum foliage.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Red-tipped cocoplum foliage. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Dead monarch caterpillars after being sprayed with pesticides.  (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

Dead monarch caterpillars after being sprayed with pesticides. (Photo by Kim Frisbie)

The Federal Insecticides, Fungicides, and Rodenticides Act regulates the registration and use of pesticides in the United States.

Last November, a bill was tabled to reform the essentials of this law. This bill, The Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2021, bans the most harmful and toxic pesticides scientifically known to cause significant harm to people and the environment.

Organophosphate insecticides, neonicotinoid insecticides and paraquat herbicides comprise the three most toxic agents. Organophosphates are linked to neurodevelopmental damage in children, while neonicotinoids cause developmental heart and muscle abnormalities and contribute to pollinator collapse. Exposure to paraquat, one of the world’s most toxic herbicides, increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 200-600%.

Neonicotinoids, organophosphates and paraquat are already restricted or banned in the European Union and other countries; somehow they are still used in Palm Beach.

The neonicotinoid Imidacloprid, sold as Merit, is applied islandwide to kill whiteflies on ficus hedges. Merit causes irreversible nerve damage to any insect it comes in contact with, and as a systemic system it spreads through the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits of the plant, rendering every part toxic.

It is highly toxic to beneficial insects and pollinators and has been linked for decades to Colony Collapse Disorder that is decimating our bee populations. It has seeped into our lakes and groundwater, where it is toxic to fish and invertebrates, and we can drink it. Classified as a carcinogen, it is dangerous for domestic animals and humans, linked to neurological and reproductive disorders.

Organophosphates used in Palm Beach include chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion. Chlorpyrifos, used at Sevin and Safari, was originally developed by the Nazis for chemical warfare. Postwar chemical companies reformulated these nerve agents into nerve pesticides. For 65 years, chlorpyrifos has been sprayed as a pesticide on American food crops, including apples, strawberries, citrus fruits, wheat, soybeans, sweet potatoes, broccoli and corn.

After decades of studies proving its danger to children and pollinators, the EPA finally banned its use on food crops in August 2021. But Safari still ends up on many of the “green” trucks besieging our island. It’s scary to see the effects of these chemicals on pollinators. I have observed monarch caterpillars forming a pupa after their milkweed was sprayed with Essentria, considered a “mild pesticide” and widely used for mosquito control.

The day after sterilization, the caterpillars were dead, reduced to shriveled cocoons suspended by black threads from milkweed leaves. Neurological damage in children is also permanent – it doesn’t just go away after a few days.

Let’s see how we came to this “need” for chemical assistance in our gardens. By replacing our diverse original plant populations with only a few exotic species, the resulting monocultures were unable to support the diverse insect predators needed to control the pests these monocultures attract. Without the restraint of natural enemies, populations of herbivorous insects exploded.

The preponderance of whitefly over ficus is a perfect example of this: great for the pesticide industry but devastating for those of us who value clean air and water. The simple solution is to integrate many native species into our landscapes. It’s hard to find a garden in Palm Beach that doesn’t include green island ficus, podocarpus, schefflera or jasmine minima. There is nothing wrong with using these plants, but we cannot use these plants alone.

Self-contained, chemical-free gardens use a wide variety of native species to control insect pests while supporting vital pollinators for birds and wildlife. These gardens are far more interesting, exciting and alive than their barren counterparts. And contrary to popular opinion, they can also be stunningly beautiful.

You don’t need to dig up everything in your landscape; adding a few important native species will bring butterflies and songbirds. Breeding birds need hundreds of caterpillars to feed their young, so providing habitat for these insects is essential if we are to return songbirds to their homes.

Here are some easy additions for any garden:

* Firebusse (Hamelia patens var patens) is one of Florida’s most colorful and productive native shrubs, with clusters of tubular orange-red flowers year-round. It can take sun or shade but will have more flowers in sun and the leaves will be tinged red. Hummingbirds love the nectar, songbirds seek out the plump purple fruit, and the foliage is home to Pluto’s hawkmoth larvae and brown tersa hawkmoth butterflies.

This species is perfect for filling in a neglected corner or used in mass plantings as a screen. A fast grower, usually reaching 6 to 10 feet, it can be pruned high for fullness. Heat, drought, pest and disease resistant, it is a great addition to any garden. Be sure to get the native Florida firebush, not the Mexican variety.

* Carob Berry (Byrsonima lucida) is a large shrub or small tree with beautiful pink and white flowers turning yellow and deep pink with age. As a tree, the spreading branches provide shade and removing the lower branches shows off the attractive trunk. The foliage is a glossy dark green, with lighter undersides, providing excellent cover for birds.

This does well in full sun to partial shade and is drought and pest resistant. It is the larval host of Florida’s twilight butterflies, and the birds love the berries. Being listed as endangered in Florida makes it an even more valuable garden addition.

* Myrsine, marlberry, Jamaican caper, fiddlewood, fetterbush, cocoplum, laurel cedar, teabush, and wild coffee are some other great hedge substitutes. Thatch, buccaneer and silver palms are wonderful smaller palms for the garden. And there are so many beautiful native perennials providing color, seeds and nectar for birds and butterflies.

Visit Amelia’s SmartyPlants in Lake Worth Beach or Southern Native Nursery in Loxahatchee to get started. Healthy and balanced ecosystems can only exist through complex indigenous diversity.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Chemicals kill bugs but get into our food and water

Terri S. Tomasini