Move West, Young Insect

Hello Farm Friends!

alien looking insects floating in water
Visitors in the horse trough

Q: “What can one conclude as to the nature of the Creator, from a study of his creation?”
A: “An inordinate fondness for beetles”. (attributed to biologist J.B.S Haldane, American Naturalist, 1959)

Pest insects drive every aspect of modern agriculture, so it wasn’t surprising that we had our own encounters with the phenomenon this summer. The hens began dying; we thought perhaps it was the heat, or chicken-to-chicken violence, or bacteria? It took a few weeks to diagnose the problem, and by that time we couldn’t ignore it! Masses of chicken mites began crawling up our arms as we collected eggs and cared for the hens.

Soon after — completely unrelated — except for the time of year — some odd insects began to appear in the horse water troughs. None of us had seen anything like them before. However, amazement at the insect did not make anybody welcome the idea of them making a permanent residence in the water. What to do?

Pair of horses next to a large lake, with the sun setting behind them
No insects in our water, please

Research by a dedicated person here came up with a solution for the chickens. All the hens and our rooster got a bath in diatomaceous earth, after which we moved them to a mobile chicken coop for the rest of the good weather. We feed it to the horses to keep down intestinal parasites, and I take it, myself, so it was great to find a solution that worked, and one where the materials are already at hand. Diatomaceous earth kills insects (and some intestinal parasites) by abrading the outer shell. It is almost entirely silica, an essential mineral for animals and plants, the anti-parasitical action is mechanical, not chemical.

Interestingly, for those who are following the discussion about edible insects, it is that same exoskeleton which is of concern. The exoskeleton is made of chitin, a long-chain polymer derivative of glucose. As with other controversies, those who stand to make money from edible insects say that chitin can easily be digested by humans, whereas those who do not benefit say that a large amount of chitin is incompatible with our digestion. Readers will be reminded of the discussion around high-fructose corn syrup, also in the sugar family!

Young chickens sitting in chalky soil in a pan
Earth baths!

With the chicken mites solved, we turned to the lodger in the horse troughs. The easiest method turned out to work; we simply overflowed the water every day. After less than a week, the strange beings were gone.

Why did we think that solutions this simple might work, and more importantly, why did they work? There is a lot more to say on this subject. We have here a terrific introduction to what is beginning to be called terrain theory. In short, both these insects needed a certain ecosystem. We changed the ecosystem enough that the residents became visitors, and had to move along to a better life.

Speaking of ecosystems, we have been working at solutions to better manage the water question; we want less water underfoot in the spring, and more in the summer. It looks as though we’ll be able to do a fall planting of woody perennials, too, so stay turned for more developments!

Huge storm cloud over a lake
Time to prepare for all this rain