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Ants, clover, bees and 'skeeters!

Friday - 4/22/2011, 11:08am  ET

Dealing with ant problems

Mike McGrath, WTOP's garden guru


Meet Mike at Homestead Saturday! -- Mike will give a free kitchen garden talk ("Grow Twice as Much in Half the Space!") and answer all your questions at 1 p.m. this Saturday at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Md. (just outside of Annapolis). For more info, click here.

Attack of the ants!

Kelly in Bowie writes: "I have an ant problem that drives me absolutely bonkers every year. I've tried lawn sprays, home defense sprays for the perimeter inside and outside but nothing seems to keep them at bay. My husband laughs at me when I go into 'ant stomping' mode pretty much every morning. I have a toddler and try to keep everything as clean as possible, but am fighting a losing battle. Do you have any tips for keeping the ants out?"

Sure thing, Kelly -- and I wish you had asked me before you sprayed those unnecessary (and, as you have noted) useless toxins inside and outside your home. The only harm they caused was to your family. Please don't use them again -- sprays do NOT work against ants because the vast majority of the pests, and the all-important queen, are in hidden nests that the sprays never reach.

Boric acid bait traps are a sure cure for ant problems. They combine a sweet bait with a low dose of boric acid. The workers aren't harmed at first when they sample it, and so they take the bait back to the nest, where the slow-acting boric acid will eventually begin to make all the ants sick -- but much too late in the game for the colony to recover. The queen will die, the colony will collapse, your ant problems will be over and you and your toddler won't be inhaling insecticides all day long.

But you MUST let the workers leave!

Unfortunately, Kelly replied that once she read my advice on how to use the traps properly, she felt she couldn't use them, because she "just had to kill every ant" she saw.

Then you'll always have ants, Kelly.

There could be thousands of ants in each nest, and the only way to cut off that endless flow is to allow the worker ants to carry the sweet bait back to the nest, where the slow acting boric acid will kill the queen in a week or so. And once she's gone, so are your ant problems. That's the deal: A week of restraint equals a complete end to your ant issues.

Clover in lawns is no reason to poison kids

Emily in D.C. writes: "After listening to your radio spots, it's clear that our condo association has apparently done everything wrong to our poor lawn -- cutting it too short, cutting during summer droughts, etc. Now the grass is full of clover and the residents are afraid to let our numerous children, infants and dogs on it as the clover seems to attract bees; and our mosquito problem in the summer is out of control. Our contractor wants to spray the herbicide Trimec in May. Is there a more pet- and child-safe alternative?"

Yikes! There's no less safe alternative, Em! And there's no need for herbicides of any kind! You yourself acknowledge that the lawn hasn't been properly cared for, and "weeds" like clover are the inevitable result of a poorly maintained lawn. (I personally don't consider clover a weed, but I'll humor everyone by doing so here.) The answer isn't herbicide -- it's correct lawn care!

Clover in lawns is a sign of underfeeding and overwatering. If you feed the turf every spring and fall (not in summer), never cut the grass lower than 3 inches and water deeply but infrequently, the clover will vanish without human intervention. But if you feed randomly or water every day for short periods of time, the grass will suffer while the clover thrives.

Clover and bees

In our last thrilling episode, Emily in D.C. said her condo lawn's clover "seems to attract bees; and our mosquito problem in the summer is out of control."

Clover does attract bees, Em -- but only imported honey bees -- the kind kept by humans in artificial hives -- sting. The vast majority of bees visiting local flowers are harmless, stingless, native bees whose superior powers of pollination will dramatically increase the number and quality of flowers in your landscape. AND THEY DON'T STING.

Plus, if people simply don't walk barefoot on the grass when the clover is in bloom, even honey bees won't sting. Unlike wasps (like the highly aggressive yellow jacket), honey bees die after stinging once, and so they only attack when threatened -- like when they're being stepped on!

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