It’s important to know your moles from your voles
Jeff in Manassas writes: “I could use some advice. We have a mole (or several moles by the looks of it) making a home in our yard. They’re in the grass and flower beds and we’re at a complete loss as to how to ask them to kindly move on. Anything you can offer to help would be awesome!”
Yes, Jeff — I am awesome. Huge, even.
Now: Moles (with an M) make raised tunnels in lawns that you can collapse by pushing hard on them, but don’t otherwise harm plants. Voles (with a V) make little runway-like paths on the surface of lawns and eat underground plant parts like spring bulbs and (especially) the roots of plants like hostas.
Which form of pest do you have?
Moles vs. voles
Whenever someone like Jeff in Manassas writes in asking for help with “moles,” I always ask: Do you indeed have moles? Or voles?
Moles are blind and weird looking, although humans rarely see them. They live underground and are 100 percent carnivorous, eating only beetle grubs, earthworms and cicada larvae. They eat no plants. But their extensive tunnels can ruin a lawn. (True gophers, a la the classic movie “Caddyshack” are perhaps the worst such underground pest of all. But luckily they don’t exist anywhere near our region.)
Voles are mouse-sized, shrew-like creatures with dark fur. They breed with great fecundity and are sometimes seen aboveground. Those afflicted with them often see their frequently-travelled, trampled-down pathways in lawns. Like moles, their eating is also all underground. But they are vegetarians; and the voracious pests enjoy spring bulbs like tulips and the roots of perennials.
Oh joy, says Jeff. “I believe we have both. We’ve got lots of raised tunnels in the yard and our spring bulbs and perennials are disappearing.”
Vibrating stakes are just a waste of good batteries
Jeff in Manassas has both moles and voles. He writes: “We’ve tried using the stakes that send out a pulse (which didn’t work at all) and don’t know what to do next.”
Your experience is not surprising, Jeff. I’ve never seen evidence that any form of “electronic pest repeller” works — from the indoor ones sold to theoretically ward off mice and roaches to your vibrating stakes to the big ones sold to repel deer. But they are nonetheless ubiquitous. You also see them everywhere.
The reason? By federal law, liquid and granular herbicides and pesticides (whether organic or chemical) must have been proven to be effective to be legal for sale. Unfortunately, “devices” fall outside of the federal guidelines and don’t have to prove effectiveness; they can be marketed for any reason. But these devices have failed every actual study of them that I’ve ever seen.
(My favorite experience with these things was years ago. A local TV reporter arranged for a huge clear glass tube full of cockroaches to be escorted to the studio by a wrangler at the local insect zoo. She laid the tube on its side, waited a minute while the roaches spread out and then turned an electronic ‘roach repeller’ on and held it close to one end of the tube. The roaches all swarmed toward that end of the tube. Good thing she wasn’t holding the glass tube, or it would have turned into one of the most exciting TV moments of all time …)
No ‘worms’ & no gum either
Next on the list of things not to try are poison gummy worms designed to be tossed into mole runs. Because moles only eat live, warm food (and they’re blind, so they can’t see this oh-so-clever disguise) these things pose a danger only to small children who might think that they’re candy.
Same thing goes with the famous “Juicy Fruit gum down the hole” trick. Neither moles nor voles will find the gum attractive — although it was one of my childhood favorites, right up there with Bazooka Bubble Gum. (The penny candy version with the Bazooka Joe comic and your fortune wrapped around it — not the hard, stale slab that came inside every pack of baseball cards. All that inedible shard did was potentially stain and ruin the eventual value of your 1952 Mickey Mantle.)
Give them a dose of castor oil
Like many of you, Jeff in Manassas has both moles and voles.
Neither pest is easy to control, but the first course of action should be to apply copious amounts of a castor oil-based mole and vole repellent to the affected areas. Available in both liquid and granular form at most garden centers and home stores, these repellents are designed to impart a nasty smell to your subsoil. The castor oil will not harm the pests directly, but if you apply a strong enough concentration, it should send them over to your neighbor’s lawn.
Castor oil-based mole and vole repellents are nontoxic to people, pets and such. But they cannot be replaced with castor oil meant for human consumption. That castor oil has been processed to be odorless. You want the strongest smell underground as possible.
That means buying the product with the highest percentage of active ingredient and applying it as heavily as possible. Don’t be tempted to dilute.
Mole and vole elimination
If, like Jeff in Manassas, you have moles making tunnels in your lawn and voles eating your spring bulbs and perennial roots, a castor oil-based mole and vole repellent is the first course of action. A high enough concentration should send both pests packing.
Any remaining voles can then be targeted with mouse traps baited with peanut butter. The newer battery-powered electric traps would be perfect in this situation as they pose no threat to birds. (Here’s an image of one from an online seller. You’ll also find them on the shelf at most garden centers, home and hardware stores.)
For moles there’s a relatively new product called Mole Zap — the name sounds like it also electrocutes the subterranean terrors, but it actually floods their tunnels with CO2, which puts them to sleep.
And finally, a raptor perch — a simple crossbeam placed 5 feet to 6 feet above the ground — can attract a surprising number of owls, the No. 1 predator of voles.