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Get a Grip on Grasshoppers!

Q. Hi Mike: Years ago I bought a natural product that was specifically for grasshoppers. Now I can't find it. Is it still available? I got the Japanese beetles under control only to find grasshoppers eating everything in their path!

    ---Kathi in Dahlonega, Georgia (pronounced "Duh-lawn-y-guh"; a small tourist town known for its panning of Gold)

A. You're probably talking about Nosema locustae, a microscopic protozoan parasite of grasshoppers. Often just called "Nosema", it is currently available under a variety of brand names, including "Nolo Bait" and "Semaspore". It's a living organism with a relatively short shelf life, so it's best to buy it just before you use it—which would be in the Spring, when you see the first baby hoppers in their "nymph" stage; a half-inch or smaller. (It doesn't have much of an effect on adults). Your local county extension agent should be able to identify the right time for your specific region.

Used correctly, a fresh batch will knock the population down by as much as half within a month or so, depending on the weather. It certainly makes sense to give it a try next Spring if you have lots of hoppers infesting your garden this summer; there's no risk to you, your pets or the environment. If, however, lots of your hoppers are flying in from a nearby farm or field, you'd get much better results if you can convince the owners to spread it on their land. Grasshopper problems are often worst near wheat fields, a favorite breeding ground for the Biblical pests. ("Locusts" are really just a grasshopper colony that's had a biological switch triggered by overpopulation, turning them into even leaner, meaner munching machines.)

Q. Hello Mike: What do you recommend for grasshopper control? The ones in my garden are as a large as small birds!

    ---Tani in Morgan Hill, California

A. Ha! That's exactly what many experts DO recommend, Tani: A small bird, specifically the bluebird. And especially the Western bluebird, a voracious insect eater whose #1 choice is grasshoppers! And they're relatively easy to get to take up residence: Bluebird nesting boxes should be in the open, in a sunny spot; NOT shaded by a tree, but preferably facing one about 50 feet away.

Many other wild birds are also good eaters (one is even called "the grasshopper sparrow") and attracting birds in general is a great control strategy. So don't use pesticides, and have lots of water sources inside the garden (think multiple birdbaths here). Your feathered friends also want trees and shrubs nearby to provide food and cover; bluebirds and other grasshopper predators especially like pine trees, cot on easter, and Virginia creeper. Hang suet feeders in the off-season to keep your flying carnivores happy; but take them down in the Spring, as soon as the bad bugs come out to play.

Oh, and domesticated fowl can also be helpful, especially guinea hens, who eat huge numbers of hoppers—and lots of ticks too!

Q. Every season we are plagued with grasshoppers. Is there anything we can do? They can wipe out a garden row in one day.

    ---Marlene in far Western Oklahoma

A. This must be "key word week"! One of our favorite pest control experts, Dr. Linda Gilkeson, says that spun polyester (and other types of) row covers are very effective. Hang these diaphanous blankets over the plants you need to protect as soon as you see the first hopper; the fabric lets light, air and water through, but keeps pests out. That 'first hopper' part is important here; preventing damage early is key to this strategy's success. As with Japanese beetles, plants damaged by feeding attract many more hoppers, creating a cascading cycle that ends with a garroted garden.

Linda adds that there are even black row covers that provide an almost invisible guard for your pretty ornamental plants. But they're not your traditional fabric covers, she explains. "They're black plastic with a quarter-inch mesh that's sold for use as bird netting. You really can't see the covers," she assures us, "but it keeps pests like grasshoppers away just fine."

Other control strategies:

Your grasshoppers will be laying next year's eggs later this summer; tilling your soil early this Fall and again next Spring will expose many of those eggs to predators and desiccation. And a heavy mulch—say two inches of shredded leaves—applied over the winter will prevent many of next year's young from being able to emerge from the soil.

Molasses is a favorite folk cure that may help right now. Back when I was editor of ORGANIC GARDENING, a Canadian reader reported great success from spraying the perimeter of her garden with a dilute mixture of molasses; apparently, it clogged the pores of hoppers hit by the spray and ones who ate the sprayed plants. Several other readers recommended molasses traps: Mix one part blackstrap molasses with ten parts water, fill wide-mouth jars and buckets a third of the way with this mix and place around the infested area; the hoppers hop in but they can't hop out.

Other readers recommended whizzing up those drowned sticky hoppers in an old blender and spraying the strained "bug juice" on your plants in the hope that future hoppers would be repelled by this essence of their deceased brethren. (And those poor, put-upon readers said they really really enjoyed watching those hoppers get whizzed!)

You might also try spraying your plants with an all-purpose repellent made from garlic or garlic and hot peppers.

But spraying those plants with neem, a natural pesticide made from the seed of a tropical tree, is virtually certain to protect them. In fact, our good buddy Bill Quarles, director of the BIRC (the Bio-Integral Resource Center) in Berkeley, California, tells us that neem's pesticidal properties were first investigated because neem trees were the only plants spared during locust attacks. Bill says that, "grasshoppers would rather starve to death than eat a plant that's been sprayed with neem."

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