What to Do About Mosquitoes in Your Butterfly Garden

What to Do About Mosquitoes in Your Butterfly Garden

Other than the odd entomologist and Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch, no one likes mosquitoes. By the time summer is in full swing, we’re all itching to get them out of our yards and gardens. Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for Pleakley’s research and the many predators who use them as a food source), there is nothing we can do to eradicate them completely. But there are steps we can take to significantly reduce their populations without harming our beloved butterflies and other pollinators.

What NOT to Do About Mosquitoes

Some of the first things people (not to mention cities and counties) reach for when plagued by mosquitoes are insecticides. Indiscriminately spraying or fogging your entire yard with mosquito killer not only harms wildlife, but it is usually relatively ineffective!

Most of the insecticides used to kill mosquitoes are broad-spectrum and will kill the vast majority of insects, including bees, butterflies, ladybugs, and all of the other visitors we welcome in our gardens. This negates the purpose of butterfly gardens and puts immense pressure on already struggling pollinator populations. Insecticides can also make other animals sick, aquatic life in particular when waterways are contaminated. In rare cases they have even harmed humans and pets! But direct poisoning is not the only threat to wildlife. The majority of birds rely on insects as their primary food source, especially during the breeding season when their young need a lot of protein. Considering that mosquito activity and bird breeding tend to occur around the same time, this has devastating consequences! When we kill insects en masse, we’re often dooming songbirds to starvation.

Adult mosquitoes rest on the underside of leaves, which is why fogging is often more effective than topical spraying. However, even fogging primarily focuses on the adults and therefore fails to eliminate them at the source. Preventative measures may take a little extra planning and effort, but they work much better.

Get Rid of Standing Water

stagnant, dirty water in a red wagon
stagnant, dirty water in a red wagon Objects that collect standing water, like this wagon, are the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes

Mosquitoes need still water to reproduce, laying their eggs on the surface. The larvae feed on bacteria, algae, and other microbes that live there. Eliminating breeding sites is the most simple and effective way to reduce populations, but it does require some vigilance. Frequently dumping out (or removing altogether) pots, buckets, and wheelbarrows as they collect water is an obvious first step. However, don’t forget to think creatively! Swing sets, toys, trash and recycling bins, overly wet compost, and gardening tools can all be easily overlooked in your battle against standing water, but even the small pools matter! You can also make sure to clear your gutters regularly to prevent water from building up there.

Bird baths are another common breeding ground for mosquitoes. Luckily, there’s no need to get rid of them altogether. If possible, you may want to consider getting a fountain instead of a classic bird bath, or adding a bubbler to your existing one. Otherwise, it’s recommended to change out the water at least once every 5 days to prevent the eggs and larvae from maturing into adults. You’ll find that the little extra work goes a long way!

A Blue Dasher Dragonfly, resting on a lotus bud
A Blue Dasher Dragonfly, resting on a lotus bud Natural predators like this dragonfly can help you keep mosquito populations low

Befriend Mosquito Predators

Allies are a very important aspect of your fighting strategy in this war. Birds, bats, dragonflies, frogs, and many others will readily aid you in killing mosquitoes – you don’t even have to ask! Dragonflies are maybe the most effective enemies. The adults pull some weight, but the larvae are the true heroes, with a diet consisting primarily of mosquito larvae. Certain giant mosquito species are similarly strong, ignoring our blood in favor of devouring the smaller mosquitoes that torment us!

Gardening with local wildlife in mind will help you befriend these critters and ensure that they’ll be around to munch on some of the mosquitoes before they get the chance to munch on you. While their appetites for these tiny insects are often overstated, most birds, bats, and frogs are opportunistic feeders. This means they will gladly gobble up any mosquitoes they encounter in search of more substantial food. They’re not effective control in isolation, but they will boost your efforts while also enhancing the beauty and liveliness of your surroundings.

When Natural Methods Just Don’t Cut It

Maybe you’ve cleared out all the standing water you can find, your garden is already a haven for natural predators, and you’re still getting eaten up every time you step outside. Maybe you’ve done what you can, but there are some sources of standing water that it’s not feasible for you to clear. Maybe there have been outbreaks of mosquito-transmitted diseases in your area and you really don’t want to take the risk. In cases like these, mosquito dunks and other treatments that use Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis or “Bti” can be vital weapons. This bacterium targets the larvae of mosquitoes and other biting flies without any significant negative effects to other wildlife. You can put out buckets of treated water or even add the products to ponds and other water features.

Personal Protection Against Mosquitoes

A woman in the woods, wearing a long sleeve white top and light jeans, sprays herself with mosquito repellent
A woman in the woods, wearing a long sleeve white top and light jeans, sprays herself with mosquito repellent Light, full coverage clothing and mosquito repellent can protect you from bites in a variety of outdoor settings

Sometimes it’s necessary to repel mosquitoes rather than just decrease populations. A sword is only so helpful without a shield. Consider wearing long sleeves and pants outside. While it’s tempting to strip down to as few clothes as possible in the heat, full coverage with breathable fabrics in light colors can help protect your skin from mosquitoes, ticks, sunburn, and contact dermatitis.

For stronger protection, apply mosquito repellent (with or without DEET) beforehand. These are non-toxic to humans and have no significant negative effect on aquatic life, but I have only been able to find anecdotes on their safety for beneficial insects like bees and butterflies. Subsequently, it’s best to apply downwind of your butterfly garden, make sure the repellent has fully dried before beginning, and avoid handling plants or caterpillars with bare hands or gloves that have had repellent applied to them. It may be harmless, but you’re better safe than sorry!

For sitting or gathering areas, electric fans and plants like citronella, wild bergamot, or rosemary can be wonderful deterrents. Because mosquitoes primarily hunt for food using smell, both of these methods can confuse them and make it harder to find you. Additionally, they’re not strong fliers and will have a hard time working against wind from fans. Whether you’re spending time with loved ones or enjoying the solitude of your garden, these simple steps can make your time a little more peaceful and a little less itchy.

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