First, an interesting linguistically/cultural observation: “everything is a bug” might be an exaggeration, but some people here in Paraguay use the word bug (bicho) to describe any type of animal. If someone says something about “those bugs over there” they could very well be referring to a herd of cows. Of course, bicho could also mean pest or vermin, so I think it works pretty well for certain birds and mammals. My closest neighbors don’t even have chickens and I’ve still had a chicken poop inside my house. Chickens are the primary reason I constructed a sturdy garden fence, though cows can also be a nuisance. Every week or so I hear rustling outside my back door and go outside to find a large hoofed manual licking my dirty dishes, or I sit up in my hammock to find a cow standing a few feet away from me, which is rather startling.
People also blame “bichos” for things that are definitely not the fault of any six-plus legged friends. For instance, many people insist my acne is bug bites. Since I don’t work with teenagers, I’m still trying to figure out whether this misunderstanding has anything to do with a miraculous lack of pimples in Paraguay.
In terms of my environmental work here, I am trying to figure out ways to convince people not to kill all the bichos unnecessarily. It’s probably true for most of the world that people too often use excessive chemical pesticides as a preventative measure in farming and gardening or on lawns and in houses. In small-scale gardening at least, there are a lot of easy ways to reduce the necessity for putting poison on veggies, especially before the bugs even arrive.
In my own garden, I had a major ant problem. Luckily these weren’t the big leaf-cutter ants who can carry away an entire garden worth of plants in a few days, but the little ants are destructive in their own way – and it stings like crazy when they bite! I took care of the problem mostly by applying soapy water, mixed with a bit of cinnamon, to my garden beds so the dirt and plants were less appealing to the pests. It wasn’t a controlled experiment by any means, but so far the ant population has dramatically decreased. A mix of garlic and ash is also supposed to keep off both bugs and fungi. Plus, I think it helps to use soil high in organic matter (in this case cow poop while I wait for my compost to compost). Ants seem to prefer sandy ground. Bonus: just like with humans, the best defense against all sorts of plant ailments is to have healthy plants, and good dirt is a key component of that!
As far as other pests go, it helps to stagger or intermingle plants (as opposed to monoculture) so a bug can’t as easily eat its way through a patch of one type of veggie all at once. Companion planting can also pair type of plants that are more or less appetizing to different types of bugs. Marigolds are natural repellants for multiple types of insects. And again, companion planting helps provide good plant health from the beginning since different plants use different ratios of nutrients. My garden might not meet Paraguayan beauty standards, but I love the wild, jungle feel of having my plants all mixed up.
With a small, personal garden I also have time to look over all the plants on a regular basis so I can spot a problem before it becomes too serious. In the case of my sunflowers, I remove caterpillars individually every few days. Perhaps this would be a bit impractical if I had an industrial sunflower plantation, but I’m not about to add poisons to the environment just to protect my 10 decorative sunflowers from the ocasional caterpillar. By keeping a close eye on things, I could use pesticides in smaller amounts if it came to that, before something became a full-blown infestation. There are also a variety of homemade pesticide options made from naturally available ingredients like the leaves of certain trees.
Also in ant news, the other night I was getting ready to sleep (at around 8 or 9 pm, naturally) when I heard a strange sound. It ended up being at least a few hundred giant ants covering the entire floor and one wall of my house. I was just starting to sprinkle a protective line of cinnamon around my bed in the hopes that I could at least save myself when my friends called to see if I wanted to hang out. I explained that I had been headed to bed but was currently in danger of being eaten by a swarm of killer ants (actual danger level unknown). A few minutes later they showed up at my house with a bottle of pesticides. I was feeling murderous enough to abandon my morals, so we sprayed the poison around and shared some beers outside while waiting for the fumes to subside. I tried not to watch the obviously tortured deaths of what I actually find to be very interesting creatures when I am not battling them for food and territory.
In the category of things that may or may not be bugs, for more than ten weeks my right arm has been home to a pretty gross and very itchy rash. (I won’t share pictures here, but PM me if you like that sort of thing.) I first considered making this the subject of an entire blog post titled “it mite be scabies” (scabies is a mite, so this is a pretty clever title if I do say so myself). My googling lead me to the conclusion that it was probably scabies, perhaps contracted from one of dozens of children who haven’t learned the concept of personal space, but after two months the Peace Corps doctors were still telling me it was an allergy. I even traveled to Asunción and back in one day just to hear that diagnosis repeated. (The trip involved riding my bike to and from the bus stop in the dark on a dirt road full of deep holes). For weeks, I used various allergy creams and medicines and changed all my soaps and carefully observed what I came into contact with on a daily basis – all to no avail. Then I got to experience a Paraguayan (or rather, German/Canadian Mennonite) hospital when I went to see a local dermatologist, who told me that I don’t have scabies but do have another type of bug that can be picked up from the dirt or animals. I am blaming my neighbor’s puppy who has some itchy, hairless patches and won’t stay out of my house no matter what I do. I am currently waiting to see if an anti-bug treatment (with the same medicine used for scabies) has worked. I may see another doctor in the U.S. when I am back there for a visit very soon!
Stay tuned for a blog post about my very first visit to the United States of America! I hear things have gotten pretty scary there, but I’m pretty sure it’s still home to delicious foods and wonderful people.