The Lawn and my quest not to kill the birds

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I am sure our lawn was MUCH better than it is at the moment and I am almost 100% sure that the damage done to it is almost exclusively to this bastard that try as I might, I just could not get rid off:

Chafer Grub in grass

What these bastards transform into is a beetle that digs deep into the ground to lay its eggs, which develop into these grubs who eat the roots of lawn grass – specifically – which obviously results in burnt-out dead patches of grass. When they get hold of an area, you could literally just get hold of a patch of grass as if you are pulling someone’s hair (not that I encourage anyone to do that of course) and pull up and the whole patch just comes up cleanly in your hand. What is left behind is a patch of soil with holes where these grubs have dug tunnels through.

The damage does not stop there unfortunately, the birds and other animals love to eat them too. The bulbuls and mynahs adore them and go around the lawn with digging and ripping the grass to get to them. You should see their shenanigans in the afternoon/early evening when they descend into the garden and fight to get these morsels. Our dogs – Phoebe particularly – loves to eat them and has been known to rip up huge holes to get to them.

I’ve read about the problem of course and identified the bug through one of Elizabeth Shaheen‘s books (excellent reference of which plants actually grow here so her two books are a must-have for Bahrain gardeners). Digging through the Internet, a possible solution was identified in the form of beneficial insects, nematodes specifically, an ideal solution – especially as it is environmentally friendly and does not harm humans, birds or animals. Reading more about the solution I became convinced that it would be ideal for my lawn and rid me of these pests. I didn’t want to repeat another horrendous experiment with a chemical which was suggested by an agricultural engineer by spreading pellets of Carbofuran on the lawn. The problem is; though, when I did do that I was picking up dead birds from the garden for the next month! Gruesome and sad.

When I researched it more afterwards, this is what found Wikipedia to say about it:

It has one of the highest acute toxicities to humans of any insecticide widely used on field crops (more toxic are only aldicarb and parathion). A quarter teaspoon ( 1 mL) can be fatal. Most carbofuran is applied by commercial applicators using closed systems with engineered controls, so that there is no exposure to the chemical through pouring or measuring. Toxic effects are due to its activity as a cholinesterase inhibitor (it is thus considered a neurotoxic pesticide).

Carbofuran is also known to be highly toxic to birds. In its granular form, a single grain will kill a bird. Birds often eat numerous grains of the pesticide, mistaking them for seeds, and then die shortly thereafter. Before it was banned by USEPA in 1991 ([1]), granular carbofuran was blamed for millions of bird deaths per year. The liquid version of the pesticide is less hazardous to birds since they are not as likely to ingest it directly, but it is still very hazardous.

I was determined to find a good nature and wildlife friendly alternative.

Unfortunately as the company that sells this alternative are based in the UK, they have a policy of not exporting these insects. But I wanted them. I wanted them now. What to do?

I went to the agricultural department at the end of the Budaiya highway and talked to the engineers there who were adamant that the nematodes are no good and just carry on spreading Carbofuran in a methodical fashion – “but put up a couple of scarecrows to deal with the birds for a few weeks!”

If you want something bad enough, you will find a way to get it. Right? Right. So I got a small quantity shipped, together with some live ladybugs to deal with another problem my hibiscus was suffering from (mealy bugs), unfortunately for me, when they did arrive they got confiscated at Bahrain Airport and will not release them to me without the express authority by the Ministry of Agriculture! Damn. Okay, time to go and explain to them all the circumstances in the hope that they will see my point of view.

Although Dr. Abdulaziz Mohammed (probably the only Entomologist in Bahrain and head of the concerned department) was very polite, listened to the problem, read the printouts I took with me and the research that I have done, he has adamantly refused to let me have my insects! The reason? His department does not have any resources to carry out contained experiments on these pest-control methods before releasing them. His department does not have the money, staff, labs or outside test facilities. He even confided in me that he sometimes sends out new insects to the States for analysis and identification using his own personal funds to do so!

Still, he understood completely my problem and the motive for me to bringing the nematodes in, but he put them in his freezer and killed them all off. I kinda agree with him. We don’t know what side effects they might perpetrate.

My lawn is still suffering and will continue to do so until winter comes, but by that time its glory would have waned and it would be in its dormancy stage.

I really don’t know what to do with it now. It’s really not too bad actually. People still go ooh and aah when they visit my garden, but they don’t know it as I do of course. It was – and still could be – an awful lot better.

Failing removing the whole lot out – and I mean the whole bloody garden – and start all over again under no guarantees whatsoever that these bugs would be caught and eradicated, I would love to hear your solutions if you have any.

One of my solutions is to dramatically increase the flower-beds – resulting in less lawn areas of course, which is a shame – or how about spreading more seed to mix the grass? My lawn currently is South African grass (two seasons, stays green throughout the year), how about adding another soft grass seeds in there to create a thicker carpet? Would that work? Did any of you try this?

Or should I just carry on eating more of the lawn area and expanding the beds?

  • m
    22 October 2007

    It’s understandable and good that Dr. Mohammed is cautious, but the logic of doing nothing allows these little buggers to shape the landscape of Bahrain by default. Pun intended.

    Certainly there must be a whole world-wide body of work about grubs/beetles that the good doctor could rely on without having to personally do the research himself which he knows he can never do because of funding. Catch 22 anyone or just more egos drawing a line in the sand?

    If he doesn’t have the answer, surely in this day and age he should know where and who to go to to find out.

  • meggie whetstone
    23 October 2007

    I suppose a lawn is as exotic in Bahrain, as a Jaquaranda tree would be here in England. If you want something to produce a sward, some folk plant Camomile. (I don’t reckon it likes being walked on though, just my opinion). Heather (Erica) is another possibility, but you need a fairly acid soil. And it might make Frances homesick for bonnie Scotland.
    I’d give up on the grass though. You want your garden to be a place of joy and contentment. Some aspirations lift your spirits, and some will break your heart. Choose the former, spurn the latter, and move on.

  • Mahmood
    23 October 2007

    Certainly there must be a whole world-wide body of work about grubs/beetles that the good doctor could rely on without having to personally do the research himself

    Which is the reason I have taken all my research with me when I met him, but to no avail.

    If he doesn’t have the answer, surely in this day and age he should know where and who to go to to find out.

    I’ll keep persisting, maybe that will get some results!

  • Anwar Y Abdulrahman
    23 October 2007

    I used to have the same problem…but not any more…these bugs are called “A’agore” locally..they don’t just attack grass roots, but they love palm trees of all earlier research on them came to a dead end when I realized that there is no easy natural cure for them except alternative application of carbofuran and diazinon (unfortunately)..old proven treatment is to dig the whole affected area for 1 ft, burn some old palm tree leaves there..and then bury again with new sand..Sep-Nov is the best time to carry out this task as the new eggs just start to hatch and you will be dealing with the baby bugs (easy to handle) instead of the giant killers..however, the drawdown with this is that you can never guarantee that the new sand does not carry bug eggs in it..if you must use carbofuran then my advise is to cover the pellets with clean sand (it is also good for grass growth and will hide the pellets from birds) and water immediately and thouroughly (they will disolve) your knowledge, I have observed that many areas in Bahrain are unfortunately affected..according to experienced farmers, the use of cow manure is partially responsible for its wide spread..that’s why I started to use “Al Bustan” fertilizer which is heat treated and clean from bugs eggs..An easy way to find out where the next attack will be is to dig into the grass 1 inch deep for 1 sq ft area and find out if there are little bugs there..Another method to get rid of these killers (I read it in the internet) is to keep the affected area completely dry for two months..may be Jul and Aug..the old bugs shall die naturally..but later-on in Sep when the eggs hatch, you will have to deal with their babies..the only drawback with this method is that you will lose all your beloved plants in the process..It is a headache I know but good luck.

  • meggie whetstone
    23 October 2007

    From what I have read, these are Chafer Bugs. Aparrently, Starlings love eating them. Maybe encouraging the birdies into your garden will help.

  • Anwar Y Abdulrahman
    23 October 2007

    I also would like to add two observations here, whatever treatment you apply, adding NPK (and not just urea) would enhance the grass root growth and make it grow faster than what these bastards could eat. Urea is mainly responsible for making the grass greener but won’t enhance the root or leaf system. Second, I have noticed that Bahraini grass is more resistant than the South African (originally from Florida, many types) to these insects. These insects like to propogate near concrete borders (step stones, pathways), so focus in these areas. I do feel your pain and feeling about this problem, but don’t give up. I conqured them and sure you will.

  • Barry
    24 October 2007

    If it were a choice between highly toxic poison or patchy lawn grass, I’d go with the latter. I tend not to use chemicals in my garden, except fertilizer. Of course, I know you like the green lawn look, so what Anwar suggests might be the best way if you must use carbofuran. The suggestion of burnt palm leaves makes me think that the ashes increase the alkalinity of the soil there (wood ash was used to get lye for soap making before soap became commercially made). Sometimes water going through wood ash can be so strong it can actually be caustic.

  • m
    24 October 2007

    Admittedly I don’t know all that much about pest control, but I use boric acid and baking soda. Usually do it in two applications a month apart. It’s suppose to be OK for the birds in terms of toxicity.

  • Mahmood
    24 October 2007

    Anwar thanks again for the suggestions. It would gut me to remove bit patches of lawn to treat it in such a way as you suggest, but if this is the only way to do so then so be it.

    I’m going to do some more research into the nematodes though, as they seem to be supported not only in the UK from one source, but several as well as another couple of sites I shall go through from the States and will collate the information and present it to the quarantine section head in the hope that they will agree for me to get some nematodes even for a limited trial, especially that I have submitted to them already some larvae as well as adults.

    I’ll get to the bottom of this.

  • Mahmood
    24 October 2007

    that’s why I started to use “Al Bustan” fertilizer which is heat treated and clean from bugs eggs

    I wouldn’t use Al-Bustan for anything Anwar; it is composted from human waste sludge and other less savoury things. I was warned about this by a good reader of my blog some time ago and he thankfully also provided a link with the information as to why. Since I read about it I stopped using it in my garden completely:

    Al-Bustan organic Fertilizers Co. is A Saudi private Co. for Manufacturing organic fertilizers ( BIOSOLIDS COMPOST ) utilizing sewage sludge.

  • Anwar Y Abdulrahman
    27 October 2007

    I really don’t know which one to believe..I have come across, by chance, a confirmtion letter by Al-Bustan co. as of 22-Oct-07 on their letterhead and stamped for which they confirm that they only use animals waste and plants left overs in their products. The guy in Al-Khair nursery will gladly show you the contents of this confirmation letter. He also voluntarily made me a copy of it.

    On a second note, ash do indeed turn soil from acidity state to alkainity state, but I heard that the process for that change takes place in a two year time. The opposite is true, if you have alkaline soil and wants to have some acidity then available chemicals will turn the process within days. A good, easy to use and cheap instrument to test your soil ph state is found in the New Jassim. Remember, some plants need slightly more acid soil that others, like I guess roses (they also need iron and phosphate).

    On a third note, I believe that it would be a good idea to include some more subjects or sections in this site such as “anything that goes into the garden” : BBQ secrets, sauces marinades and experiments, garden hard and soft landscape ideas, may be even arranging group visits to readers gardens to enhane the overall experience. I gusee things look promising for your idea Mahmood.

    Finally, old Jassim store has just got “Dwarf citrus, I guess lemon” trees fm Lebanon, with fruits on them. Go and pick-up your plant they look lovely.

    Also this afternoon they will bring Gladioulus bulps, for anyone interested. For those who have never planted these bulps I would say take it fm me, they are very easy to grow, only 3 inches in the ground, nowadays, and water them. They grow up to 1 meter high and they are the queens of any garden. Plant the bulps on time intervals of 1-2 weeks so as to have a continous blooms in winter. Don’t take the bulps fm the ground when finished, they will grow by themselves next year.

    Good luck

  • liz
    27 October 2007

    There’s an anti-leatherjacket grubs trick promoted by organic gardeners that might work on chafer grubs: spread a black plastic sheet (eg bin bags) over lawn overnight, which will bring the grubs to the surface. Flip over in the morning and let the birds feast ..

    failing that, I vaguely remember Armillatox once being sold against lawn grubs ..

    + when I googled Armillatx/ lawns I saw this …

  • liz
    27 October 2007 .. it’s advice for UK gardeners and UK chafers, but they may be related ..

  • Mahmood
    27 October 2007

    I talked to the guy from Al-Khair and he said when I commented that it has sludge as a main component that “yes, there have been questions raised about them before” which suggested that there is an “if” which I didn’t want to continue to risk. This conversation happened when I placed an order with them for cow manure and sand a few weeks ago.

    Those are excellent suggestions for the site Anwar, thank you, I shall implement them as soon as I can.

    About the bulbs, I just happened to plant mine today! I’ve done so in pots; however, and they are inside. I’ll transport them when they come up a bit.

  • Mahmood
    27 October 2007

    Thanks very much for your suggestions Liz. I’ll have a look at the links you provide and investigate, hopefully the information will help me get a better lawn.

  • Chap
    4 November 2007

    I must admit a shudder or two on hearing your effort to import a foreign species. Many of the more destructive species in my country became that way because someone wanted to solve just such a problem without knowing the unintended consequences. Here are some examples:

    –Hawaii (and Australia) imported cane toads to counter beetle grubs. Turned out the poisonous big toads weren’t interested in eating grubs, but instead reproduced wildly with no predators and are now everywhere.

    –Ornamental plant kudzu was brought into the American South, where it promptly took over everywhere. You can literally see kudzu growing. Flamethrowers only encourage it, it seems.

    –A Frenchman brought some of his favorite snails to California for eating…and those snails are now a significant destroyer of greenery in the state.

    I’m glad the scientist listened to you–and I’m also glad he thought carefully before saying yes to the lovable little aphid-eating ladybugs!

    I’ve just recently moved to California near many farms that try to stay organic. If you would like me to find some of the organic farming techniques and associations here, just drop an email and I’ll be happy to help.

  • Mahmood
    8 November 2007

    Chap, first thing, I’m very sorry that your comment was held in moderation for so long, Mr. Stupid here didn’t think to check the queue! Obviously I just did, several days after you entered it. This is the poke I needed to check more often.

    Thanks for your offer to find more organic methods to help out, I am in the learning process and certainly will continue to look for alternatives. If you do come across suggestions and solutions please do share!

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