They’re back. Insect pests are chewing our vegetables that we worked so hard to grow and tend. We’ll never get rid of all the bad insects, but we do have means within our disposal to keep damage to a minimum.

A number of gardeners rely upon pesticides. And why not? It’s easy and pretty much effortless. That’s the upside. The downside is that many pesticides harm more than just insects. They get into our water and some even find their way into the food chain and ultimately, into our bodies. Also, pesticides can harm beneficial bees, something no one wants to do.

A few pesticides are, while not entirely safe, safer than others. When a situation dictates the use of poisons (that’s what pesticides are…poisons), I have resorted to rotenone and Sevin. Rotenone is a plant-based pesticide that, as long as it doesn’t get into nearby water, breaks down quite quickly. And Sevin, a brand name, doubles as a dust for ridding your dog of fleas.

But we also have safe, non-chemical methods of insect control and these, while not as fast-acting as chemicals, are better in the long run. These run the gamut from beneficial nematodes to horticultural oils to insecticidal soap.

Manual methods

The safest of all pest-control methods is to get rid of the pests by picking them off by hand. Potato beetles and Japanese beetles are both large and slow enough that they can be grasped between the fingers and disposed of. Here’s how I deal with the Japanese beetles in my garden.

If possible, I try to hand-pick the beetles at least twice a day. But squashing dozens of beetles by hand is tedious and a bit nasty. So instead, I first pluck the beetles off the plant and then quickly drop them into a can that has about 2 inches of water in the bottom. My favorite type of container for this is a used, plastic coffee can, the kind with a snap-on lid. I’ll first put a few tablespoons of salt into the water, along with some hot sauce such as Tabasco. This hastens the beetles on their trip to the hereafter.

Sometimes I’ll just hold the open can next to a leaf, say a corn leaf, for instance, and tap the leaf so that the beetle falls into the can. After a session of beetle-picking, the water in the can will be completely covered with wriggling Japanese beetles. It’s somewhat labor-intensive, but a lot safer than using pesticides.

Japanese beetle traps are quite effective too, but placement means everything. Don’t place a trap near your garden because if you do, you’ll draw beetles to the garden that might not have been headed there. Instead, try to determine where the insects are coming from and set the trap there. The idea is to intercept the beetles on their way to your garden.

This year, within days of erecting a Japanese beetle trap on the edge of some nearby woods, the number of beetles on my vegetable plants declined precipitously, proof of the trap’s effectiveness.

Zap ‘em

Some garden pests are either too fast or too small to be picked off by hand. But instead of sprinkling pesticides on these, as most everyone at one time did, I have found a satisfying method of keeping striped cucumber beetles, leafhoppers, flea beetles and similar pests at bay. I zap ‘em.

Yup. I use a hand-held bug zapper, the kind that uses two AA batteries and is meant for swatting mosquitoes and deer flies. I discovered that these make wonderful garden pest zappers one day while observing the behavior of flea beetles on some vegetable plants. The beetles were quick to hop away and it was impossible to catch even one by hand. Cucumber beetles exhibited similar behavior, but these even took to the air and flew a short distance before landing back on my crops.

What could I do, I wondered, to control these pests without using pesticides? In a flash, I ran to the house and got the bug zapper that I often use to keep mosquitoes off while sitting outside in the evening. I went over to my cucumber plants, waved the tennis racquet-shaped zapper over the plants and was immediately rewarded with a series of snaps and flashes.

The beetles jumped off the plants and onto the bug zapper grid. And not just a few beetles, but dozens and dozens. These would not return to chew my crops. They were done for good, incinerated by the bug zapper.

I was totally amazed at the number of insects on my plants. It seems that for every plant-eating insect we see, 10 more lie hidden in the foliage. But by thoroughly sweeping the leaves with the bug zapper, the great majority of insect pests were quickly dispatched.

And believe me, although it sounds sadistic and in fact may be, it is greatly rewarding to zap insects in the garden. And for the tender-hearted, it’s far more humane to incinerate insects in one, loud and bright flash, than it is to poison them and let them crawl away to slowly perish.

Having a bug-zapping session at twilight makes for a grand light show as the individual insects light up the grid. I take pains to insert the head of the “racquet” into the thickest part of my plants. There, it zaps countless, otherwise-hidden, pests.

Two things that quickly stop or even short-circuit hand-held bug zapper are water and snails. Don’t use a zapper in wet foliage, since that may fry the circuitry. And if, while zapping insects, you pick up a small snail and the snail gets stuck in the mesh, it can short-circuit the zapper.

New snails

I wrote about these last year. They are ambershell snails and no one at the University of Maine Extension Service seems to know an awful lot about them. These small, shelled snails came on the scene a few years ago, with last year being an absolute plague year for snails. We had all hoped that the extreme cold of last winter would kill the overwintering snails, but that didn’t happen.

I have tried about every slug and snail deterrent on the market and find that nothing works very well on these pests. Hand-picking and crushing are about the only sure-fire remedy.

Diatomaceous earth may keep some snails away, but the moment the powdery diatomaceous earth becomes moist or wetted, it loses its effectiveness. Snails happily crawl over wet, diatomaceous earth. And as hopeful as the old thing about crushed eggshells sounded, that didn’t work either. I saved a year’s worth of eggshells and crushed them to the consistency of sand. I didn’t notice that the stuff stopped one, single snail. I saw one snail with its bottom covered with crushed eggshells. The snail was happily chewing on a Swiss chard stalk, none the worse for wear because of the crushed eggshells.

I’d love to hear from anyone with an effective method of controlling these terrible snails. Just send me your solution to the address on the column head and I’ll post it here, giving the sender full credit.

Weekly tip

Everyone gets a kick out of zapping insects with hand-held bug zappers. Knowing that, have two or three zappers on hand and when guests arrive, mention how much fun it is and enlist their help in de-bugging your garden. You’ll hear lots of “ooh’s and aah’s while getting rid of pesky insects at the same time.