Monthly Archives: July 2012

What Do Ammonia, Gasoline, Vinegar, Garden Lime, and WD-40 Have In Common?

When I was in my twenties and moving belongings to a new apartment, I stepped on a wasp and got a bad sting that slowed down my moving for the rest of the day.  A bad memory, but not enough to make me terrified of bees or wasps.  I still regard them as an annoyance.  So this week when Jed and I were patrolling the vineyard for beetles and deer tracks I was mostly annoyed to see a bunch of wasps buzzing around one corner of the vineyard.  As I got closer the wasps kept getting bigger.  A lot bigger.  As in two inches long big.  Big enough to carry off a cicada.  Which is what they do.  These were ground digging wasps  – also known as cicada killer wasps.  They don’t show up until the cicadas do which is in the middle of the summer.  They each dig a hole in the ground that they burrow into at night to sleep.   But during the day they buzz around, and if you are nearby, they zoom in close to check you out. When I think back I’m sure I’ve seen them before but never paid much attention because there were only one or two.  This time there are about 75.

Cicada Killer Wasp and Victim

When Jed and I mentioned that we had wasps near the ground to our fellow vineyard owner Steve Brown he said ‘”You should try to get rid of them now because when there’s fruit on the vines they’ll fly over and suck the juice out of your grapes. The next year you’ll have even more.”

Oh good.  Now we have things that eat the grape roots, things that eat the grape leaves, and things that eat the grapes.

Soon I’m back home Googling for info, which is how I know they are called cicada killers.  Not surprisingly most entries were accompanied by “How to get rid of….”    A few followed that with “organically” or “without using commercial pesticides.”   Despite the fact that our other organic efforts have failed miserably, I decided that this was an opportunity to regain a tiny bit of organic credibility.

After work the next day I went out to the vineyard with a bucket full of neon orange marker flags; we had used them before in conjunction with laying out the vineyard rows.  One of the online “experts’ had recommended marking all the holes during the daylight because you have to wait until dark when the wasps are in their burrows to kill them.   I gingerly stuck a flag down a hole and stepped away in case a wasp was in there.  Nothing happened, so I poked a flag into the next one carefully avoiding the wasps that were flying around my legs.  Soon I had pockets of neon spread out over 800 square feet.  But I had run out of flags before I ran out of holes.  So I moved a few flags hoping that some of the bigger ones would still be visible at night if another flag was sorta close by. Then I went back inside to make dinner and………Wait Until Dark.

Flags marking wasp burrows

Over dinner Jed and I talked about what to pour down each hole.  Besides commercial pesticides like Sevin there were articles online recommending ammonia, gasoline, vinegar, or WD-40.  One person suggested lighting the gasoline on fire and another one suggested putting firecrackers down each hole.  “Then run like hell’ was the sage advice.  The ‘mothers’ online could not resist scolding about the dangers of flammables and flames being put together. Somehow I got the feeling that for some bug vigilantes killing the wasps was beside the point. Wasp decimation was just an excuse to make something go boom in the night.  And if not wasps, then anything will do.

Round One. We already had a spray can of wasp and bee killer on hand, so I had to admit that using that made the most sense.   At around 10:00pm we figured it was dark enough and got ready for our next bug battle.  Unlike our beetle wars, these guys can fight back. So, taking no chances on stings we both put on long shirts, boots, and hats. Jed rigged up the spray can with a long straw taped onto the nozzle so that the spray would go down into the holes.  Armed with flashlights and the can of wasp killer we headed toward the vineyard.  It had been nearly 100 degrees that day so we were both drenched in sweat by the time we reached the corner with the flags. We decided to start at the nearest end just in case they came swarming out when we sprayed in the chemical death.   Well, ok in case one came out.  But still.  Jed picked a flag and shined the flashlight down the hole.  We couldn’t see anything in there.  I shook the can of spray, pointed at the hole, and pressed the button.  Nothing happened.  Shake again.  Point again.  Press again.  Nothing.

“Maybe the straw thingie needs to come off,”   I whispered.  I yank the straw off.

“Be careful or you’ll pull the nozzle off too!”

“I was careful! And whisper or you’ll wake them up!”

“They’re just wasps, and they’re sleeping.  Relax!”

“I can’t relax.  I got stung once.”

“Geez. Lemme try.”  So I took the flashlight and Jed tried spraying.  Nothing came out.

“I think this can is meant to be sprayed at wasps flying around, not wasps sleeping in the ground.”

“Yeah.  Won’t work I guess.”

Back to the house we trudge while the cicada killers slept on.

Round Two   We had a gallon of plain white vinegar in the utility closet, so that was our next weapon of choice.  I had used up the last of some insecticide on Japanese beetles earlier in the day, and it came in a container with a spray nozzle on a long wand that you could dial down to a thin stream.  That was perfect for this next act of bug destruction, so Jed poured the entire gallon of vinegar into the beetle juice container. The experts said you could dilute it, but we were feeling profligate, so live high on the hog, right?  Actually we were feeling nervous and wanted to be very sure they all died.

Back we trekked out to the vineyard.  I manned the flashlight and picked which flag to tackle first.  Jed aimed the nozzle and filled the first hole with vinegar.  Then another.  Light….point….shoot.  Light….point….shoot.  After about 20 minutes of quiet bending and squinting we turned around to survey our work.  Well, actually we couldn’t really see anything except that we had worked our way to the other end of the field of flags.

“Do you see any wasps coming out?”


“Do you think we got them all?”

“No, but I think we got all the ones marked by flags.”

We headed to bed hoping the vinegar would do the trick.

The next morning as we left for the office we drove slowly past the field of flags looking for wasps.  DAMN!  Lots of them buzzing around very fast and looking pretty ticked off.  Forget vinegar, even straight.  That lady singing the praises of vinegar for these wasps is a liar.  We stayed up late and sweated for nothing.  Boo to the wasp killer spray too.

That night, as we returned home, prepared to try something else, we didn’t see a single wasp.

“Maybe it just took a while to work.”

“Yeah.  Online vinegar lady I forgive you.”

Sigh….. this morning they were all there again.  I guess they had just had an early night, perhaps as tired of the heat as we were.

Powder Boy and the Killer Wasps

Round Three  The next morning the wasps are again buzzing around as we leave for work.  This time Jed is in favor of trying WD-40, which I did not see suggested anywhere.  I am in favor of trying ammonia.  We don’t have enough of either to kill 75 giant wasps.  So we stop at a nearby Lowes on the way home from work to see if they have anything specifically for cicada killer wasps.  They don’t, but the guy in the garden store says that the professionals use either Sevin or powdered lime.  We buy both.  Does this make our next wasp battle semi-organic?  I’ve given up caring.  I just want them gone.  They are big, and ugly, and scary.  I don’t care that only the females are supposed to sting.  Who can tell a male from a female?  Especially when you’re dancing away from one as fast as you can move.

We pull into the driveway in that afternoon and scan across the sea of flags. We are armed with the real deal.  But we don’t see any wasps.  They must be in their holes.  Where else can they be?  We’ve hardly heard any cicadas all summer.  Maybe they’re starving to death and we just need to be patient.  No!  We have our weapons and we will use them.  Jed heads off to replace the blades on the riding mower.  I head into the house to make dinner and Wait Until Dark.

The next thing I know I’m looking out the window and see Jed and the ground by the flags covered in white powder.  Jed has decided that since there were no wasps around there was no need to wait until dark.  He assures me that it’s just lime on his shirt, and that he was careful handling the Sevin.  Now, lime is also used to adjust the PH in the soil, and we have already limed our soil for this year according to very precise instructions which accompanied our last soil test results.  Will this mess up our previous liming and hurt the grapes?  I am torn between my need to compulsively follow directions, and my need to see dead wasp bodies all over the ground.  I retire to the house without comment to Jed.  It’s too late now anyway.  Powder Boy has already done his thing.

Yet another morning.  Jed is still in bed after an all nighter checking for deer who are less and less averse to the smells on our deer tape.  So I am on my way to work alone.  I slow down for the ritual wasp check.   I realize I am holding my breath. I don’t see any.  I stop the car and look more closely.  Nothing. I inch slowly forward down the drive peering past the grow tubes and into the field of flags.  Not a single blur of black and yellow.  I let out my breath.

Gee, do you suppose choosing Sevin like the professionals do might have actually worked?  Another bug battle won. Another organic opportunity lost.

So dear friends, if you’re choosing between ammonia, gasoline, garden lime, vinegar, and WD-40 to kill cicada killer wasps in your yard……go with Sevin.  Then light some firecrackers in celebration.  We are.

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Tags: , | 13 Comments

The Mass Murderers of Mullica Hill

I may look mild mannered and sweet, but underneath that pleasant exterior beats the heart of a mass murderer – at least of beetles.

Vines growing out the top of grow tubes.

Jed and I had just finished our battle with weeds in the vineyard.  The rows were now pretty clean and tidy. The grass was sprouting in the aisles and we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves.  Then, one morning,  we discovered a few Japanese beetles on some grape leaves.

I got out there with garden gloves and began picking the critters off one by one and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water.  If they were ornery and scooted out of reach  I’d bang the grow tube and stomp on them when they hit the ground.  The next day I just started squishing them between my fingers  because it was faster and I could kill more.  Anger about the damage they were doing quickly erased any squeamishness about killing them so directly.  But even with diligent work it was slow going.  Several of the vines had every leaf stripped down to lace.  So, as was the case with the weeds, we realized that we’d have to resort to to chemical warfare.

In New Jersey you need to get a license to handle the big time herbicides and pesticides and fungicides.  Over the winter I had purchased the inch thick manual that you have to study in order to pass the test that qualifies you for a license.  I don’t begrudge the state for requiring a license.  These chemicals can do a lot of damage, and we certainly wouldn’t want to damage Raccoon Creek.  But schedules and priorities being what they were, somehow we just didn’t think we would really need a chemical applicators license in the first year of growing grapevines.  After all we had the grow tubes and they should be protecting the vines.

In fact, the grow tubes had turned into a vector for the beetles who could crawl down into the tube but couldn’t fly back out.  So they would simply eat their way to the bottom.  Without a license we were looking at some home remedies, or at least back yard ones.  So I headed to Warren’s, our local hardware store, to investigate my options.  Front and center in the first aisle were Japanese beetle traps.  I bought four and headed back home.  We knew that you weren’t supposed to put traps near whatever you were trying to protect, so we figured we would try a few around the perimeter.   Jed headed out to pound in some stakes to hold the traps and I started assembling the bags with the pheromone lures.   I had just finished the first one  and turned to begin the second when I realized that the side porch was crawling with beetles.  Being in the middle of a beetle swarm was more than I had bargained for, so I hurried to finish the traps and ran them out to Jed.  Before we had the last one in the ground we could see the first one filling up with beetles.  By morning there were several inches of dead beetles in each bag, but there were still beetles on the vines.

So back to Warren’s I went.  This time I grabbed ten more traps plus a couple of spray guns of beetle killer.  Jed hooked them up to the hose, and off we started down the nearest row of vines, squirting what we hoped was chemical death down each grow tube.  Because our rows are so long it was a two person job, with one person wrangling the hose, and the other squirting BeetleJuice.  After two more trips to Warren’s we’d finally sprayed every vine and had a border of traps on two sides of the vineyard.

The next morning we ventured out to the vineyard with some apprehension.  We could see the beetle traps sagging with dead bugs.  We started walking the rows calling out “”No beetles”  with relief as we’d finish a row.  Yes, we were succeeding as mass murderers! At least for now, we were winning the bug war.  Within a day or two the vines were  creeping up over the top of the grow tubes, and looking healthy.

And then they weren’t.

We walked up and down the rows and it was apparent that the minute the leaves topped the grow tubes the deer came through and nibbled them off.

Bambi below the mulberry tree.

Damn you Bambi!  I’ve been letting you eat all my mulberries and this is how you repay me?

This time we headed to Roork’s, the local farm supply store.  They recommended that we try ‘deer tape’ before investing in fencing.  We needed to buy $200 worth of fence posts to string the deer tape up, plus the tape, plus the deer repellent liquid, so we weren’t sure if we were saving that much money.  I wasn’t optimistic that a flimsy little one inch tape that smelled of rotten eggs and spearmint would actually keep them away and secretly wondered if the guys at Roork’s stock this stuff just to sell to newbies like us.  But at least this could be done quickly and we had to do something fast.

We knew that in the past the deer  came up from the creek on our neighbor’s land and crossed our field on their way to another  neighbor’s field. We started with tape going down the creek side of the vineyard.  For good measure we left the tractor and the truck parked at the corner just to ‘scare’ them.   Ha.

The next morning we ventured out to the vineyard with some apprehension. (I wrote that once already didn’t I? Does that mean I live in the country?)  But there were no new tracks, and no new nibbles.  So we ran tape down two more sides and Jed created ingenious little ‘doors’ made from old luggage straps and buckles so we could get the tractor in and out.   My vineyard is now ringed by white tape and beetle traps – and I think they are beautiful.

Three days have gone by and we are amazed by how quickly the vines are recovering.  Almost 3/4 of the tubes have vines out the top, some as much as six inches.  Tonight we discovered a few live beetles in two rows, and we saw deer tracks and sheered off vine tops out by the road – the only side we didn’t cover with tape.  So Jed spent the evening pounding more stakes and stringing more tape, and tomorrow morning I will spray more BeetleJuice.

Vines growing again!

I didn’t really want to get into a war over this.  But you’ve left me no choice.  That is what the bad guys say as they’re about to kill someone in the B movie, right?  But I have killed thousands now, and tomorrow I will get up and I will kill again. There is no rest for the Mass Murderers of Mullica Hill.

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