Death by salt is cruel and painful. Try a toad.
Kinder, Gentler Killers
This has been a banner year for slugs; yesterday I counted over 40 babies and moms in a single flat of 4-inch pots. I’m more laissez faire than I used to be and won’t kill slugs or bugs unless they’re doing obvious damage, but this little herd was mowing down my veggie starts before they could get started. Sorry, critters. It’s doom time for you. So what’s the best way to off a slug without cruelty? Ecologically speaking, it’s the oldest; predators. Toads, frogs, moles, shrews, and songbirds are all slug eaters, as are ducks and chickens. In an organic garden, predators can safely feed on slugs and bugs, and the balance of nature rarely gets out of hand.
Even in urban settings, ground beetles and birds can keep the slug population adequately low, as long as no toxins are present. Some folks argue that an abundance of slugs means our garden ecosystems are out of balance. That may be true to some degree, but it may just mean that the weather is favoring slugs over veggie starts. I admit that in a bad slug year, I’m not above giving nature a nudge. Back in my college days, an elderly Quaker friend asked college kids to buy beer for her so she could bait for slugs without shocking the neighbors at the grocery store. She put a little beer in a jar, then placed it where slugs could crawl in and drown. Given the willingness many fellow students displayed toward drowning themselves in beer, I figured this wasn’t such a bad death, certainly better than salt, which offers an agonizing death by burning desiccation. That’s just mean.
Best Beer Or The AA Special
Independent tests (and not just mine!) show that St. Pauli Girl Dark is the most slug-attractive beer, but pretty much any kind will do. It only takes an inch or so (even of flat dregs) to drown slugs in presumable bliss. Those who prefer not to mess with alcohol can make an attractive bait with watered-down sour dough starter or this even more compelling concoction:
Safer Liquid Slug Bait
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baker’s yeast
1 cup warm water
Mix ingredients in a jar and let stand 20 minutes before using. Makes about 1 cup, use in beer traps. Highly attractive to indoor fruit flies and fungus gnats.
No Great Bait
What about “safe” bait? For years, I promoted the careful use of iron phosphate based baits, which were considered deadly to mollusks but harmless to vertebrates. Like a lot of organic gardeners and growers, I was horrified to learn that wasn’t true. Iron phosphate itself is a harmless naturally occurring substance found in many kinds of soils and even in streams and waterways. To convert iron phosphate to a toxic form, manufacturers add a substance called EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). In itself harmless to vertebrates, in combination with iron phosphate, EDTA creates iron toxicity not just in molluscs like slugs and snails but in cats, dogs, birds, and also in worms. Because it wasn’t considered an active ingredient, EDTA wasn’t listed on the bait packages, so it required some investigation to reveal the full ingredient list.
It turns out that vets had been seeing dogs and cats with relatively mild (but still nasty) “safe bait” poisoning for years. We now know too that iron phosphate baits can kill worms, which even the metaldehyde baits don’t do. Recognizing this, some countries now insist that EDTA be labeled as an active rather than inert ingredient, making these baits ineligible for organic certification. In the USA, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to get such baits de-listed, but they encountered significant push back from manufacturers and were dropped. (Surprise!)
Hearing about my slugfest, a kind neighbor offered me some commercial slug killer. Several people got involved in our conversation, asking what’s so bad about metaldehyde baits. For starters, they’re quite toxic to wildlife, people, and pets as well as pests; many a dog has been harmed or even killed by eating slug bait. According to the EPA, “Metaldehyde is a systemic toxin. There is no antidote.” But wait, there’s more: “Harmful if swallowed. Harmful if inhaled. Causes moderate eye irritation. Harmful if absorbed through the skin. Avoid contact with eyes, skin, or clothing. Avoid breathing dust. IMPORTANT This product can be harmful to children and fatal to domestic animals when ingested. Children and dogs may be attracted to the product. Application of this product is prohibited unless children and domestic animals can be excluded from the treated area from the start of the application until application material is no longer visible.”
People who actually read the label are usually horrified, especially when they discover that safely disposing of toxic baits isn’t simple. Per the EPA: “Do not contaminate water food or feed by storage and disposal. This product can be harmful to children and fatal to dogs and other domestic animals if ingested Dogs have been known to ingest metaldehyde after opening or tearing packaging Store this product in its original packaging in a cool, secure location, and out of reach of children and pets.”
Can I Toss It?
“To avoid wastes, use all materials in this container by application according to label directions. If wastes cannot be avoided, offer remaining product to a waste disposal facility or pesticide disposal program (often such programs are run by state or local governments or by industry). Nonrefillable container Do not reuse or refill this container Completely empty bag into application equipment Then dispose of empty bag in a sanitary landfill or by incineration.” Yikes! I’m putting out toad houses, how about you?