Welcome Spring, and Hello Bugs

May 3, 2003

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Welcome spring, and hello bugs

Jim Walsh shows a nest he built for orchard Mason bees to pollinate grapevines and apple trees on his property. ED BURKE/The Saratogian

A city man with a mission of keeping the city green has a whole wheelbarrow full of ideas to keep pests at bay without using chemicals.

In 2000, Jim Walsh founded The Holmwood Institute, a nonprofit organization that brings together like-minded members who practice what they preach in natural gardening techniques.

”We have about 100 members, and we don’t bother with meetings,” said Walsh, who lives on Arrowhead Road. ”Instead, we spend our time cultivating green space in the city and trying to get the word out about our cause.”

Walsh’s Interlaken property is a test ground for the group’s activities. His spacious back yard is dotted with all types of birdhouses and smaller wooden houses designed to attract the night pests most people wouldn’t think of welcoming to their back yard: bats.

”Many people are afraid of bats, but they’re actually a very clean little animal. They’re also the number one predator for insects at night. A single bat eats hundreds of bugs every hour,” Walsh said.

Bats inhabit the houses from April to October. Nursing colonies, consisting of mothers and babies, need warmth, so Walsh recommends building bat houses in a spot with good southern exposure, and painting the bat house black for extra insulation. The small bat houses have narrow, one-inch spaces inside with a rough surface to which the bats prefer to cling.

The big thaw that occurred in the area in recent weeks resulted in stagnant puddles and pools of water on nearly everyone’s lawn. Walsh said a few bats can keep the mosquito population under control.

During his research and work on his own property, Walsh has had a few surprises.

”I put up a swallow house, but I didn’t see any activity, so I went out and wiggled the pole, and out came some tiny flying squirrels,” he said. ”They’re like cute little chipmunks flying through the air. They’re quite a sight.” If there’s one word that sums up Walsh’s mission, it’s habitat.

”We want people to develop a backyard habitat,” he said. ”That means taking care to plant trees, shrubs and berry-producing bushes which encourage lots of nesting birds. Brush and leaf piles provide a good habitat, and a good garden should always include toad houses, because toads eat an awful lot of bugs and grubs.”

One caveat Walsh points out for birdhouses is not to add perches, which invite trouble, he said. ”Blue jays or other predatory animals will land on the perch and help themselves to the eggs or the young birds,” Walsh explained. ”We’re constantly researching and updating what’s the best way to build a birdhouse.”

To make his bird houses weather hardy, Walsh uses good quality roofing shingles. He also recommends plastic poles, not wooden ones, to prevent curious raccoons from crawling up for a look inside.

This spring, Walsh is particularly concerned with the plight of the honeybee population, which has been nearly decimated by mites. In an effort to help local farmers who rely on bees for pollination, Walsh has been working to build up the orchard Mason bee population, which are mite resistant.



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