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Residential Pest Management: What Do Homeowners Know, and What Do They Do?

lawn damage

Homeowners can face a wide variety of pest management challenges in caring for their lawns and gardens, such as damage caused by a hairy chinch bug (Blissus leucopterus hirtus) infestation, shown here. How much do homeowners know about pesticide use, and about integrated pest management in general? Are people just using the “spray and pray” tactic, or are they using multiple forms of pest management together as part of an integrated plan? A recent study published in the open-access Journal of Integrated Pest Management explores what residents do and do not know in terms of pesticide use and integrated pest management. (Photo by David Shetlar, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

By David Coyle, Ph.D.

David Coyle, Ph.D.

David Coyle, Ph.D.

Take a drive through any residential area during summertime in the U.S. and you’ll likely see bright green lawns, flower beds bursting with color, and gardens aplenty. Perfect lawns, pretty flowers, and homegrown food don’t always come easy—they often need help from various pesticides to keep weeds and pests at bay. Many homeowners (the “do-it-yourself” [DIY] crowd) choose to do these treatments themselves. And, if your neighborhood is anything like mine, there has been a noticeable uptick in people working in their yard during the summer of COVID. It’s easy to get lawn and garden chemicals, and they’re easy to apply. But how much do homeowners really know about pesticide use, and about integrated pest management in general? Are people just using the “spray and pray” tactic, or are they using multiple forms of pest management together as part of an integrated plan?

Mixed Results on IPM Knowledge

A recent study published in the open-access Journal of Integrated Pest Management explores what residents do and do not know in terms of pesticide use and integrated pest management. As you might expect, there is a wide range of resident knowledge and adoption of new IPM behavior. Over 2,100 people were surveyed, and the key findings included:

  • Most respondents were at least “Fairly knowledgeable” about landscape integrated pest management practices, but between 21 and 26 percent had “Almost no knowledge” of these practices;
  • Over 55 percent of respondents “Always” or “Most of the time” managed pests in their yard with as few chemicals as possible;
  • Nearly 25 percent of respondents “Always” or “Most of the time” treat their entire yard with pesticides without identifying pests.

I spoke with the study’s lead author, John Diaz, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Florida’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communication (email: john.diaz@ufl.edu), about what this study means.

Coyle: Were you surprised at the level of knowledge respondents had about landscape IPM practices, specifically the fact that so few (less than 8 percent) were very highly knowledgeable, while nearly a quarter of respondents had almost no knowledge of landscape IPM practices?

Diaz: I was not surprised. I believe that some people are typically more confident in their knowledge and abilities. Relatedly, some other people tend to downplay their knowledge and abilities. So this dichotomy makes sense here.

Seems like a lot of people just blindly treat their yards for pests without knowing (caring?) what’s out there (otherwise known as the “spray and pray” method—spray it on, and pray it works). I always assumed this, but it stings a little more actually seeing the data to support this suspicion.

I believe this represents the easy way. They just want to add some chemicals that kill all pests, not knowing what pests are even causing the issue.

You mentioned that the largest group of respondents believed they were fairly knowledgeable about most common IPM practices. There’s been a lot of attention lately on people’s perceived knowledge of a subject compared with their actual knowledge of the subject. Do you think people were really that knowledgeable, or was there a little Dunning-Kruger effect going on here?

So you don’t know what you don’t know, right!? I believe this is the case. They may feel like they know IPM and then when educated or given a real assessment, it is not the case. That is why we believe a meaningful follow-up study would center on an actual assessment of knowledge.

What will it take to get more residents engaged in using IPM practices at home?

In Florida, we are lucky to have an urban entomologist (Dr. Faith Oi) that heads Pest Management University. I think the way to get more residents to practice IPM is to have extension and the industry educate them on IPM. I believe that if homeowners work along[side] pest management professionals, it will help the homeowner build confidence around IPM and look for non-chemical approaches to pest management.

Room to Grow

DIY pest management isn’t going away, and UF’s Pest Management University is an excellent example of how cooperative extension can help fill some of those knowledge gaps many residents have regarding home lawn and garden care. As this study shows, there are a lot of people who have some level of knowledge about IPM, but there is also a sizeable chunk of residents who don’t know much at all. There is a need for information out there, and also a great opportunity to provide it.

David Coyle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation at Clemson University. Twitter: @drdavecoyle. E-mail: dcoyle@clemson.edu.

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