Mickey Rathbun: Slugs really aren’t so bad

  • A garden slug slithers along a leaf in this close up macro photo. iStockphoto

Friday, August 25, 2017

All summer, my husband has been urging me to write about slugs. He is intrigued by the slugs on the bike trail and the iridescent trails of slime they leave in their wake. Recalling that I once wrote a column about the positive side of poison ivy, he assumes I can find something nice to say about slugs. To inspire me, he forwarded an article from the British newspaper The Guardian about surgical advances inspired by slug slime.

What I learned is that the mucus slugs excrete to foil their predators has extraordinary adhesive properties. It is strong and elastic and sticks to moving, wet surfaces, exactly what a surgeon wants when he’s patching a torn heart valve, for example. As I began reading, I feared that maybe doctors were using actual slug slime to seal broken tissue, but it’s not as queasy-making as that.

According to The Guardian, a Harvard-based scientist named Jianyu Li has discovered that slug mucus is adhesive because it’s made from a substance containing positively charged proteins. Using that information, he and his research team created a synthetic version of slug mucus by placing positively-charged polymers within water-based gel materials called hydrogels. When applied to broken biological tissues, these positively charged polymers form bonds with the hydrogel and the surface of the tissues to be glued. The synthetic adhesive is so powerful it will even adhere to a live, bloody pig’s heart.

The hydrogel is not only a medium for the polymers, but it also prevents the adhesive from cracking easily. “You can think of it as the shock-absorber like you’ve got in your car,” Li told the Guardian. Those are some lively images to ponder next time you see a slug!

I went online to see what other good things slugs might do for us. I found an online site, www.nilesbio.com, that sells Pacific banana slugs. These are about 9 inches long and are usually bright yellow, hence the name. They live on the forest floor of the Pacific coast of North America, and they are natural composters, processing leaves, animal droppings and dead plant material, and then recycling them into soil. I can’t tell you how many of these you might want to add to your garden, but they cost $7 a piece.

Toads, garter snakes and birds eat slugs, and I’m sure there are other ways in which slugs participate in the web of life. But I suspect that most of us would rather be removing than adding slugs to our gardens. They feed on tender young growth and are particularly fond of salad greens. Here are some tips for slug control:

Slugs are most problematic when the weather is cool and wet. To discourage slugs, water plants only in the morning so that they have time to dry before evening. Allow plenty of air circulation. Where slugs are prevalent, move mulch such as hay and wood bark away from plants. Slugs are fond of beer, and slug traps filled with beer will attract the pests and drown them. I guess that’s not such a bad way to go if you’re a slug.

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is another slug deterrent, according to a website called Solargemgreenhouses.com. If you use it, make sure you use the food-quality kind. Apparently, it doesn’t work if it becomes wet and so is most effective in greenhouses. It is a powdery substance made up of the fossilized remains of plankton, which are shaped like tiny shards of glass. You sprinkle DE on and around your plants so that when a snail traverses it, its body is punctured and it dies of dehydration. Depending on how strongly you feel about slugs, you might prefer going the beer route!

Other anti-slug measures include salt, but that reminds me too much of that scene from the African Queen where Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn are set upon by blood-sucking leeches.

Good luck with controlling your slug population. But remember that the next time you or a loved one undergoes surgery, you might have a slug to thank for a speedy recovery.

Bee weekend at Tower Hill

On Saturday and Sunday, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will host its bee weekend. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days and is free with admission. Anyone under age 18 who arrives wearing a bee costume gets in for free.

Members of the Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association will be on hand to answer questions about creating bee and pollinator friendly habitats. There will be lots of exhibits, demonstrations, honey tastings, hands-on activities and games for children, and much more, as visitors learn about the fascinating world of bees and why they are important for our gardens.

There will also be a family cooking with honey class from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Saturday. The cost is $25 for a parent-child member duo, $40 for non-members. The class is appropriate for ages 8 and above. Pre-registration is required, and the group is limited to 12.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxgover8@gmail.com.