I have been intrigued with neem oil for some time. Something exotic about it. When I first planted tomatoes in north Georgia four years ago, and they were overwhelmed by aphids, neem came to my rescue. Aphids were never a problem again, not because of the neem but my voracious ladybug population. (This week I have been collecting my overwintering ladybug guests and ushering them out to their workplace in my vegetable garden). My second recourse to neem was a couple years ago when the stinkbugs arrived. With my pistol grip sprayer I doused the offenders and they looked dazed and disgusted. Last year I awaited them but they did not arrive, again not due to neem but to some mysterious forces at work. And so my neem oil sat unused in the cool basement for more than a year, until last week when it was recalled to the front line.
But a word about neem. A neat little book by John Conrick titled “Neem The Ultimate Herb” goes into much detail on its origins and uses. He traces its first use as a medical treatment to 4,500 years ago. He states it is a major element in preventing and healing diseases among Ayurvedic practitioners (a system of traditional medicine in India). The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is a tropical evergreen which grows in much of Southeast Asia, welcomes extreme heat of up to 120 F but will not tolerate hard freezes – so unlikely to call my yard home. My interest is not in its medical properties, or how it is made, but its use for insect control. Unlike synthetic pesticides, most of which have quick acting nerve toxins, neem’s main action is as an anti-feedant, which dissuades pests from eating neem covered plants. It can also reduce an insect’s ability to reproduce. No wonder the stinkbugs looked dazed and disgusted! Conrick also mentions that neem has been found to be beneficial on bees.
So how did I use it as a remedy for my chickens? Our Buff Orpington rooster has a good looking comb but the tips of his comb turned black a few weeks ago from frost bite. He didn’t seem to mind and, as he is becoming more aggressive, I decided to leave him be. Then I noticed black spots at the base of the comb. One of the Golden Comets tried to peck at his comb (for food or as a grooming favor?) and he discouraged her endeavors. But this made me think that this was an insect problem not a frost bite issue. So how to treat it? Diatomaceous earth and Sevin dust have been suggested for mites and lice etc. but I didn’t want to powder a young vigorous rooster near his eyes. I also didn’t want to use a synthetic treatment given my recent success with an organic treatment, psyllium, for chicken crop problems. And then came the idea of neem – I cannot claim credit for this inspiration since I believe it was derived from internet browsing.
Neem is usually mixed with water but I was concerned this mixture could dribble into his eyes. So I took a little dropper bottle and mixed the neem with Johnson’s baby oil at 10% strength i.e. 36 drops of the baby oil and 4 drops of the neem oil (the neem oil is described as having 70% extract of neem oil). Administering the concoction single handed was not as big a challenge as I had thought. I cornered him in the coop, and held him firmly between my knees and then one hand held and pivoted his neck and crown and the other retrieved the pre-charged bulb dropper and doused the infected areas with the mixed oils. After initial hysterical protestations he submitted to the treatment. A day later most of the black infestation was gone and two days later he was cured. Easy enough now but, when his spurs are developed, I do not think this will be a happy experience for either of us.
This winter was very mild and the bugs are out and about and multiplying. I really would like not to use any organic treatments this year. I am hoping that with my expanded beneficial insects army and diverse plantings and good compost and strong plants I will be able to withstand the onslaught. Except in the month of August when we tend to become overwhelmed and then the best is to cut back on the plantings (so as not to subsidize future generations), and look the other way. But if I have to, then neem will be reactivated.