A GARDEN is full of elusive forces. Microscopic Verticillium fungi clogging up the roots of a shrub and tiny thrips deforming daylily blossoms are better known for the damage they cause than their actual selves, since it isn’t easy for us to understand things we cannot see. So when mounds and bumps appear in a lawn, folks must be forgiven for knowing little about the mole, whose shyness is in league with reclusive authors and film directors.
Moles are adapted to life underground, and seldom surface to the light of day. They have good hearing but no vision. They’ve traded two eyes for a pair of extra “thumbs,” giving their large, powerful front paws six digits each. Gifted with living scoops, they can dig tunnels at a rate of one foot per minute and may create a subterranean corridor 100 feet long in a single day.
All this work is done primarily in search of food. Moles are carnivores, and will devour insect larvae, such as the grubs of Japanese chafers and European chafers, as well as earthworms, including the problematic crazy jumping worms. Their high metabolic rate and penchant for activity makes them eat 70 to 100% of their body weight each day. Given their potential for eliminating exotic, invasive pests, perhaps moles, who are North American natives, should be cheered instead of jeered. And if your hostas, dahlias, potatoes or other garden plants lose their root systems, don’t blame the moles. That destruction is likely due to voles, mouse-like vegetarians which live both above and below the soil, and who make use of mole tunnels for their own pernicious agendas.
Life underground might seem lonely but moles prefer it that way, remaining solitary except for mating. An acre of ground might be home to only one to three moles, although their activity makes it seem there are at least a dozen down below. Mother mole gives birth to three to five young in April or May and each may live for three to four years. New York is home to three mole species, the eastern, the hairy-tale, and the star-nosed. This last one has an amazing schnoz composed of 22 fleshy fingers which give it unparalleled touch sensitivity and make it the fastest-eating mammal, with the ability to identify and ingest prey in as little as 120 milliseconds.
A naturalist friend once said, “there are more urban myths about mole management than any other animal.” Home remedies, which include putting lye, pickle juice, gum, rose branches, moth balls, smoke bombs, broken glass, or sound or vibration devices into the runs, all have their followers, although trappers and biologists generally discount their effectiveness. Controlling grubs in the lawn is not a panacea, since moles eat earthworms and many other creatures not controlled by grub insecticides. Mole baits and castor-based repellant have some validity, but traps are cited as the most reliable management option. I’ve trapped a few moles, but now prefer to tolerate their damage, encourage their appetite, and save my ire for the deer.
To contact David Chinery, the horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email