As tough as I think I am, and as much as I like most critters, the crawly ones still make me shriek like a teenager. At least the ones with a lot of legs. Or the ones with no legs at all that are slimy to boot. Is it because I was too young when I saw the movie Pink Floyd: The Wall and I didn’t close my eyes fast enough when the screen filled with maggots? Or perhaps it was watching The African Queen on late-night television, with Kate Hepburn burning off leeches with a cigarette. Since I’ve never had any direct contact with maggots, and the one leech I ever saw close up was a tiny, peaceful thing, feeding gently on my traveling companion, I recognize that my feeling about creepy-crawlies is totally out of proportion to any threat they might pose. But I think I suffer the same ancient, visceral fear so many humans do — a squeamishness that keeps the people over at Raid employed.
Besides, what’s to like? Insects compete with us for what we think is our food. Since the first time someone decided to put some grain aside to eat later, we’ve been struggling with bugs. They live very differently from us–in hives, in hills, in subterranean tunnels–and they’re always showing up in dead things. Also, they’re not soft and furry, they won’t fetch the paper, and they sprout a stomach-churning profusion of pincers, pokers, and proboscises. They’re gooey on the inside –a whole industry has been built on creating glistening, long-lasting viscous glop for movie monsters inspired by bugs. A few summers back it seemed that every other movie had evil space insects as the enemy: remember Starship Troopers? The films are a manifestation of truths we’d prefer not to face: like there are more of them than there are of us, a lot more. And face it, eventually they’ll be snacking on us.
Which brings us to the garden, a wildly complicated system cloaked in beauty and supported in large part by the efforts of creatures with external skeletons or none at all, breaking stuff down and moving it around. If you’re going to garden, you’ve got to learn to love, or at least respect, bugs. Before I started mucking around in the yard, I figured anything that wasn’t a pretty beetle or butterfly was a nasty villain, grimly determined to eat my food and give me nightmares while she was at it. So the first few rocks I turned over as I prepared the soil made for teeth-clenching experiences. What I’ve since learned is that not only do all the insects have an important role in the web of soil and nutrients and sun and growth, but many of them are actively on my side. So I’ve been deliberately trying to open my heart to the creepy-crawlies–while figuring out how to safely handle the ones that have their beady eyes set on my squash. I hesitate to call any insect a pest–after all, we only designate an animal as a pest if it has the audacity to take something we want. Some seemingly “bad” insects actually ensure the overall health of an ecosystem by focusing their attention on plants that are already weak or diseased, thus making more space for healthy plants. It’s fairest to say that a certain type of insect becomes a pest when the population reaches a level where healthy plants are dying. Ironically, this can happen when a gardener gets pesticide-happy, since most pesticides are more effective against predatory insects (such as lady beetles) that feed on pest insects than on the pest insects themselves. It’s a twofold problem: first the pesticide kills off everything, and then the pest population rises faster than the predator population. Which makes integrated pest management (IPM–a fancy term for minimizing chemical insecticides as much as possible) an attractive solution. While it’s more labor-intensive, in the long run IPM is better for the health of the soil, the plants, and the humans and other animals who enjoy the garden and its products. The best way to keep insects from trashing your garden is to use sound gardening practices, including choosing healthy plants suited to the region (check out the new Sunset Western Garden book, with 2,000 new entries, detailed zone maps, color photos of insects, and handy guides to choosing plants–it’s pure plant pornography), rotating food crops, maintaining healthy soil, and avoiding pesticides as much as we can. IPM means paying close attention to what kinds of pest insects are munching our magnolias and choosing our strategy accordingly. Does the soil need amending? Is there something mechanical to do, such as using floating row covers or plant collars (a toilet-paper or paper-towel roll cut into two- to three-inch-wide pieces and pressed halfway into the soil around seedlings to protect them from crawlers)? Can you grow something nearby that will repel pests (catnip seems to work against squash bugs and cucumber beetles, for example) or to attract beneficial insects that eat the munchers (for instance, various beneficial insects like angelica, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, and sunflowers). For a detailed examination of chemical-free gardening, turn to Rodale’s Chemical-Free Yard and Garden, a well-organized and exhaustive resource from the Organic Gardening magazine people.
If you like to do everything yourself, there are cheap mechanical controls: If you have pests that are easy to see and also some time on your hands, handpicking is effective and totally organic. Go outside with a bucket of soapy water and pick off the offenders, dropping them into the water to drown. If you don’t like touching crawlies, some can be tricked. For example, the ubiquitous slugs and snails tying on their slimy little bibs right now to tuck into your tender young lettuce plants can be lured by a cat-food can full of beer or a water-sugar-yeast combination: they crawl in for a drink and don’t crawl out. I like this method because I feel better knowing that they die inebriated instead of by dehydration or squashing or something equally violent. Aphids can be hosed off of sturdy plants with a jet stream–since they have soft bodies, the pressure of the water damages and/or kills them. If it’s a small infestation, some insects can be killed by dabbing them carefully with a Q-tip soaked in alcohol, although you want to be careful not to touch the plant itself.But if you want big-time help, turn to the beneficial insects. Assuming your backyard ecosystem is reasonably healthy, you already have populations of beneficial insects. It’s not a bad idea to get a guide with clear drawings or color photos so you can identify who’s living in your leaf litter. The most common beneficials you might see are assassin bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles, lacewings, lady beetles (usually called ladybugs), minute pirate bugs, parasitic nematodes (you probably won’t see these, they’re verrrry small), parasitic wasps, soldier beetles, syrphid or hover flies, and tachinid flies. Their prey–your voracious pests–include aphids, cucumber beetles, cutworms, earwigs, flea beetles, geranium budworm, grasshoppers, leaf miners, mealybugs, mites, pillbugs and sowbugs, root weevils, and scales. It’s worth mentioning that ants fall into both categories: while some are beneficial, there are those that are attracted to the end-product of aphid digestion. This means they form alliances with aphids, serving as aphid taxis between worn-out plants and fresh ones, protecting aphid colonies, and carrying aphids into the house to get started on the houseplants–all in exchange for honeydew, the aphids’ sticky, sugar-rich excretion. It’s worth keeping an eye on the ants and their movements. You don’t want to kill them, just break up their little ant mafias by keeping them separated from the aphids and out of the house. You can attract beneficials by planting flowers the adults like for nectar. These include buckwheat, clover, coriander, coreopsis, cosmos, dill, fennel, feverfew, mustard, sweet alyssum, tansy, tidytips, and yarrow. Many of these flowers are also food or nectar producers for butterflies (caterpillars and adults), and some are attractive to pest-eating birds. You can make your own nectar by mixing equal parts brewer’s yeast, white sugar, and water thoroughly and painting it thinly on your plants–or drizzling a fine stream of the mixture onto squares of wax paper so it beads up, and hanging the paper near the plants. Replace the paper or refresh the paint job every few days. This mixture will keep in the fridge. Try this when your pest levels fall: it tides over your predators so they’ll stay close to home instead of taking off to help out your neighbors. Chowing down aphids is thirsty work, so it’s helpful to make an insect bath by filling a shallow tray with water and rocks that protrude above the water level for the bugs to stand on. I know, you didn’t get into gardening to be an insect caterer, but given a choice between squirting poison on my food plants and folding itty-bitty napkins into swans, I’ll go with the latter.
If you don’t have beneficials, you can mail-order them. I find this amazing. I mean, I think I understand modern life and wireless technology and reality television, but the fact that I can get bugs in the mail blows me away. Try Rincon-Vitova Insectaries (www. rinconvitova.com or 805-643-5407)–located in Ventura, they’re the oldest insectary. Arbico in Tucson (www.arbico.com or 800-827-2847) stocks a complete line of beneficials, and Nature’s Control in Oregon (www.hiredbugs.com or 541-245-6033) specializes in beneficials and whitefly traps. Local nurseries often stock lady beetles at least. Make sure you have the pests your beneficials eat, and be ready to release the insects as soon as they arrive–shipping is stressful for them. If you just can’t get them into the garden right away, most can be put in the warmest part of the fridge for less than 24 hours. Don’t open the package in the house, in case the bugs have gotten out of the inner wrapping. This is one of those times you really want to curb your excitement and read the label carefully before you do anything else. If you’re tenderhearted and determined to garden, you may want to skip this next bit, because I’m going to talk about how the beneficial insects do their thing on the pests. If you’ve always thought gardening was for sissies and wished it was more like, say, Gladiator, have I got good news for you. It’s a life-or-death struggle out there, and the beneficial insects are vicious, cold-blooded (literally) killing machines, biting, chewing, shredding, and sucking their prey to death. Knowing how they get their nourishment is pretty disgusting, but helpful if you’re trying to figure out just who you’re dealing with. Insects generally fall into one of two categories: either they bite and chew, or they pierce and suck. Some will do both over their life cycle, beginning as biters with long, sharp jaws which they lose as they mature. The pests that suck insert their syringe-like proboscises into a plant and slurp the moisture out of the plant’s cells. Aphids, which have longer proboscises, penetrate more deeply and suck the sap directly. So if you have a plant with depressed areas where the cells have collapsed, if the leaves or flowers appear stunted or crinkly, if the leaves are discolored, or if the plant is wasting away, you’ve probably got sucking pests. The biters nibble away at leaves, flowers, stems, or bark, leaving distinctive holes and marks. Beneficial insects fall into two categories: predators and parasites. Adult predators such as the lady beetle are generally biters, and the parasites are usually suckers. Chewing insects differ from other critters with teeth in that their jaws are vertical instead of horizontal; they chew side-to-side instead of top-to-bottom like we do. Some are positively medieval in their design–in its larval form, the lacewing has little tongs to hold its prey while it sucks the juice out. Larval syrphid or hover flies have fanglike hooks concealed in their throats with which they shred their prey–ugh. But the feeding mechanism that sends me screaming is that of the beneficial parasites, many of which begin as eggs laid inside the prey insect. William Jordan Jr., in his queasily interesting Windowsill Ecology, explains that inside some pests, there isn’t enough room or juice for two larvae. So the parasitic Braconid wasp starts out with long jaws with which to fight any siblings that may have been laid in the same host. The survivor then leisurely sucks the life out of its host, usually an aphid. When the host is good and dead, the larva lines the interior cavity with silk to form a cocoon, eventually emerging in its adult form.
The whole thing reminds me of a houseguest who came to stay with us “just for a couple of weeks” while he looked for a job. Frank ended up staying for a couple of months, filling the guest room with pot smoke and trashy sci-fi novels. Eventually we had to pay him to go to Alaska. But I digress. Unlike Frank, the more I know about beneficial insects–even considering their poor table manners–the more I like them. I can’t say that I’m the world’s biggest bug fan, but I feel much better knowing that they’re helping me grow fresh food–and letting me keep it.