Bugged: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Fellow scaredy-cats may find this hard to believe, but creepy-crawly things can actually be a gardener’s best friend, and it behooves them—as it ultimately did me—to get a grip. The fact is that over five-sixths of the animal kingdom is made up of insects, an estimated one million different species. That’s a boatload of bugs, mates. Some are good guys, some aren’t, and those that aren’t can savage your landscape. So the first order of business is to learn which are which.
These creatures are super-cunning when it comes to survival. Some hide in plain sight by changing color (Flower Crab Spiders). Others take refuge in rock walls (Honey Bees) or in old rodent holes (Yellow Jackets). These and other beneficial bugs dine on the bad guys. Lady Bugs eat Mites, spiders feed on grasshoppers, and wasps devour crickets. Praying Mantises are thought to be bad-bug predators, but this is only half true—they nosh on good bugs too.
There are three kinds of destructive insects: those that bore into leaves and gut the tissue; those that suck the juices out of plants; and those that chew the edges of leaves or skeletonize them along their veins. Among these bugs are Japanese beetles, Mites, and Woolly Adelgid. (Ticks don’t count; they only eat blood.)
Damage Bugs, shmugs, so you’re no entomologist. All you care about is identifying the symptoms of insect infestation so your plants don’t go to plant heaven. These symptoms include curled leaves, wilting, and premature leaf- or needle drop.
Insect pests leave specific evidence of infestation, depending on the host plant. Squiggly lines are the signs of Leaf Miners tunneling into leaves— Columbines are catnip to these rascals, but are rarely killed by them. Miners, however, can wipe out entire vegetable crops.
Yellowing leaves can herald the presence of Scale insects—they look like little bumps along stems. Pine trees and dogwood are treats for these bugs.
Eastern hemlocks with a grayish cast are victims of the aforementioned Woolly Adelgid, which has doomed 50 percent of these evergreens in our parts. Their egg sacs look like small tufts of cotton.
One way to avoid the heartbreak of insect destruction is to install plants that are “resistant”—meaning that bad bugs don’t particularly like ’em. Flowers in this category are Marigolds, Lavender, and Purple Coneflower. Among resistant shrubs are Beauty Bush, Blue Mist Shrub, and Inkberry.
A second way to keep bad bugs at bay is to nuke ’em. Some people hand- pick Japanese Beetles (yuck) and drop them into soapy water. Others dispatch Aphids with alcohol-soaked Q-tips. You can even buy good bugs, such as Lady Bugs, at garden centers, release them into the garden, and let them do the dirty work.
But gardeners can only do so much, and if all else fails, it may be necessary to dial up a pro.
When to Call An Exterminator
Controlling severe insect infestations, especially in large gardens, often necessitates the help of certified professionals, who may recommend the use of least-toxic chemical sprays to finish off, for example, Japanese Beetles, and pre-emergent horticultural oil sprays to prevent Woolly Adelgid.
Before bringing in the big guns, however, be advised that some “organic” insecticides can actually imperil other creatures as well. Birds can be poisoned by eating recently sprayed food; Honey Bees can be destroyed, with the result that flowers aren’t pollinated; and fish can be devastated—insecticides can stay in water supplies for years. For these and other reasons, it’s essential that you locate a licensed exterminator who uses relatively safe insecticides, such as Pyrethrum, made from dried chrysanthemum flowers. Caveat: Pyrethrum is moderately toxic to humans and pets, and highly toxic to fish. Use with caution.
Okay, back to me. Here’s how I learned to love, or at least tolerate, the good bugs. Before venturing outside, I cover myself with insect repellant. I never wear perfume. When I see a large spider, I bang the ground with a shovel to make it go away.
I give a wide berth to such bee magnets as Blue Mist Shrub during the heat of the day, when bees are most active, and wait until the cool of evening, when bees nod off. Ditto with wasp nests dangling from eaves—just after sunup I spray the nest with wasp repellant. And if I see mounds of dirt on the lawn, it tells me that there may be hornets underground, in which case I run like the wind, lest an angry swarm attack me.
That’s about it. Oops, I forgot, one more thing: insect-phobes should pay no attention to people who blithely claim that bugs are more afraid of us than we are of them. Please. With us, it’s the other way around. But that doesn’t stop us from getting out there and dealing.
That said, I draw the line when I’m indoors; one spider in the house and I go mental. Just ask the beleaguered man I live with.