Friend or Foe? A Wise Gardener Knows

August 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

 Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) on Wild Carrot (Dacus carota)

Fear can lead people to do foolish things. Human beings have an tendency to fear and strike out at things they do not know. At a certain level, fear is important to our survival. The human fight or flight response was designed to protect us, and it’s a great instinct —until it isn’t. Sometimes, someone who appears to be an enemy, is actually a friend in disguise… And no one wants to hurt a friend, right? Right.

A Slightly Younger Black Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillar is Shown Here, Feeding Upon the Same Queen Anne’s Lace as the One Pictured Above

In the garden —as elsewhere in life— sometimes allies are mistaken for enemies. Take the Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes), for example. In its larval phase, the colorful caterpillar (pictured above, munching wild carrot foliage), feeds mainly upon the leaves and stems of plants in the Apiacea family; including vegetables and herbs like carrots, dill, parsley and fennel. In its early stage of life, some gardener’s refer to the Black Swallowtail as a “parsley worm”, and consider it a pest. Yet when mature, this voracious eater morphs into a beautiful, nectar-sipping butterfly. Moving from flower to flower —carrying golden dust on their legs, wings and bodies—Black Swallowtail Butterflies become important pollinators as adults; ironically serving the very plants they enjoy consuming in their youth. Instead of killing “parsley worms”, I recommend covering vulnerable crops with Reemay Cloth or —if your garden is small— remove caterpillars by hand and place them on wild alternatives (they emit an unpleasant odor as a form of defense, so wear gloves or just wash your hands!). Some gardeners —including this one— actually plant ornamental carrots and dill for the purpose of attracting beneficial insects. A few minor inconveniences rarely bother organic gardeners and lovers of natural beauty. After all, isn’t the creation of a welcoming, butterfly habitat  a wonderful thing? Learn more about the Black Swallowtail Butterfly at ButterliesandMoths.Org, by clicking here.

Welcome to My Garden! Creating a Pollinator-Friendly Habitat Encourages a Healthy, Diverse Ecosystem. Set a Good Example by Becoming a Friendly Member of  Earth’s Community: Swing Your Gate Open to New Friends! Pollinator Favorites: Queen Anne’s Lace and Goldenrod (Daucus carota and Solidago)

So how do you know if you’ve spotted a friend or an enemy in the garden?  If something seems unfamiliar, it’s always a good idea to do a bit of research before impulsively squashing it. Of course, you can try asking an experienced neighbor, but if all else fails, the internet is always standing by! Some of the best insect identification resources I’ve found are free and readily available online; including Identification.Org and BugGuide.Net. For butterfly identification specifically —including the all-important larval stage— I like  Basic entomological skills (the study of insects) are important to all gardeners. I recommend the books below —Good Bug Bad Bug  &  Garden Insects of North America—  for ease of use and comprehensive coverage, respectively. For more insect identification and organic pest control resources, visit the Library page by clicking here.

Jessica Walliser’s easy to use, Good Bug Bad Bug

Whitney Cranshaw’s comprehensive guide,  Garden Insects of North America

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All images, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Please do not take my photographs without asking first. Thank you! 

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Hello Friend – WAIT – Whose Team Are You On Anyway?

March 9th, 2010 § 7 comments § permalink

It’s easy to recognize this friend as an adult. A ladybug rests upon Peperomia. Photo © Michaela at TGE

Hello friend… or foe? In all of life it’s important to know your friends from your enemies, but as gardeners this issue is especially important. We are conditioned to think of bugs as destructive, ‘icky’ and ‘bad’. Of course this isn’t always the case. Hardly. In fact, some bugs are easy to like – especially if they are beautiful. Butterflies and moths easily charm us with their colorful patterns as they dance on the breeze, and dragonflies delight us with their bright colors and aerobatic maneuvers. Honeybees seduce us with their sweet nectar, and their bumbling cousins are equally charming as they buzz about the garden. Perhaps the most famous of all, pretty red and black ladybugs have become the pin-up girls of the beneficial insect world. In fact right now, as I type this sentence, hundreds of these helpful creatures are emerging from hibernation in my house, covering my houseplants like a smattering of little red polka-dots.

But what about the other “good” bugs? Would you know a beneficial insect if you saw one? It’s certainly been a long time since my last entomology class, and I admit that I am a bit rusty. Although I can easily recognize most garden pests, and I know how to combat them, I am not always spot-on with my identifications. Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of insect metamorphosis. What? Yes, that’s right: metamorphosis. Remember that from school? And no, I’m not talking about Franz Kafka’s famous novella, (although that is one of my all time favorite, freaky-works of fiction). Most of us become familiar with the process of metamorphosis in elementary school, when butterfly caterpillars, (particularly Monarch and Swallowtail), are collected in containers during science class. Kids of all ages love to watch as a mature butterfly emerges, transformed after weeks inside a moody, magical chrysalis. All insects live out their lives in stages, and it’s important for a gardener to know how they look in their ‘baby’, (larval, nymph, pupa), phases as well as in their mature form.

Most experienced gardeners will recognize the black and orange ‘monster’, (pictured below), as a ladybug, (or ladybird beetle, also known as Coccinella septempunctata), in its larval stage. In one of the more dramatic insect transformations, this freakish-looking creature morphs into the cute little red and black beetle we all know and love. If you have never  seen one before, do get to know this chameleon, for it is your dear, dear friend. The ladybug is a garden hero, and it does an extraordinary amount of work before it even reaches adulthood. Aphids; mites; scale: these garden pests are the ladybug’s favorite foods. In fact, a single ladybug can consume thousands of destructive aphids, mites and other insects within its lifetime. Would you have killed this creature, (pictured below), if you saw it in your garden? Many do. Sometimes the ladybug larvae is mistaken for a pest, and other times it is accidentally wiped out with an application of insecticide intended for the very aphids it is actually consuming, (warning: many organic pesticides can kill beneficials, especially in the larval stage)…

But would you recognize it as a baby? (An immature lady bug feasting upon aphids. Photo: Vejezus via Wikimedia Commons)

The first step toward becoming a responsible, organic gardener is to recognize the natural things living around you, and to learn about the role they play in the ecosystem. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’, all creatures are part of the web of life, and we should respect them. Of course this doesn’t mean that I invite aphids to join me for dinner in my vegetable garden. Heck no. I plant my garden to enjoy –  and to EAT! But, I do try to work with nature, not against her, in order to keep my garden free of insect competitors!

Like most gardeners, sometimes when my plants are under siege, it’s hard for me to decide who or what is to blame. Even the calmest gardener can start to panic when a favorite cultivar is being skeletonized. Learning to recognize the tell-tale evidence left behind during or after an insect attack is one of the keys to gardening success. Recently I posted an article, “Help! Something Is Bugging My Plants, (And Me Too)!” on the Garden Variety Blog at Barnes & Noble. There you will find some helpful diagnostic resources. I also believe that a good, easily transportable, insect ID guide book is an excellent gardening tool. Below I have linked my two favorites, in order of preference. For quick reference, I am a big fan of the indestructible, laminated Mac’s Field Guide to bugs, which hangs on my garden gatepost all summer like a wild-west “Wanted” poster. One side has “good” guys, flip it, and on the other, “bad” guys are illustrated in all stages – very useful. While you are here today, have a look at the right hand side of this blog. Scroll down until you see the “Insects and Entomology” category – there you will find a list of useful links. Explore some of the free online resources listed there. Many of these sites offer fantastic images to help you identify common, as well as uncommon insects, and some offer excellent information on how to combat backyard pests in a safer way.

The garden season is on its way! It’s time to flip through the list of regular insect-characters, and familiarize yourself with the different players and costume changes you will encounter this year. Friend or foe? Before you start attacking, or laying out your welcome mat, it’s wise to spend some time getting to know your garden “guests”…

Your friend, Milkweed Assassin Bug, is one of  over 4,000 members of the Heteroptera order. (Photo credit: Ira Eskins via Wikimedia Commons)

Buy from Amazon : NWF Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America

Buy from Barnes & Noble: NWF Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America

Buy from Barnes and Noble : NAS Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders

Buy from Amazon: NAS Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders


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