This time of year, you probably encounter an increasing number of insects in your garden, because cold-blooded insects come to life when the weather warms in spring. Beneficial insects and random passers-through greatly outnumber pests, which are easy to find because they behave in predictable ways. Certain pests appear on specific plants just when they are expected, so with a little practice they become familiar foes.
Take today’s catch of asparagus beetles now floating belly-up in soapy water. They love the skinny ferns of my asparagus plants that are too young to pick, and indeed asparagus is the only plant the adults and larvae are capable of eating. Right now is mating season, with eager beetles appearing day after day. My only chance with them is to think like a bug.
In doing so, one of the first things to realize is that you are very small and everything and everyone else is very big. You have many enemies, and a tightly restricted diet. For these reasons, your best response to danger is to dive and hide somewhere on your gotta-have food plant, or if you must, drop to the ground. I know the asparagus beetles see me coming, because they scurry to the far side of the stem. Anticipating their next move, I place a broad dish of soapy water beneath the branch, and gently bend it over. They drop right in.
What Insects See
My favorite garden clothes are drab beige or well-aged white because they are cool to wear and of little interest to bugs, which see neutral colors as muted blobs. A bright Hawaiian print shirt will make you the star, however, of sudden interest to bees, flies and even hummingbirds. This is fine if you want a butterfly to land on your shoulder, but not so good when you’re trying to weed a bed of onions.
Insects clearly sense motion, and perhaps learn to rally a defense to repeated threats. For the past two months, I have been using a long stick to disturb the webworm nests in my apple trees. The surviving caterpillars then spin themselves a new tent, which I come along and ruin. By my third assault, the tent caterpillars began waving their bodies frantically when I approached with my stick of doom. Call it a defense dance or a plea for mercy, but they clearly knew what was going on.
It’s probably instinctive. Later this summer, when I go to collect tomato hornworms, they will rear back their heads and stick out their tails to scare me, but it won’t work. Japanese beetles on my pole beans and roses will flail their front feet in the air, but it won’t stop me from shaking them into a bucket first thing in the morning. The point here is to dress for the task, because you don’t want insects to see you coming or make them come to you. Also, take some comfort that the insects you kill die quickly and bravely.
Nighttime Garden Pests
Holes that appear in leaves overnight are often the work of slugs, the most common unwanted creature in most vegetable gardens. They often won’t wait until sundown to come out on drizzly days, which gives you a good look at just how many slugs you have hiding in your mulch. Night feeders like slugs (and their predators) are usually not operating on sight so much as smell. Slugs line up to go into beer-baited traps, which are strangely satisfying to use because you catch so many drunk-and-drowned slugs. Earwigs are almost too easy to catch at night in oil traps, and a pail of soapy water stationed next to a solar landscape light will often net the mottled moths whose larvae are seedling-girdling, night-feeding cutworms.
The Big Bug Hunt
Garden insects fascinate me, and after decades of study I am learning a little about them. But now, in the information age, learning what you need to know about garden insects need not be so slow or spotty. This morning I reported the asparagus beetle activity in my garden to the growing database of the Big Bug Hunt, a gardener-based info hub that aims to tell you (and remind me) when to look for pest activity in our gardens. Fast forward three seasons or so, with more and more gardeners completing 10-second reports, and you have a worldwide database managed by the fantabulous GrowVeg team that knows when the most common garden pests emerge where, and can quickly share that information to your advantage.
This is the garden pest management tool you’ve dreamed of, and starting this season, you can help create it and learn about common garden pests at the same time. Check out the pest ID help you can get here at GrowVeg in the Pest and Insect Guide (the pest ID guides are also available on the Big Bug Hunt website). With your help, learning to think like a bug is about to get a whole lot easier.