2016-05-12 / From The Garden

Bugs! The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

By Cynthia Gibson

Lacewings feed on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. Lacewings feed on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. Bugs seem to be everywhere in the garden. Some are good, some are definitely bad, and most are ugly.

As for the pretty ones, there is always the delicate light-green lacewing that is very beneficial. It is right out of a fairy tale, with transparent wings larger than its body and green striations making it look like a stained glass window. While the lacewing is small, it has a big appetite for its size. What makes this a good bug is that it preys upon mealybugs, psyllids, thrips, mites, whiteflies, aphids, small caterpillars, leafhoppers, and insect eggs.

A helpful source of information on how insects play an important role in nature is Pam Gilpin, an estate gardener with more than 25 years of experience. A self-taught entomologist, she recently gave a talk at the SVF Foundation titled “Insects in the Garden: Friend, Foe, or Escargot?” where she shared her passion and explained how “given the right habitat, you can have the insects in your garden working for you.”

“My real interest in insects began about eight years ago,” she explained to Newport This Week. “But I’ve become quite obsessed in the past three or four.” An apartment-dweller whose garden consists of “a couple of raised beds in the front yard where I grow herbs, some flowers and food,” she said that the estate where she works “is where my insect education began and continues. There are lots of native plants on the property which attract the birds that eat the caterpillars, among other insects.”

Diversity in the flower bed, she added, is a powerful ally. “There are flowers going from March to November, so there is a food source for those insects that are out early and there is something for all throughout the season, whenever they arrive,” she said. “If you have a lot of flowers of differing kinds for most of the year, you will have the good insects that will take care of the bad guys.”

Gilpin’s list of the good guys includes, of course, bees – all types, from honey to bumble. They either make honey or serve as a great fleet of pollinators. Primarily, they pollinate fruit trees and live from the pollen provided by the flowers.

“All wasps – there are too many to name – are among the most helpful in the garden, as they prey upon more pest insects than almost anything else,” Gilpin continued.

A caveat about wasps, however: Like most of us, they love juicy fruits. Raspberries, plums and peaches are their favorites. But netting, versus spraying an insecticide, usually takes care of the problem.

And who doesn’t love a ladybug? According to Gilpin, lacewings and ladybugs are the largest group feeding on aphids, and both can be purchased from suppliers throughout the U.S. and shipped right to your front door. (We all know about aphids: green, pink, or black, they suck the beauty out of rosebuds.)

Release your insects at dusk, as they do not want to fly at night and prefer getting used to their new surroundings. By releasing them in the evening, they will not fly immediately into your neighbor’s yard.

The Japanese beetle is a bad bug. Despite their pretty psychedelic shell, beetles ravage flowers – roses in particular – and any rose-family plant. They grow from grubs, those ugly white things in the soil that destroy your lawn by eating the roots of tender new grass in spring.

Caterpillars are simply eating machines waiting to turn into butterflies. In either form, they are not good for your vegetables. The huge green hornworms on your tomato plants are ugly; you may even feel as if you should wear gloves to remove them. They turn into darkish brown butterflies, resembling large brown moths, with a bit of pink on their wings. They are excellent at camouflage and can be difficult to find. Look for leaves that have been skeletonized.

I asked Gilpin about one of my favorite insects, the firefly. They bring out the best in children. Her answer was a heads-up. “Fireflies,” she said, “have declined due to loss of habitat, the gross overuse of pesticides, and nighttime light pollution.”

Bugs! We cannot live with them, and definitely cannot live without them.

Thank you, Pam.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport.

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