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Insects have roles to play in gardens.

Byline: Paul Rogers


Gardeners and their plants are challenged by three major categories of problems: insects, diseases, and abiotic or nonliving factors. Often the greatest challenge is to identify the problem. As we look at a plant in trouble, we need to realize that knowledge and understanding are central to any attempt to return the plant to health.

The gardener is familiar with mosquitoes, Mayflies, deer flies, ticks and (perhaps) several dozen other pests that annoy humans. As to just how many different kinds of insects inhabit our planet, the figures range from several hundred thousand to close to a million. There is general agreement that insects constitute more than half of all the living things on Earth. It has been estimated that more than 4 million insects live on, in and under each acre of soil.

Fortunately for humankind, less than 10 percent can be designed as pests. The remaining 90 percent are either harmless (from man's limited point of view) or beneficial. Insects pollinate 85 percent of our fruits and many of our vegetables. They provide us with honey, wax, silk and shellac. Some insects serve as scavengers. They recycle dead debris. Numerous insects serve as an essential food source for birds and fish.

A role of insects that is belatedly receiving increased attention is the role that many insects play in curbing the destruction of other insects. These insects prey on other insects. From one point of view, insects are in need of the services of a good public relations firm, as they do not receive due credit for the good works they perform.

Their other problem is that insects are highly visible. When a gardener observes chewed leaves on a favored plant, any insect in the area gets blamed. Yet, the insect may be benign, an ally of the gardener, or simply an insect that feeds not by chewing leaves like most caterpillars but by drinking plant sap like aphids, mealy bugs, white flies or spider mites.

Thus, we need to know as much as we can concerning these organisms (insects) that have lived on this planet, at least, 50 times as long as man. Insects are survivors. There is no way that mere man is going to win in any contest against insects, as they have been at it so much longer than we. The best that can be hoped is that we learn to manage the interaction to our satisfaction.

Knowledgeable homeowners understand that basic information is the best tool at our disposal. Know that insects mostly feed (cause plant damage) in one of two ways. The leaves are consumed. Look for caterpillars, beetles (some feed only at night), snails or slugs, or more rarely by leaf-cutting bees. The second mode of insect feeding is by sipping or sucking the sugar-rich sap from plants.

Sprays, repellants, predator pests and traps are used as management tools. Be aware that insects that feed by withdrawing sap from plants tend to congregate on the upper portions of plants where plant tissue is thinner and more easily penetrated. Beetles (especially those that dine after dark) avoid climbing any higher than needed to find a meal. Look for them on the lower portion of plants. Caterpillars usually start near the top and feed their way down.

Note that horticulturists would agree that complex and numerous as insect may be, they are easier to manage than diseases. Why is this so? Learn by watching this space next week.
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Title Annotation:LIVING
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 3, 2008
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