What’s Bugging Us?

Nuts to all the gnats this year!  And with all the rain, a few mosquitoes to make things interesting.  And the ticks, my god, the ticks!!!  Plenty of biting insects to go around, a drag for the animals and us, but fortunately this year the plants are being spared.

Most notable is the absence, or nearly so, of last year’s plagues.  The leaf-munching slug slime brigade kept us on garden patrol early morning and late evening for about a month.  We hauled out the heavy artillery and attacked with a Dustin’Mizer and a jar with a sprouting screen, which we replaced with a 3′ piece of 1.5″ PVC pipe with a scrap of window screen clamped to the bottom – no more bending over.  The ammunition was diatomaceous earth until supplies quickly ran short.  Then we switched to wood ash with far better results.  With nearly 3-4 person-hours/day we did manage to save our crops from sluggish destruction.  But by the end of last summer, we had noticed a new wave of allied troops in our battle of the slime.  First, there were the hoards of earwigs, which can cause crop problems on their own but they’re also enemies of slugs.  Next we noticed the presence of several mole tunnels, a new visitor to our garden.  Toads were also becoming abundant once again as the neighboring farm switched renters from obscenely industrial to just conventional agri-biz.  With the incredible heat and drought of 2012, it was amazing that we were so inundated with slugs, but then again we were the only oasis of irrigated vegetation around.  So with the very wet spring of 2013, we were braced for an even bigger invasion of slugs than last year, but it didn’t happen.  Yes, there are still some slugs doing the usual tolerable amounts of damage, but the almost daily rains kept everything moist and the critters could disperse over a larger area instead of just concentrating in our garden.  There are now many mole tunnels all over the garden.  We also noticed a huge population increase in ground beetles, the black ones with the big pincers, another slug consumer.  The night skies are sparkling with fireflies, the larva of which also feed on slugs.  The toads continue to increase and we even spotted a couple of the seldom seen milk snakes – their young apparently also like snacking on slugs.  Balance is being restored.

A couple of other pests are also noticeably absent this year.  Striped and spotted cucumber beetles and squash bugs nearly wiped out some of the cucurbit family members in 2012.  Hardest hit were the winter squashes, particularly those of the maxima species, but all cucurbits suffered.  We had a grand total of 1 cucumber to eat last year.  We started out picking bugs, then applied some rotenone which we would ordinarily never use in the garden as it is non-selective and can harm bees.  Despite this the population exploded and was beyond any organic controls.  At the end of the season we moved the chickens into the areas and hoped they would clean up any lingering pests.  This may have helped.  A couple of days ago I told a friend that we hadn’t seen even one of these pests, but the next day we did see a lone squash bug, which we promptly squashed.  No swarms of bugs like last year, so the plants are already well established and fruiting their way to a good crop instead of being mowed down, or virus infected, at the young seedling stage.  We did buy one of those high-voltage bug zapper “rackets” to swat at these pests, but haven’t had to try it out.

Last year’s heat and drought also exacerbated the flea beetles on the eggplants.  We normally have some, but record numbers turned the leaves into lace.  Somehow the eggplants managed to produce an average crop in spite of the lowered photosynthesis.  Cool, moist weather is not as favorable to the flea beetles so this year the plants are nearing blossom stage with minimal damage.

Cole crops are also getting a break this year.  Today we saw the first white cabbage butterfly.  The early broccoli crop was completely clean for the first time ever.  But I’m wondering if the new pest on the block, GMO corn with it’s built-in BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), is the reason.  There is an extreme lack of butterflies of all kinds.  Only one Monarch seen so far.  And the other big, colorful flutterbies – the swallowtails, fritillaries, and admirals – are few and far between.  Only the tiny and hard to spot members of the lepidoptera clan are making an appearance so far.  The task of handpicking a few “broccoli sausages” is a negligible price to pay for the delight of the winged, floral ballet.  Too bad big ag doesn’t share our appreciation for diversity.  That’s what really bugs us.

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