Gardening on the Planet, Science Says

Bug Hunting

A couple of weeks ago I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Daniel Duran of Drexel University. He was making the case for gardeners to take a more positive attitude toward the insects in their gardens.   He emphasized that a very small percentage (less than 3 percent, on average) of the insects found in the typical North American garden actually feed on the plants there; the rest are there either there to feed on other insects, as pollinators, or otherwise benign from a horticultural perspective.

Enlightened gardeners have, for a long time distinguished between “bad bugs” and “good bugs”; i.e. those insect pests that attack garden plants (the bad bugs) and those that attack the pests. Dr. Duran, by celebrating the beauty of the insects he finds in his field work, made an implicit case for a different attitude. Regard insects as another kind of garden wildlife, and your plot becomes instantly richer, with far greater diversity and interest. After all, if we can connect with nature through bird watching, why not through insect watching as well?

I have a friend who has done just that. He’s a physics professor at Wesleyan University and he gardens a quarter of an acre in Middletown, in a densely built part of town not far from the University. His plot is insect friendly in that he has planted it with many native perennials and shrubs, and it is adjacent to a small (19 acre) nature preserve. Otherwise, however, it is a fairly typical residential property with lawn and vegetable garden. Five years ago, my friend set himself a project: he would go outside with his camera and a macro lens every day and endeavor to find a new kind of insect.

What he has accomplished is impressive. Over the years he has collected photographs of close to 500 different types of insects, some 220 of which he has succeeded in identifying with handbooks and keys. Those that remain unidentified mostly reflect my friend’s busy schedule: it takes an hour or so to track down the identity of any given specimen, and he lacks the hundreds of hours of free time he would need to stay abreast of his garden’s insect diversity. Indeed, based on his observations, he suspects that there are a thousand or more species of insects inhabiting his garden at any given time.

This backyard photographic safari has not only exposed my friend to a rich variety of insect forms, it has also provided many insights into how the ecology of his garden functions. The wool carder bee pictured below, for example, is a native pollinator; the females also harvest the woolly hairs from plants such lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) and take them home to line their nests. The males guard a patch of flowers, chasing away other bees but allowing access to female wool carders if they will mate.

wool carder bee

The most serious bird watcher I know says that, in any given year, he may spot two dozen bird species on his three-acre property. Compare that to the richness of what my friend the physics professor has found.

Posted by on August 1, 2016 at 3:58 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Science Says.
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12 responses to “Bug Hunting”

  1. Vero says:

    Thanks for this post Thomas! I think we don’t talk sufficiently about the usefulness of insects. I would I liked to see more pictures too :)

  2. MB Martin says:

    I’m an amateur naturalist and since the arrival of the iPhone with its excellent camera I’ve collected hundreds of insect pictures from wherever I am, mostly at work. I’m the head grower for a large commercial greenhouse. We produce thousands of annuals yearly. I combine biological controls and biorational chemicals to produce the INSECT FREE plants the public demands. Neonicitoids are not EASY, nothing is EASY when you are trying to produce 50,000 aphid free hanging baskets at one time. I applaud your attempt to enlighten people to the beauty of insects and spiders! Until people understand the ecology of nature and accept that an insect free world is neither possible nor desirable my job will continue to be challenging!!!

  3. Great post, Thomas. Insects are a huge part of the life of a garden.

  4. I enjoyed the post, and was left wanting to see more photos. I love seeing insects in the yard, too, but must not see all of them, since I’m not aware of that many kinds.

    I was tickled when my brother texted me a photo of a plant with aphids on it the other day, asking what they are and what to do. I told him what they are, and said they are food for other insects. He said he’d leave them alone, then.

  5. I really started observing insects in my garden about 10 years ago, and I find I get hours and hours of pleasure from finding different insects, photographing them, identifying the ones I can, and learning all I’m able about each one. I was astounded to realize, for example, what great predators wasps were on many garden “pests” like caterpillars, June bugs and grasshoppers. I was also excited to realize that most wasps build solitary nests and are not aggressive; only the social wasps are seriously aggressive, and then it’s usually only to defend their nest.

    I love the idea of going outside with my camera and trying to find a new insect species each day to photograph and learn about. What a great project!

  6. Diana says:

    Wow. What an inspiration.

    Seven years ago when I moved into my current house the yard was a vast wasteland. I’ve put in pollinator friendly plants, don’t use ANY pesticides or herbicides and watch the wasteland become a breeding ground for all kinds of insects. I may have to copy The Physicists and start taking photos and keep a “yard list” of insects (and spiders and other critters) found in my yard.

  7. Tom Christopher says:

    Neonicotinoids are a serious problem. Because they kill virtually anything that attacks a plant, they have become the default treatment for many landscapers as well as farmers. It’s easier to apply a neonicotinoid than figure out what insect is causing the damage (if it is) and then applying some less toxic product at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. Systemic insecticides are easy, but they make all parts of the plant, including the pollen, toxic. Maryland is to be congratulated on becoming a leader in banning neonicotinoids.

  8. marcia says:

    Even though our Republican governor acted cowardly, Maryland became the
    First State to Ban Neonicotinoids.

    Larry Hogan informed lawmakers May 27 that he had invoked a provision in the state constitution that allows legislation to become law without being signed unless the governor vetoes it within 30 days, which he has declined to do.

    OK. So he gets away without having his signature appear on the bill. At least he did the right thing.

    –The world’s most widely used insecticide is an inadvertent contraceptive for bees, cutting live sperm in males by almost 40%, according to research. The study also showed the neonicotinoid pesticides cut the lifespan of the drones by a third.–

  9. A book would be great. Watch out for zika!

  10. Lizabeth says:

    Has your professor friend considered doing a book with his photos?

  11. […] Bug Hunting originally appeared on Garden Rant on August 1, 2016. […]