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Our Lives with Insects

This may seem like a curious heading; what does your life with insects have to do with mine?

Aha! Everything. Without them we’d have no food, which means we are all connected or interconnected.

Once, at the end of an extremely rainy spring, I toured my garden in Los Angeles. The earth between the flagstones was spongy and delicate so I kept on the path. I could see my bare apple tree from a distance and stared in horror, as if it were a Halloween party decoration come to life. My apple tree was covered in a white web of webby webs and I fled thinking I’d have a good look another day.

Maybe two weeks later; the skies were still grey but it had not rained again, and I dared to venture straight to the pathway that led to my beloved apple tree. The web was still scarily glistening in full view. Disappointed, I made my way over the now solidified DG for a close-up. More horror awaited. In addition to the white woolly webby webs there were inky, spiky, tiny alligators with red dots crawling frenetically over the branches. I fled, thinking, ‘Help! I think I need to go to a nursery!’

Two weeks later! Finally, dreading the whole experience, I gathered a plastic bag and cutters for a sample to take to the nursery. I trudged my pathway to the tree. The first glimpse was of tiny, shiny, happy leaves glittering in the sunlight.

Next I spied small, shy, white/pink tinged petals on perfectly perky buds peeking around the leaves. I blinked.

‘Where is the white woolly web and where are my ‘land crocodiles’?

What happened????????

For those of you who know, and, for the record, until then, I clearly did not know; I had witnessed the life cycle of a ladybug hard at work.

It goes like this: Momma ladybug flies around looking for a place to lay her eggs, checking the land for two criteria: food and water. In this case she spied the food;:white Woolly Apple Aphids clinging to the dormant branches, waiting for the days to get longer and for leaves to sprout so they could suck the fresh leaf juices and multiply. Momma also noted the rainwater gathered on leaves, in crevices and rocks. Having checked both boxes, she laid her eggs on the underside of leaves and 2-10 days later, larvae (crocodile monsters) hatched with voracious appetites and an abundant food supply in the waiting. Clever Momma.

The Woolly Apple Aphids think that by spinning their web from their ’chimneys’ situated at the back end of their bodies (kind of butt-holes), they will hide themselves from predators.

It must deter some bugs but, in this case, it did not work. My heroic larvae’ crocodile conquerors, feasted and molted 4 times before becoming pupae and, on the way, cleaned and gleaned every aphid on that tree.

It was the best apple harvest to this date.

You may wonder if ladybugs pollenate the flowers to create apples. The answer is yes, they do. They enjoy nectar as a snack in addition to aphids, and transfer pollen at the same time, accidental pollinators so to speak.

I think my story speaks volumes but of course I have more to say!

One aspect I’d like to address is that we use the term pests and beneficials to describe the action of insects in the garden, and that is totally incorrect, though I have no choice and use them too.

Without pests, the beneficials don’t come. Yes, a woolly apple aphid is definitely a pest, but thanks to my ladybugs, who stayed for the summer, my garden thrived in excellent health.

A slug or snail in a vegetable garden is definitely a pest. It eats leaves of lettuce, chard, spinach, flower petals and new seedlings that disappear overnight. Pestiferous indeed…in a vegetable garden but they provide food for many critters, large and small, including centipedes and ground beetles. Add them to your compost and you can rely on them to munch away at dead material of leaves, branches and maybe old veggies on the journey to becoming compost. That makes them beneficial in compost. See what I mean?

I wish someone would come up with a better description

Truly, each insect plays a vital role in creating healthy food and a healthy eco system, and understanding this has been a gradual dawning on me. Once, at the end of a school year, a teacher wrote to me and paid me the highest compliment.

‘You have made my class aware of what lives beneath the soil, and they tread more lightly.’

There’s a whole world beneath the soil; among the roots and minerals, rocks and stones are good guy fungi, bacteria, nematodes and more (all microscopic) earthworms, beetles, grub, mites….each with their own place, job, function, all to create a balance in healthy soil to create healthy vegetables, that make healthy animals and finally healthy humans, then back to healthy soil.

A plant captures sunlight using chlorophyl and the process of photosynthesis. Why?

Yes, to make food, but that’s incidental. Actually, it’s to ensure its survival.

The plant sends captured sunlight and chemicals from photosynthesis as an exude or slime into the soil, calling to itself minerals it needs.

Sound far-fetched?

The slime has just the ingredients fungi need to thrive. The fungi eat the slime, a nematode eats the fungi but leaving behind a mineral or minerals that were sequestered in the fungi, and the roots are able to absorb that nutrient. When it comes to flowering time, a different formula is sent out into the soil to attract different nutrients and the same for seeds. Interestingly, when you feed a plant fertilizer -organic or inorganic, the plant stops doing the work as an agent is doing it for them.

Earthworms are a visible benefactor to the soil. They offer the plants nutrients in an absorbable form known as the strongest natural fertilizer or black gold. Darwin, in his later years, wrote a book on earthworms, he called them ‘nature’s plows’ arguing that they very effectively turn and nutrify the earth as they eat soil and decaying matter, create tunnels and add oxygen into the soil. Many people thought he had lost it. Of course we know now he proved them wrong.

One day, I had an epiphany, probably late in the game, but one that shifted my understanding of how everything is connected: the entire world beneath the soil gets its energy indirectly from the sun. In fact everything, in one form or another, gets its energy from the sun. That’s what keeps us motile.

Lastly, moving above the soil line now, a few words on bees. There are over 4000 native bee species in the USA. There has been a decline in native bees; scientists do not have the data, but it is thought less than that of ‘the colony bee collapse disorder’. All bees are susceptible to neonicotinoids, essentially pesticides, but since the native bees are mostly solitary and make their homes in soil, wood, embankments, snail shells, inside of plant stems etc, they have not had ‘hives’ to infect. And though they don’t store honey they are brilliant pollinators, 2-3 times better than a honey bee.

My conclusion:

Invite all insects in, create habitats in which insects can thrive in balance.

Plant annual seeds and wildflowers, seedlings and flowering perennials, trees and wild grasses. Add a water source, a bowl, a bath for insects to crawl in and out of, even in tiny spaces. Every bit helps to heal the earth.

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