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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.

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

Thomas Christopher
on August 1, 2016 at 3:58 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Science Says.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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