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