Good Bug, Bad Bug

By Farmer Connor

From an ecologist’s standpoint, each part of an ecosystem serves its purpose and, ideally, ought to be left to fill its niche – as Aldo Leopold put it, “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”. The entomologist, too, will be able to fill you in on all of the details for each of the probable dozens of species living within a few steps of your back door. The farmer and gardener, on the other hand, has long had a different view on insects and the roles they play. Since the days of dusting crops with arsenic, to modern-day RNA rewriting sprays, the general idea has been “the only good bug is a dead bug”. Other than honey bees and writing spiders, this was often my viewpoint as well. I am no stranger to the cringe factor when looking over plants and finding insects, regardless of what they were and assuming they were up to no good. The farmer and gardener are not hard sells on any number of methods promising to drop the hammer on the creepy crawlies that are methodically laying waste to all of their hard work. Often a full season of blood sweat and tears put into the land, only to watch cutworms wriggle under freshly shucked corn, or aphids dining on long-awaited strawberries. 

That being said, we all know that there are good bugs out there – honey bees, garden spiders, butterflies, and even the rolly pollies that are so important for breaking down leaf litter and entertaining kids – but how does the big picture really weigh out? When a broad-spectrum treatment is used, are we sacrificing a few to save the many, or is it the other way around? Many would be surprised to learn that most experts agree that for every one species of detrimental insect, there are another 400 species that act in beneficial roles, with some estimates putting the ratio closer to one pest to 3,000 beneficials. Another interesting fact is that most pest species are not particularly well equipped to defend themselves and are, in nature, typically found in isolation and relatively small numbers due to a wide array of well-equipped predators. A grasshopper, for instance, may be bad news for young plants, but his enemies in a healthy ecosystem might include spiders, wasps, ants, praying mantis, snakes, birds, frogs, bats and those are just a few potential foes. However, many of these natural bug hunters disappear overnight when faced with broad-spectrum pesticides, tilled earth and the simplification of habitat that comes with everyday tasks like mowing and weed eating. Now, having said all of that, I can almost feel eyes rolling with the notion of just letting nature take over, tossing vegetable seeds out and praying that natural selection picks tomatoes and carrots over nutsedge and pigweed (not likely) and that spiders and wasps take care of all of the hornworms and potato beetles. This is not what I’m suggesting and I myself have followed through on similar experiments and they have proven, for the most part, to be miserable failures. However, it also doesn’t make sense to take a sledgehammer to your car for every rattle and whine. Nature really does have a pretty good thing going and has been at it for a while and with a little time and effort spent, we can probably learn to keep more and more pieces intact, while still achieving what we set out to do. “The eye cannot say of the hand, I have no need of thee nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you” suggests that intelligent tinkerers have been paying heed to intuitively important pieces for longer than science has been telling us what they’re for.

My final thoughts? Don’t take an economic loss on your farm, or in your garden for fear of disrupting nature – you already disrupted nature when you cleared land to plant an artificial landscape. What I would suggest though, is to make use of your extension office agents, the public library and the amazing technology that we all carry around in our pockets to learn how the pieces go together and which you can rearrange, or remove altogether with as little time, money and effort spent as possible. You’re still the steward of your land, but who turns away good help when they can get it for the price of a little research and consideration?