Bug buddies

Each of these creatures puts the hurt on one or another of the bugs that bug me, and they’d be happy to be your bug buddies, too.

The jury is still out — perhaps dismissed and sent home? — on companion planting. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t; maybe it works for some folks and not for others. Or maybe believers see results that nonbelievers overlook. But there are other forms of garden companionship that don’t rely on faith and deliver unambiguous results.

Based on the Arab adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I have developed a warm feeling of camaraderie with Apanteles congregatus, Pediobius foveolatus, Cybocephalus sp. nr. nipponicus, the tiny freshwater crustaceans known as copepods, and a ladybug known to friends as Sasajiscymnus tsugae. Each of these creatures puts the hurt on one or another of the bugs that bug me, and they’d be happy to be your bug buddies, too.

Vine-ripened tomatoes are one of the principal reasons humans evolved opposable thumbs — so they could use knives and cutting boards and open jars of mayonnaise (one of the few unmitigated joys of summer). Tomato hornworms therefore rank as nonpareil public enemies, making Apanteles congregatus the best-loved wasp in the world (my world, anyway). Also known as braconid wasps, these native sweethearts lay their eggs on hornworms. Then the wasp larvae eat the worm for lunch. If you spot a hornworm with little white wasp cocoons attached, leave it on your tomato plant: It won’t eat much before it discorporates.

Beans may be less succulent than tomatoes but are far more important to human nutrition, a dietary fact that also holds for Mexican bean beetles. Bean-beetle larvae love beans to death. Pediobius foveolatus is another parasitic wasp, one whose hunger for beanie-beetle babies rivals the beanie babies’ hunger for beans. This species is from way down south and can’t winter hereabouts, so they must be given a green card each year by gardeners who order them from biological-supply firms.

The bathroom scale may not be your friend, but at least it doesn’t suck the life out of you. Scale insects, on the other hand, suck the sap from leaves and stems. To make matters worse, they look a lot like baby toenails with bruises underneath. You really don’t want to know more than that about them, and maybe even that is too much. Euonymus alatus sucks on ornamental euonymus bushes, causing them to lose their leaves. Cybocephalus sp. nr. nipponicus — another tiny beetle from the Pacific Rim, and one that loves to munch on scale — has been successfully laboratory-reared and released. Callooh! Callay! Better yet, Cybocephalus will feed on other species of hard-shell scales, including the elongate hemlock scale. A box of these babies will protect your trees and shrubs, a happy twofer for the bescaled gardener.

For those of us living north of the tropics, mosquitoes used to be simply annoying. Now they spread West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis and — thanks to global warming — some of the heretofore-tropical plagues. Blanketing wide swaths of the aquascape with pesticides might sound like a great idea until you read about rocketing cancer rates, but West Nile is no slouch at party-spoiling either. What to do?

It turns out that a nearly microscopic aquatic crustacean known as a copepod occurs naturally in this region and looks to be useful in controlling mosquitoes breeding in standing water and tire piles. The state of New Jersey is leading the way in experiments with this new biological control, which appears headed for wide use once a commercial breeding program gets rolling.

Finally, the hemlock woolly adelgid, originally from Asia, is killing hemlock trees throughout the eastern U.S. But help is on the way in the form of Sasajiscymnus tsugae, a predatory lady beetle native to Japan that feeds on adelgids. The beetles are still pretty pricey, but they’re being reared and released all over the place (including Old Fort, where Conservation Concepts is taking orders for spring 2007). The cost is $2/beetle, with a minimum of 1,000 beetles suggested to regain control of an afflicted tree stand. E-mail dawnponder@charter.net or phone (828) 221-2142.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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