Thursday, May 19, 2011


                                        let them go—the
                                        truthful liars and
                                        the false fair friends
                                        and the boths and
                                        neithers—you must let them go they
                                        were born
                                                         to go

            The title of today’s post comes from my most favoritest poem in the whole world, by e.e. cummings. (Read it in its entirety at the end of the post, in case you’re in search of a new most favoritest poem for yourself.)

            Back in the garden, we’re finishing up our tour of a tiny neighborhood of the insect kingdom. I hope those of you raised to believe a sentence beginning “All insects…” must end “…should be killed” have moderated your views. The truth is, the vast majority of bugs and bug-like creatures falls into the “boths” and “neithers” categories. I’ve singled out seven examples to illuminate the point.

Find the hornworm on this tomato plant
(If you click on the picture,
I've drawn a cirlcle around him)
            In “Bugs: The Good” (May 11), we talked about tobacco hornworms, and how their good points outweigh their bad ones. Yes, they chew on your tomatoes—and your tobacco plants, if you’re growing any—and they’re devilishly difficult to spot among the foliage until no leaves are left. Still, they incubate the eggs of parasitic wasps and tachinid flies. They also happen to be the larvae of Carolina sphinx moths, an important nighttime pollinator. I enjoy watching the adults fluttering around open moonflowers on summer evenings as I go out to make the last weather observation of the day. So hornworms are bad and good, with the foliage destroying balanced out by their hatchery and adult-stage pollination services.
Carolina sphinx moth
sipping from a moonflower

Praying mantis,
a.k.a. preying mantis


                        Sold as beneficials by purveyors of biologicals, praying mantises are not an unalloyed force for good in the garden. As voracious and opportunistic feeders, they’d just as soon slurp down a lacewing or butterfly as a Japanese beetle or pickleworm. Nevertheless, the law of averages dictates the bad guys get eaten as often as the good. A cautionary tale about introducing baby mantises to your garden: a friend of ours, whose torolusa juniper’s life was being sucked away by red spider mites, released both ladybugs and mantises on the shrub. A few days later, no evidence remained of either species, although the spider mites seemed in fine health and vigor. We surmised the mantises ate the ladybugs, and then departed the premises. The juniper didn’t survive. (By the way, check out the “The Deadly Mantis” post on the Quantum Biologist’s website: the camouflage mantids effect is amazing. Plus there’s a video of a pair fighting, which I didn’t watch. Apparently the Shaolin monks developed a kung-fu discipline based on their observation of praying mantises.)

The predacious velvet mite,
which sounds sexy
 unless you're a carrion beetle
(photo by Jim Kalisch,
colleague of Tom Perring)

Yellow predacious mite
(Photo by Tom Perring,
U. of Nebraska Lincoln,
Entomology Dept.)


            Speaking of mites, they work both sides of the street too. The ones wearing metaphoric white hats are called predacious mites. Not only will they attack other species, they go after their own kind as well. The yellow fellow shown here is a famous nemesis of two-spotted mites. The red guy is the soft-sounding velvet mite. They feed on creatures like carrion beetles, which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one of. Regardless, it’s nice to think that while red spider mites are decimating your ivy and roses, their relatives fight on the side of righteousness. Or whatever.  
"Inchworm, inchworm,
Measuring the marigolds,
Seems to me you'd stop and see
How beautiful they are."

I wasn't kidding when I called
the little green guys


            Another interesting case of a “both” is the inchworm. Famous as the marigold-measuring subject of the song sung by Danny Kaye in the movie “Hans Christian Andersen,” inchworms aren’t worms at all, but caterpillars. Their peculiar mode of locomotion comes from having three pairs of legs in the forequarter, another two or three pairs at the hindquarter, and no legs at all in between. Another source of inchworm renown is that they spin silk filaments by which they launch themselves into the air to escape predation, a feat no other caterpillar has yet perfected. For those whose boredom thresholds are very high (I’m naming no names here), the itty-bitty green guys afford hours of amusement as they flail about for something in need of measuring to catch hold of. While browsing for images on the ‘Net, however, I learned that tent caterpillars are also a more social species of inchworm, and pool their silk-spinning abilities to make their signature houses. The solitary little green guys also eat foliage, but don’t cause any significant damage that I know of. It’s kind of like watching Charlie Sheen on “Two-and-a-Half Men”: you’re happier if you separate the detestable but charming character from the detestable and self-destructive person.

The deceptively ordinary-looking
brown recluse spider
            I looked up brown recluse spiders to clarify in my mind what they look like. They look like this:
Turns out a tenuous case can be made for including these inflictors of necrotizing bites in the “boths” category. If you get past that they prefer to live in human habitations, hunt only at night when we can’t see them, and that their venom is incredibly toxic, you can point out that their preferred prey is cockroaches.

Your basic cricket

            Crickets occupy a niche in neither-world. Renowned for their “singing” (the pleasant, summery sound made by wing rubbing against wing), they eat mostly decayed plants and fungi. Although the mole species can devastate lawns by stuffing themselves on grass roots, that’s only a problem if you’re fixated on the artificial, high-human-input concept of manicured green perfection. The Chinese have made pets of crickets for millennia, keeping them in tiny cages and breeding for singing skill. Like that’s possible: how do you breed for wing-rubbing behavior? Although I guess that’s mostly what eugenics is about. Anyway. Crickets don’t hurt anything people value, and don’t go out of their way to help us out. There it is in a nutshell—neither. Except, of course, for Jiminy Cricket, who is a famous philosopher and apparently has no wings at all.

Possibly the world's best-known cricket
Check out the front legson Mr. Mole Cricket--
watch out lawn!



            I don't know what this space is all about. It's not there in the editing place.

           Lastly, let’s look at the not-a-bug-at-all pillbug, a.k.a. roly-poly, sowbug, or woodlouse. Ubiquitous wherever it’s damp, the many-legged armored crawlers are actually terrestrial crustaceans, of the family Malacostraca, more closely related to lobsters than to June-bugs. Their armored-plate exoskeletons call to mind armadillos: in fact, the scientific name of true pillbugs, the ones who roll up into tight balls when frightened, is Armadillidiidae. None of these guys pose any threat to our gardens, our structures or our persons. They subsist on decaying vegetation, dead insects, fallen leaves and the occasional tender young rootlet. If they find their way inside your house, they’ll be dead in a day from lack of moisture (unless you have a leak somewhere). Terrestrial they may be, but memories of the ocean live on in these moisture lovers.
 A scared pillbug
A representative Malacostraca


            So there it is: a survey of the good, the bad, and the boths and neithers of garden insects. The moral of the story? Unless you know for sure they’re up to no good, leave the bugs you encounter in the garden alone. You wouldn’t want the death of a friend on your conscience, would you?


            Well, the Rapture is scheduled for Saturday. I’ll still be here for the next post, among all those disappointed muscular Christians. Hope you will be too.

            Thanks for dropping by, especially if it’s for the last time.


            Here’s the whole e.e. cummings poem, kind of appropriate for Rapture Eve.

                    let it go—the
                    smashed word broken
                    open vow or
                    the oath cracked length
                    wise—let it go it
                    was sworn
                                       to go

                    let them go—the
                    truthful liars and
                    the false fair friends
                    and the boths and
                    neithers—you must let them go they
                    were born
                                     to go

                    let all go—the
                    big small middling
                    tall bigger really
                    the biggest and all
                    things—let all go
                            so comes love