Growing up in Florida can make you accustomed to a plethora of unpleasantries. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of existing upon this peninsula, you probably understand my affliction– sweltering heat, unpredictable weather, a seemingly permanent layer of sweat and what I consider the worst of the worst, an endless supply of mosquitos. I mean really, Florida is after all nothing but a glorified swampland. Alright, I’m being a bit harsh towards my beloved home state… to be honest, it isn’t all bad. Sure there are some negatives, but you can’t beat kayaking down a river lined with water cypress, nor can you do without the waters of those blue-green beaches in the gulf and the harmonic hum of cicadas in the heat of a summer night. So despite being a walking, talking buffet for the mosquitos (I’m pretty convinced they prefer my blood more than the average human), I’m starting to find there are some benefits to Florida as well as its bugs. As a matter of fact, since starting my garden, I’ve begun to realise that amongst all of the “bad” bugs, there is an entire population of beneficial ones.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous entry, possibly one of my favvvorite parts of having a garden is the excuse I now have to play in a giant pile of dirt. I enjoy gardening the most when I’m able to crawl around from plant to plant only to inspect each leaf and living creature. I thoroughly enjoy these moments of bonding that I’ve created with my plants and their inhabitants. My garden, since the very beginning, has never failed in providing me with an opportunity to learn and I feel that as a gardener it’s extremely beneficial to be inquisitive. So, soon after transplant day I began to investigate each and every insect I encountered. After all, bugs can truly make or break a garden, and I wanted to know exactly what I was encountering so that I could determine its purpose.
First, I researched the ants. Incase you weren’t aware, aside from being a swamp, Florida is also one giant ant pile. Here we have the pleasure of living amongst black ants, red ants, army, and carpenter… just to name a few. Really, they’re everywhere. So naturally, seeing them in and around my garden wasn’t alarming to me at first because I was so very used to their presence. However, when I began seeing them marching all over my precious plants, I started to wonder. After some extensive research, I’ve come to find a variety of opinions– some good, some bad, but really, more benefits than the lack thereof. Many gardeners believe ants help aerate the soil with their tunneling and even assist in cross pollination as they enjoy moving from flower to flower. However, ants also enjoy a sweet secretion from aphids and will actually farm them, allowing them to suck your plants dry while defending them from predators. Still, if you see ants crawling all over your plants, instead of suspecting the latter, be sure to take a closer look. For example, I’ve become accustomed to an endless swarm of ants on my bean bearing plants. At first, I was sure they were farming aphids and began inspecting every last crevice. Yet I was stumped when I discovered my plants were aphid-free. I immediately went back to the house to investigate. Just like that, I learned about the nectaries plants possess, how ants really crave this nectar, and how their feeding on it may actually aid in opening buds while remaining entirely harmless to my plants. With this knowledge, I chose to develop a sort of symbiotic relationship with the ants and generally let them be, aside from routinely checking for aphid farms.
Aside from the common ant, I’ve recently discovered a beneficial bug I hadn’t actually seen or heard of before starting my garden. I stumbled upon it one morning while I was watering one of my bulbine succulents. At first, seeing this giant, alien looking bug clumsy hanging onto one of my plant’s flowers startled me. I immediately grabbed my phone and went in for a shot. As I moved my hand closer, this bug turned to face me and brought its front two legs(?) into the air as if to say, “bring it on!”. From what I’ve experienced, brave bugs tend to be dangerous bugs, so I took my shot and let it be.
After I finished up in the garden, I looked the bug up by description and found out it was in fact an assassin bug of the wheel variety. Luckily, I was right in not messing with this guy, as their bite is said to be worse than the sting of a bee. Yet, that is about the only bad thing this bug is known for. In fact, an assassin bug is possibly one of the most helpful bugs you could find in your garden! These predators seek out and devour just about every single bug you would want to be rid of from hornworms and caterpillars to aphids and a wide variety of beetles. About a week after encountering this new garden buddy, I soon recognized a couple of assassin nymphs living in my cucumber plants. Needless to say, the bugs I once had problems with on these plants have all but vanished. One of the nymphs seems to have moved on, but three weeks in and I think the other is here to stay. I’ve actually grown quite fond of it, and have affectionately named it Spike.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always all good in the garden. Honestly, at least from my experience, when it comes to bugs it can often be more bad than good. Aside from the occasional pack o’ aphids, one variety of bug I continuously come into contact with are the dreaded “stink bugs”. Usually I will find these guys hanging around my bean plants as they seem to enjoy munching on the foliage. For a while, I thought these guys were allll bad. Any time I came across one, I would flick it onto its fumbling ass, watch it flail like an overturned turtle as I carefully selected two pieces of mulch to forcefully squish it between (these suckers are hard to squish!). It was only until recently that I discovered there is in fact a good variety of stink bug, known as the spined soldier bug, that actually preys on bad bug larvae and aphids…oops. Now, the green guys are all definitely bad from what I’ve read, but if you encounter a brown one, take a closer look. The good guys usually possess distinguished spikey shoulders and commonly a black vertical stripe on the tip of its wings when closed.
Another bug I’ve become familiar with is one that I consider exceptionally destructive and causes me to go under active search and destroy mode whenever I’m out in the garden. The bug I speak of is none other than the tomato hornworm. It’s the caterpillar of the five-spotted hawk moth and an addict of the leaves adorning your precious tomato plants. Called the tomato hornworm due to the unicorn-like red horn they display on one end, these guys can get up to 3 inches long, giving them the ability to cause some major problems to your plants.
Generally I tend to catch these nefarious scoundrels before they are more than an inch long. Unfortunately, these cretins are rather illusive, so I get the occasional biggun every now and again, which I must reluctantly squish. I honestly wish they weren’t so destructive, because I find them equally as beautiful…
Florida is a state that certainly does not fall short in the insect category. There are so many bugs, good and bad, that it would be near impossible to give mention to them all. Within my blog, I will attempt to include as many as I can along with any information I find useful to my gardening. Aside from the more obvious bugs such as the wasps and dragonflies that devour the larvae of pesky moths, or the bees and butterflies that generously pollinate my flowering veggies, the ones I included above seemed worthy of some recognition. Some of these bugs surprised me with the their particular benefits, and some with their lack thereof. All in all, one important lesson I’ve learned from my garden is that a lot of the time bugs aren’t solely an enemy.