Deb Babcock: Creepy, crawly and worth keeping around

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

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Honeybees are an example of insects that can be either beneficial or pesty. Honeybees pollinate garden plants, but can become pests when they nest in the walls of homes.

Like many gardeners, I've had to work hard to get over my fear and dislike of bugs. Even though many of them might creep us out, we need to recognize that they serve a beneficial purpose - for the most part. Even annoying mosquitoes provide food for frogs and other animals that is so necessary for ecological balance.

Garden pests already suffer tremendous mortality without our added intervention. According to Whitney Cranshaw, author of "Garden Insects of North America," one of the best books about gardening, a mated female insect typically lays 100 eggs. On average, 98 of these usually fail to reach adulthood. Most die from starvation, severe weather or end up as breakfast for some other animal.

Many garden insects are beneficial. They break down dying plant materials into small pieces so they decay quicker and put nutrients into the soil. Some insects eat other insects that could overrun your garden. For instance, spiders, earwigs and lady beetles (ladybugs) find aphids and mites especially delectable. Kill these good bugs, and the bad bugs will take over. Some species of wasps and flies are insect parasites that develop by growing within a host insect, often caterpillars and wood-boring beetles, which soon die.

Cranshaw says what we choose to call a pest varies with the situation. Honeybees are more than welcome while pollinating our plants, but when they nest in the wall of our home, they become a pest. Earwigs are disgusting little bugs, but when they are not nesting in a flower bud or vegetable leaf, they are probably eating aphids, caterpillars and other pests.

But let's face it - some bugs are just plain nuisances. Boxelder bugs, crickets and cluster flies are home invaders that can be real problems. Preventive practices such as sealing your exterior openings and reducing the conditions that attract these bugs (light and moisture) can help. Insecticides are another alternative, either by spot treating your points of entry or applying the product where bugs aggregate such as between the walls of your home.

Very often, the treatment you choose, whether a biological control (insect predators) or cultural/mechanical control (pest-resistant plant varieties, sanitation, barriers, traps) or chemical control (insecticides) must be implemented at the appropriate time of year.

Observe and note what happens at different times of the year in your garden. Your experiences will help you address the bug issue before it becomes a problem next time. For instance, adult white pine weevils (a huge problem here in Steamboat) wake up in early April and move to the top of spruce trees to feed and lay eggs. This upper area of the tree should be treated at the time adults are feeding and laying eggs. Pruning (and destruction) of the infested top branch (terminal) while the insects are still present can also contribute to control. But once eggs have hatched and the bugs are airborne, it's futile to attempt any damage control.

Observe the bugs in your garden before taking any action against them. You just might discover that those creepy, crawly things in your garden are your friends.

Deb Babcock is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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