Garden Allies, Up Close & Personal

By Ramona Krucker, Gardener

Have bugs ever eaten your flowers or chewed on your leafy greens? Then you know how how hard these little creatures can make a gardener’s life. At a recent event at Marin Art and Garden Center, local author and entomologist Frédérique Lavoipierre  shared insight and fun hands-on approaches to learning about insects in the garden.

When we think about bugs, we usually want to know if it’s a pest or a beneficial insect, an enemy or a friend. But Ms Lavoipierre, who prefers being called The Bug Lady over The Insect Woman, encouraged her audience to set this dichotomy aside and welcome all creatures to the garden, reminding us that all insects, like all plants, are part of the food web. Indeed, most birds, adults as well as babies, rely on arthropods (insects, crustaceans, arachnids, and myriapods) for food. And then there are those insects that are pollinators as well as plant feeders. One example is the common leafcutter bees, of which more than 60 species occur in California.

Frédérique Lavoipierre 

When it comes to feeding our pollinator allies, it’s important to plant a wide variety of plant species that attract pollinators and to provide year-round blooms. To enhance functional biodiversity, Ms Lavoipierre encourages us to consider, what role is each of my plant species playing in the garden? Planting patches of each species rather than isolated flowers here and there will help the bees and butterflies conserve energy while feeding. 

Speaking of butterflies, word seems to have gotten around that Monarch (Danaus plexippus) larvae, unlike their adult selves, are specific in their food requirement: native milkweed leaves. As George Carlin said, butterflies get all the attention, but it’s the caterpillars that do all the work. If you think caterpillars are cool, you (and your kids) should see them in one of Ms Lavoipierre’s portable magnifier boxes. I was especially enchanted with the close-up of the Pipeline Swallowtail (Battus philenor) caterpillar with its leathery black skin and bright reddish orange tubercles, happily chewing on a leaf from our Dutchman’s Pipevine (Aristolochia californica).

Your author, still smiling!

My attempt at catching a bug with one of the nets provided by Ms Lavoipierre did not prove successful. All I caught were weed seeds. It’s harder than it looks to swing that net. Once you do catch a bug or other flying insect, it’s important to lift the tip of the net and close the net at the bottom, as most insects fly upward. The coolest of Ms Lavoipierre’s insect catching gadgets was the handheld bug vacuum. As the bugs are sucked up, they’re transported directly to a detachable observation chamber, to be viewed through the magnifying lid. 

If you’re not into collecting dead specimens, but would like the opportunity to observe your bee or wasp or beetle in detail, you can use Ms Lavoipierre’s 

chilling method. Place the specimen in a plastic vial and leave it on ice in a cooler for fifteen minutes. The insect will become temporarily immobilized. Once you’re done viewing it, just release it where you caught it.

Finally, a note on true bugs: They are distinguished from beetles by their piercing-sucking mouthpart, a feature they share with aphids, leafhoppers, and some flies. The mouthparts are formed into a tubular beak which is stabbed into the food (plant), and juices are sucked up by means of a pumping action. Given that pesticides sprayed on the outside of a plant do not affect piercing-sucking insects, they are the reason systemic pesticides were invented. For great information on biological insect control, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and much more, check out Frédérique Lavoipierre’s new book, Garden Allies.

More to explore