A winter pollinator garden does not buzz with bees; it crawls with earwigs, ants, roly-polys, and other insects.
Turn over a rock, a pot, or a garden sculpture and there they are.
Well, there one was.
An earwig looked up as we lifted a garden sculpture. (Initially identified later as a European earwig, Forficula auricularia, order Dermaptera but it may be another species.)
"Yecch!" you say? Not so fast. Their role in the ecosystem includes eating aphids. They join such aphid eaters as lady beetles (aka ladybugs), soldier beetles, collups beetles, long-legged flies, big-eyed bugs, lacewings, damsel flies, minute pirate bugs and syrphid flies.
European earwigs are invasive. Look at the damage they do to citrus. You've also probably found them in an ear of corn, a nectarine or a pomegranate.
"Although this is the most abundant earwig in California, it was not known to the state until 1923," according to the book, California Insects, co-authored by Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue. "The immatures and adults feed on a wide variety of substances, from flowers and green foliage near the ground to living and dead insects, including aphids."
Earwigs are readily recognizable by their cerci or pincers. They look like nature's forceps or pliers.
Or as the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program says: "The adult earwig is readily identified by a pair of prominent appendages that resemble forceps at the tail end of its body. Used for defense, the forceps are somewhat curved in the male but straighter in the female. Although earwigs can devastate seedling vegetables or annual flowers and often seriously damage maturing soft fruit or corn silks, they also have a beneficial role in the landscape and have been shown to be important predators of aphids."
UC IPM goes on to say: "European earwigs feed on a variety of dead and living organisms, including insects, mites, and growing shoots of plants. They are voracious feeders on soft-bodied insects such as aphids and insect eggs and can exert significant biological control under some circumstances. In yards that are planted to turf and contain mature ornamental plants, damage by earwigs is unlikely to be of concern."
"European earwigs can cause substantial damage to seedling plants and soft fruit as well as to sweet corn. Damaged seedlings may be missing all or parts of their leaves and stem. Leaves on older plants, including fruit trees, have numerous irregular holes or are chewed around the edges. This damage may resemble that caused by caterpillars. Look for webbing, frass (excrement), or pupae that would indicate the presence of caterpillars."
"Earwigs may attack soft fruit such as apricots, strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries but don't harm hard fruit such as apples. On stone fruit, look for shallow gouges or holes that extend deeply into the fruit. On strawberries, distinguish earwig damage from that of snails and slugs by checking for the slime trails snails and slugs leave behind. On corn, earwigs feed on silks and prevent pollination, causing poor kernel development. Earwigs may also seriously damage flowers including zinnias, marigolds, and dahlias. To confirm that earwigs are causing the damage, go out at night with a flashlight to observe the pests in action."
In her newly published book, Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds and Other Animals That Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving, author Frédérique Lavoipierre acknowledges their presence as "ominivores, detritivores and predators." In large numbers, however, they can be pests. "A neighbor uses empty cat-food cans baited with a dab of soy sauce and some cooking oil; they come for the soy sauce and get mired in the oil."
UC IPM points out that bacon grease or fish oil will attract them and vegetable oil will trap them.
- Trap earwigs with rolled newspaper, bamboo tubes, or short pieces of hose. Place these traps on the soil near plants just before dark, and shake accumulated earwigs into a pail of soapy water in the morning.
- Fill a low-sided can with vegetable oil and a drop of bacon grease or fish oil to attract and trap earwigs.
- Daily trapping will reduce earwig populations to tolerable levels.
But back to my sole earwig. What, no image of a bee? No butterfly? No dragonfly? Sorry, it's winter. I must be desperate for insect activity in the winter to stop, look, and photograph an earwig! Plus, nobody I know "takes portraits" of them.
Maybe it's the "yecch" factor as to why we rarely see photographers capturing images of these insects. The old wives' tail of associating earwigs with finding shelter in human ears still lurks. Also, there's that "movement factor": slow-moving photographers vs. fast-moving earwigs. Earwigs don't move at a snail's pace because they are not snails!
Remember George's grandmother in Roald Dahl's children's book, George's Marvellous Medicine? Grandma urges Boy George to eat unwashed celery, complete with earwigs:
"A big fat earwig is very tasty,' Grandma said, licking her lips. 'But you've got to be very quick, my dear, when you put one of those in your mouth. It has a pair of sharp nippers on its back end and if it grabs your tongue with those, it never lets go. So you've got to bite the earwig first, chop chop, before it bites you."
It "bites" you? Pinches!
Spotted: A lady beetle (aka ladybug) feasting on aphids in her winter wonderland.
It dines uninterrupted until it sees the shadow of what could be a predator.
Swoosh! It quickly slips beneath a strawberry leaf and remains there, hidden and silent until the photographer leaves.
Did you know there are some 250 species of lady beetles in California alone? Check out the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website that includes text and images of several of the species, including the California lady beetle, twospotted lady beetle, sevenspotted lady beetle, ninespotted lady beetle and the twenty-spotted lady beetle. Worldwide, there are some 5,000 different species of lady beetles, according to National Geographic.
Not all lady beetles have spots and not all lady beetles are red, as they point out.
Frédérique Lavoipierre, author of the newly published book, Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds and Other Animals That Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving, devotes a chapter on beetles: "Meet the Beetles" and another chapter on "The Voracious Lady Beetles."
Lavoipierre mentions that more than one fifth of all the living species on earth are beetles and that "Beetles (order Coleoptera) share two definitive features. "They have hardened or leathery forewings (eltrya) with membranous flight wings tucked under this protective cover...Secondly, beetles have chewing mouthparts."
"There are those who don't really like insects, but it's hard to find anyone who doesn't have a soft spot for lady beetles (family Coccinellidae)," she writes. "Ladybugs, as they are more familiarly called, appear in legends, songs and children's stories and are a popular decorative motif."
Lavoipierre goes on to explain how beetles and other garden allies play a role in the ecosystem. This informative and educational book definitely "needs a spot" on your bookshelf!
Lady beetles also make arts and crafts fun. if there's a kid in your family who is looking for an art project, access this site at https://gosciencegirls.com/ladybird-paper-plate-craft/. Kids (and adults, too!) can make a 3D lady beetle using a white paper plate, black craft paper, pipe cleaners for legs and antennae, googly eyes, and of course, red, white and black acrylic paint.
Just add aphids.
Everything in your garden has a place, and your place should be a healthy, thriving garden--free of pesticides, says Frédérique Lavoipierre.
Lavoipierre, author of the newly published book, Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds and Other Animals That Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving, writes in the introduction: "Of course, we know the pollinators are our allies, but what about all those other insects? I have a few tips, but first, I generally don't think of bugs as good or bad. Indeed, I have learned to think of them in their ecological roles, as prey and predators, pollinators, decomposers and so on."
Everything in nature is connected, she recently told Pacific Coast Entomological Society (PCES) in a Zoom meeting. She quoted John Muir: "When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world."
Basically, if you rid your garden of insects, what will the birds eat? If you rid your garden of aphids, no lady beetles or soldier beetles for you! If you rid your garden of caterpillars, no more butterflies fluttering around for you to admire and photograph. Everything in nature is connected.
Lavoipierre's engaging and educational book, published by Timber Press and illustrated with intricate pen-and-ink drawings by Craig Latker, should be required reading for those interested in planting a pollinator garden or those who want to learn more about the critters--"above, under, around and within"--that visit or live there.
"So I grew up with a dad who loved all things entomological," Frédérique said. Her father's last graduate student was Bob Kimsey, now a longtime forensic entomologist on the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty.
Frédérique went on to study at Sonoma State University; obtain her master's degree in biology, with an emphasis on ecological principles of sustainable landscapes; become the founding director of the Sonoma State University Sustainable Landscape Professional Certificate Program; and serve as the director of education at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden.
Today she is a consultant and serves on the editorial advisory group for the American Public Gardens Association.
And today, as the author of Garden Allies and a staunch supporter of healthy, thriving gardens--"gardens matter"--she's eager to spread the word about her love of gardens; why you should love them, too; and why you should appreciate the organisms that live "above, under, around and within." She recently set up a Facebook site at https://www.facebook.com/Garden.Allies to interact with her readers and garden enthusiasts.
"I wrote Garden Allies as a series for Pacific Horticulture Magazine for ten years," Lavoipierre' recalled. "It's been a terrific COVID project!"
Her husband titled the book. In her introduction, she writes: "Long ago when I first began writing about natural enemies of herbivorous insects, my husband said to me, 'Why don't you call them garden allies instead?'"
"My book is written for readers throughout North America, north of Mexico and is based on conservation biological control," she told PCES.
"I'm a big fan of native plants," Lavoipierre acknowledged. "They support the habitat more. I'm not a purist; I'm a gardener...If you like to grow hydrangeas in in your garden that remind you of your grandmother, you should."
In her talk, she showed images of bees, beetles, butterflies, bats, syrphid flies, dragonflies, lacewings, spiders, praying mantids, birds, earthworms, centipedes, millipedes, and more. "Everything is food for something else."
"And it all starts with the soil. It all begins there, with the soil...You'll have a rich environment if you have healthy soil." In discussing earthworms aerating the soil and what a rototiller can do to disrupt life, she added: "I'm an advocate of no tilling."
Lavoipierre said she visits public gardens at every opportunity. "I look at the flowers, what's visiting them, what's eating what..."
Her tips include: remove your lawn and plant a pollinator garden; plant natives as much as possible; don't use pesticides; install a bat box; join INaturalist; become a citizen scientist and participate in groups such as Bumble Bee Watch; and turn off the lights at night ("it's bad for a lot of insects--check out darksky.org").
And just enjoy your garden, she told PCES. "You don't have to know what everything is to live with it."
Her takeaway message, given to Bug Squad: "Gardens, large and small, make a difference. Reducing (or even eliminating!) pesticides protects us all--the bees and other pollinators, but also other essential organisms such as predators, parasitoids, and pathogens that attack herbivorous insects and keep them in check; and decomposers and soil organisms that keep our gardens thriving. And yes, herbivorous insects are essential--important food for birds and many other animals. Healthy garden food webs keep our watersheds and larger environment safe from pollution."