They're curious little critters.
When solider beetles (family Cantharidae) go on patrol in your garden, don't kill them. They're not being deployed to harm you.
They're the good guys. They eat aphids and other soft-bodied insects.
Sometimes called "leatherwings"--they look like the insect equivalent to the British soldiers in the American Revolution soldiers--soldier beetles compete with lady beetles (aka ladybugs), lacewings, damsel bugs, long-legged flies and other insects for aphids. Larvae of lady beetles and syrphid flies (aka flower flies and hover flies) also feast on aphids.
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) provides a good description of the soldier beetle:
"Adult soldier beetles are elongate and usually dark brown to black with orange, red, or yellow. The head is commonly bent downward. The antennae are 11-segmented, threadlike, and commonly held forward of the body. The pronotum is usually wider than the head and wider than long. The wing covers are smooth to velvety appearing and soft and flexible, giving rise to the common name leatherwings. Adults range from 1/16 to 1-1/8 inches (1.5 to 28 mm) long, varying by species....About 160 species of soldier beetles in 11 genera occur in California. Common genera include Cantharis, Chauliognathus, and Podabrus."
Adults are active during the day and usually observed on flowers or leaves infested with aphids or other honeydew-excreting insects," UC IPM says. "When disturbed, adults may withdraw their legs and drop to the ground as if dead. Adults' blackish and red coloration alerts vertebrate predators that cantharid beetles are distasteful; adults, larvae, and pupae can excrete noxious, defensive chemicals from specialized abdominal glands."
None that visited our garden last weekend dropped to the ground. We didn't disturb them, either (we were using a 200mm macro lens).
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."
The Red Coats are coming. The Red Coats are coming.
No, not an army of soldiers. Soldier beetles.
These insects (family Cantharida) resemble the uniforms of the British soldiers of the American Revolution, which is apparently how their name originated. They're also called "leatherwings" in reference to their leatherylike wing covers.
Soldier beetles are beneficial insects; they're the good guys and gals in the garden. The adults eat scores of aphids. In addition, they are pollinators. So, don't even think of killing soldier beetles. Enlist them in your garden to feast on aphids.
"The adults are long and narrow," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM), which labels them as natural enemies of garden pests. "Common species are often about 1/2 inch (13 mm) long with a red, orange or yellow head and abdomen and black, gray or brown soft wing covers. Adults are often observed feeding on aphids or on pollen or nectar on flowering shrubs and trees. Metamorphosis is complete. Larvae are dark, elongate, and flattened. They feed under bark or in soil or litter, primarily on eggs and larvae of beetles, butterflies, moths, and other insects. There are over 100 species of soldier beetles in California."
If you want to know identify some of the natural enemies of garden pests, you can download UC IPM's educational poster, "Meet the Beneficials: Natural Enemies of Gardens" here.
The poster illustrates some of the beneficial insects, mites and spiders that prey on garden pests:
- Convergent lady beetle
(adult, larva, eggs)
- Green lacewing
(adult, larva, eggs)
- Predaceous ground beetle
- Assassin bug
- Pirate bug
- Damsel bug
- Soldier beetle
- Syrphid fly
- Sixspotted thrips
- Western predatory mites
- Predatory wasps
- Praying mantids
- Examples of parasites (including a typical life cycle)
These soldier beetles may even know how to pull rank.
"You can never be too rich, too young, too blonde or too thin," a quote often attributed to Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.
Well, you can never have too many ladybugs, aka lady beetles, in your garden.
These colorful beetles devour aphids and other soft-bodied insects. It's a war of the predators and their prey.
Fortunately, when there are scores of aphids sucking the very lifeblood out of your plants, you're likely to see both ladybugs AND soldier beetles. Both like to dine on aphids.
Soon the ladybugs and soldier beetles do what comes naturally. (Unfortunately, so do the aphids.)
More ladybugs, please! More soldier beetles, too!
Some call them "soldier beetles."
Some call them "leather-winged beetles."
Some call them "Cantharids" (family Cantharidae).
Whatever you call them, be sure to welcome them to your garden. They eat aphids, lots of aphids. Like the good soldiers they are, they're ready to do battle.
We spotted five or six of them munching on aphids on our year-old plum tree.
Soldier beetles have a large thoracic shield, long threadlike antennae and beady little eyes.
According to retired entomologist Jerry Powell of UC Berkeley, there are about 100 species of them in California.
Most of them, according to the Jerry Powell-Charles Hogue book, California Insects, are "similar in appearance, red or orange with gray, black or brown wing covers."