Big Bug, Little Bug, Bad Bug, Good Bug

If you are anything like my sister – you don’t like bugs. When she was young, she would stare up at the ceiling trying to spot them for her older siblings to kill. I believe it all stemmed from a traumatic moment she got trapped on the landing of our stairs at our country house by what she believed to be a giant green bug. It was in reality a leaf that had blown in the front door which she happened to be standing next to at the time. She was only three years old at the time – I, on the other hand, was ten and thought it hilarious and tease her to this day about it. Theoretically, she gets the concept that good bugs exist in this world which is fine as long as they stay out her sight and not in her house.

For gardeners, bugs and insects are a reality we have to deal with, but not all bugs are bad. Beneficial insects are some of the most important contributors in a garden since they are the natural defense system against “bad” bugs which can devastate our crops.  Insects are an important part of our ecosystem; we need them for decomposition & pollination. They also produce products such as silk, wax and honey, even medicine. Most people are familiar with beneficials such as bees, and butterflies but there are many other beneficials which contribute to the balance of nature.

VIETNAM – CIRCA 1982: A Stamp printed in VIETNAM shows the image of a Assassin Bug with the description “Sycanus falleni Stal” from the series “Chinch Bugs”, circa 1982

Some beneficials have scary names which are intimidating alone. For instance, the Assassin Bug, which there are actually many different species of assassin bugs in North America. They generally have long spindly legs, narrow heads and broad bodies. Assassins help control aphids, cabbage worms, Colorado bean beetles, cutworms, earwigs, four-lined plant bugs, Japanese beetles, lace bugs, Mexican bean beetles, tobacco budworms, and many caterpillars.  The assassin bug pierce their prey using their long beaks and then injects a lethal toxin that kills the insect instantly, liquifying their insides which the assassin bug feeds on the liquified tissue, leaving behind an empty shell. So, if you find empty shells of insects you will know you have assassin bugs.

One of the insects that assassin bugs go after are earwigs, which like to feed on a wide range of flowers, fruit and foliage.  Favorite crops of the earwig include artichokes, bean seedlings, corn silk, lettuce, potatoes, roses, peaches and apricots, strawberries and zinnias. If you find that your leaves have a bunch of ragged holes you may have earwigs, although caterpillars leave behind similar damage.  Earwigs like to feed on dead and decaying plant matter as well.  If you need to deal with earwigs, keep your garden clean of dying and dead debris. You can also trap them in shallow containers filled with vegetable oil. Or try to put rolled newspaper into a cardboard tubes and place near your plants. Earwigs like to crawl into tunnels, and you can easily dispose of them in the morning.

small brown earwig, hidden in a flower.

Earwigs will not attack humans, despite their formidable appearance with their easily recognizable pincers, and contrary to folklore they won’t crawl into our ears despite liking to crawl into dark, small places.  Initially introduced to North America in the early 1900s, they came across in cargo and on ships and have been plaguing our gardens and farm ever since.

Insects are the most diverse group of organisms with more species of insects than any other group. In the United States there are an estimated 91,000 species which is why going forward, I will write more about big bugs, little bugs, good bugs, and bad bugs on occasion to educate myself and others about the organisms in our gardens.