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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

Annual Friend or Foe Quiz

It’s quiz time, and what self-respecting gardener doesn’t love a rousing

no-consequences brain tickler?

Truthfully, I’m not that fond of them because coming up with the correct answers requires bunches of neurons to be firing in the proper sequence. However, I’m giving the quiz and not taking it, so away we go! The subject this year is crawly things I've found in and around our garden.

Friend or foe: Black widow spider, Latrodectus

Answer: Both!

Oh my, a trick question right off the bat. True, the venom of the black widow is 15 times stronger than rattlesnake venom—you wouldn’t want to get bit by a black widow spider and then, you know, die. That possibility leans heavy toward the “foe” side. However, Latrodectus is also very efficient at general insect control, consuming flies, mosquitoes, gnats, ants and other annoying pests that cause us to question Gaia’s creative acumen. Stick that characteristic in the “friend” column.

A black widow as seen through the bottom of a glass jar (that has the lid on!).

Latrodectus is a widespread genus and found throughout the world. The variety North America is most familiar with is the black widow, a fat, gloss-black arachnid with a telltale red hourglass shape on its belly. Black widows are shy creatures that prefer dark, tucked-away places to build their webs, so you’re not likely to see one tromping about your bathroom walls.

The good news, venom-wise, is that black widows typically administer relatively tiny bits of venom, more on par with incapacitating a moth rather than aiming to bring down an entire human. Nevertheless, the results of a bite range from mildly irritating to what-kind-of-karma-are-you-burning-lately? Most hospitals carry a supply of black widow anti-venom for rare cases of severe reaction.

Fun fact: Contrary to popular myth, female black widows do not cannibalize their mating partners. Well, sometimes they do, but only when a male offers an unsolicited critique about the female’s web-building skills.

Friend or foe: Boxelder, Boisea trivittata

Answer: Neither!

Another trick question! So fun from my POV! The reality is that this common insect pretty much doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t bite or sting, doesn’t eat veggie crops, and rarely flies into your potato salad. The only bummer about Boisea is that scads of them may appear in the spring, massing in sunny spots like south-facing exterior walls and fences where they mill about aimlessly and occasionally blunder into copulating with each other. The sheer numbers may result in a stray boxelder or two getting inside your house where they will continue their prime directive of milling about aimlessly. When crushed or knocked about, they may emit a foul odor.

Friend or Foe: Earwig, Dermaptera

Answer: Both!

Three tricksters in a row! Give yourself several points just for reading this far. The earwig is extremely ugly, but current rules of the Friend or Foe Quiz™ explicitly state that physical appearances will not be a factor in determining F or F™ status. Too bad, because with those pugnacious pinchers coming out of its butt, this bug has yuck written all over it

Earwigs are hearty eaters. Their preference is for dead and decaying matter, which makes them garden-friendly saprotrophic janitors who help keep gardens clean of debris. But if their supply of dead stuff dwindles, they’re likely to eat growing stuff such as vegetables and plant leaves. Not cool.

Earwigs are mostly nocturnal and feed at night. During the day they are maddeningly clever at hiding in the petals of peonies and the undersides of pepper plant leaves. There are numerous insecticides available for eliminating earwigs, but natural methods, such as squishing, are preferred at Schiddygarden (as you will soon see).

Fun fact: Earwigs do not crawl into people’s ears as the age-old myth would have us believe. However, wishing that an earwig would crawl into the ear of the guy tailgating you is perfectly acceptable.

Bonus fun fact: Earwigs are one of the insects that you can tell the male from the female, if you’re into that sort of detail. Males have curved pinchers, and female pinchers are straight. The pinchers are used to fend off attackers, catch prey, and in mating rituals. How they sort out which tactic to use in the heat of the moment is one of those mysteries of Nature.

Friend or foe: Mystery caterpillar

Answer: Foe most foul!

This little tube of protoplasm and its buddies were busy this spring chewing the absolute crap out of the leaves of our Raywood ash tree. Thankfully, they kept their nefarious gluttony to the lower part of the canopy—perhaps they were so bloated with foodstuffs that they couldn’t climb any further.

Ultimately, that would be their fatal mistake.

I don’t know what these larvae are, and neither does anyone else. The usually reliable sources at the Oregon State Extension Services were stumped—one of their entomologists even dropped by to pick up some live specimens for closer inspection. They still couldn’t nail down a good identification. Ditto the invasive species website from Pouring through Google-searched images of caterpillars was pretty much an attention-sucking rabbit hole of wildly ornate and grotesquely proportioned Lepidopterans from which it was difficult to emerge with a clear purpose in mind.

Soon after I discovered that caterpillars were turning the lower leaves of our Raywood ash to lacey flutterings, my initial outrage metamorphosized into Old West-style justice. No Neem oil, pesticides, or cayenne-infused concoction for me. This was hand-to-proleg combat. With eerie calm, I squished the little buggers. One at a time. Bare-fingered.

Dispatching destructive larvae by squishing is easy. You pluck one, align it between thumb and forefinger, and squeeze until its guts squirt out its butt.

Spare me the cringe. Our ancestors were clubbing and gutting all kinds of animals way back when, so this is nothing by comparison. Of course, back then those people were basically starving all the time and had to hunt to stay alive, and then they’d do all sorts of inventive things with an animal’s remains, like make mukluks and flutes, so this isn’t really a sensible comparison.

By my 400th pluck-and-squish I’d done a respectable job of removing most of the invaders and I’d washed my hands an inordinate number of times in the process. Okay I was a little squeamish. But I counseled myself that I was engaging a completely natural, organic pest removal and that was good for the Earth and certainly good for our beleaguered Raywood ash tree.

Anyway, if you’ve got any ideas about this critter and the type of butterfly or moth it becomes, I’m all ears. Just don't stick an earwig in there.

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