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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Winter is just around the corner and this is very good news for me because most growing things are dormant and the chances for a plant dying of human error are relatively low. Which affords the opportunity to ponder how much I've learned about gardening this past year. In pondering I’ve realized that I’ve forgotten or remain unsure about much of what I learned. A brain isn’t like a wasp trap, you know—one way in; no way out.

Anyway, I did learn a few things about bugs. For the most part I like bugs, except when they crawl on you. If you’ve ever had a box elder bug find its way under your tee shirt and then fall down into your ass crack before you can stop it, you know exactly what I mean. And then what do you do while its itty-bitty legs are scribbling around some of your most sensitive nerve endings? Swat it and risk crushing it into your nether crevice? Well, box elder bugs—that’s a whole other blog topic.

This blog is about three bugs I encountered this year. It’s entitled, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” after Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western, and as much as I don’t want to disturb the cadence of the iconic title, I’ll start off with:

The Ugly

I found several marmorated stink bugs on my pepper plants and immediately my paternal instincts (toward my peppers; not the bugs) kicked in. Initially, I didn’t know what I was up against, so I turned to DuckDuckGo to find out that Halyomorpha halys is classified as an invasive species throughout most of the U.S. According to the EPA, it does major economic damage to crops, including cherries, corn, peppers, and lima beans. I’m not a big fan of lima beans, so I have mixed feelings about that one. But peppers! Were my babies in danger? Hang on! Daddy’s coming!

I went outside and experimentally poked a stinker with my finger and it pissed all over. Maybe it was poop, I don’t know, but it was a clear fluid and it came out of its butt. Luckily, I didn’t get any on me. I assume it was stink fluid, meant to ward me off. It worked but not because it stunk but because it was gross and not a little bit disrespectful. Whose garden is this, anyway? I put on gloves and, in a scene worthy of a revenge movie set in the Old West, I squished every stink bug I could find. You just don’t mess with a person’s chilies.

The Bad

Although I took care of the stink bugs before they could do any damage, I was slow on the trigger when it came to the ash whitefly, Siphoninus phillyreae. This challenge-to-the-idea-that-everything-on-the-planet-has-a-purpose went undetected for months until one day as I was seated on the back patio gazing up into the clouds (one of my core skill sets) I realized that the lower canopy leaves of our raywood ash were filigreed like green lace. That’s odd, my whip-smart brain concluded. I stood for a closer inspection and found the underside of the leaves to be populated by colonies of small white things, many of which were disturbingly moving about.

Another trip via DuckDuckGo to the Palace of All Knowledge to find out the culprit was the ash whitefly—a no-good little creep that eats leaves. The solution was a solution—neem oil and water in a bucket. I cut off the damaged branches and submerged them in smelly neem. (Editor’s note: although neem is a natural substance and non-toxic, the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) suggests that you don’t breathe the fumes. They really don’t say what the consequences are except that you shouldn’t do it. However, with cats they are very specific and say exposure to neem oil is known to cause “sluggishness, excessive salivation, impaired movement, trembling, twitching, and convulsions.” They add that, “some of the cats died,” but they don’t say whose cats or what they did with the bodies. Maybe I just have my cinematic mojo going but I sense there’s a three-part mini-series in this cat thing.)

The Good

Make no mistake this is a helluva decent bug. I found one on a pepper plant and immediately flicked it away. Get off my fricken peppers! It wasn’t until DuckDuckGo-ing later on that I discovered I’d rudely disposed of one of nature’s true heroes, the black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. The BSF looks like a wasp but it’s completely harmless. In fact, it doesn’t eat or sting or buzz around backyard barbecues. In its brief 10-day flying stage (after which it dies), it only wants to mate. (That only wants to mate line begs a witty follow-up sentence. It’ll come to me).

black soldier fly
A black soldier fly on our screen door. I scooted it out to mate and fulfill its prime directive.

The real magic of Hermetia is its ability to digest stuff in its larval stage. As a maggot it will eat just about any organic material, including excrement. Then it poops out poop called frass which is—get this—nearly perfectly sterile and free of pathogens. Its special digestive enzymes turn all sorts of organics into rich, clean fertilizer.

There’s more: dried and processed BSF larvae can be used for animal feed, and research is under way about using the insect for human food as well. The taste of the larvae has been described as having an “earthy, chocolate-like, malty, fish flavor." Hmm.

It’s easy to imagine a sustainable food loop in which commercially raised black soldier flies are used to dispose of garbage, reducing the amount that ends up in landfills. The frass is used to grow crops for animals and humans. Leftover stalks and chaff end up as food to grow more BSF larvae. The larvae themselves are used to feed livestock and people.

In fact, commercial black soldier fly farms are beginning to show up around the world using exactly that kind of sustainable model. It’s proving to be an especially hopeful possibility for rural communities in developing nations.

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