Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ask not for whom the soap suds...

it suds for thee.

They always start out innocently enough, my obsessions.  I see a butterfly, it is gorgeous. Watching it makes me stop whatever I was doing.  Later I want to share what I saw but it is clumsy communicating deeply moving experiences when your descriptive language is limited by ignorance.  Eloquence and inaccuracy are uneasy partners at best.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail/Papilio glaucus
I was raised to look things up when I had questions I could not answer, so I attempt to find out what sort of butterfly I saw.  I find images of several butterflies that look similar but none are precise matches for what I remember seeing.  I find images of many more butterflies that bear little resemblance but are still fascinating to read about.
Red Admiral - Vanessa atalanta
Next time I go out to the garden I bring my camera along.  I see another butterfly, different yet beautiful in its own way, and I drop whatever work I am doing to give chase and try to capture an image.  It is blurry but better than relying on my spotty memory and the image is clear enough at least to lend confidence to my identification efforts.

I go out into the garden just to look some days.  I see more butterflies.  I take my camera out routinely now, and get many images, some of them very pleasing.  I find out some of my butterflies are actually moths.  I wonder if I can get a good photo of a bee, so I try.
Sweat bee/Agapostemon surrounded by Carpet Beetles/Anthrenus lepidus.
Editing my "bee" photos I realize I am getting images involving a lot more variety than I expected.  What are these non-honeybee bees?  Back to the internet.  It is all so fascinating and abruptly I reach a point where I am wondering how difficult could it be to get photos of everything I see crawling, hopping and flying through the garden beds?   Not just butterflies, moths and bees. I want to find out what everything is, I want to know all the names!
Uh oh.  Soldier beetle, probably Cantharis pellucida.
Right about here is where things all got a little dicey.  Now I've become a little better at sussing out what kind of crawly thing it is I just took a photo of.  (A little better...)  Now it all stops being hypothetical and gets personal, fast.
Forest tent caterpillar/Malacosoma disstria
Inevitably, a certain percentage of these critters are turning out to be bad players.  Borers, suckers, stabbers, skeletonizers, they all spell damage if not doom for some plant out there. Some plant out there in my garden beds. Some plant out there in my garden beds that somebody important shared with me, or perhaps some plant that I raised from seed. Some plant out there that I carefully selected, paid for, planted, hand watered, and protected from killing freezes. Some plant out there I am deeply invested in keeping alive.
Carpet beetles (making some area rugs)/Anthrenus lepidus
I struggled briefly with what an appropriate response would look like.  I am using mostly native plants precisely to draw in and support more wildlife.  All these potential pests are just as much wildlife as the butterflies I so admire. Where should I draw the line? Follow the Prime Directive, simply observe and chronicle?  Watch and wait and allow natural systems to find their own balance without my intervention?
Western grapeleaf skeletonizer (Harrisina metallica)
Pffft.  As if.  Once the numbers of non-benefical insects I observe in any given season reaches critical mass I cannot help myself.  I am simply propelled into action.  To me this is nothing more but nothing less than the good guys versus bad guys, the beneficials versus the plunderers. I consider it my job to teach the lesson as often as it is needed: In this garden, under my watch, plunderers never prosper.
Confession: I don't do anything about these dangling from the oaks but I do enjoy watching the birds eat them.
I am against spraying chemicals and have a low gross-out threshhold for smashing bugs with my bare hands.  My solution is to break out an empty tennis ball container, fill it one third of the way up with soapy water and then go out to wreak havoc upon the invaders.  Carpet beetles?  I'm knocking you into the soapy water. Four lined leaf bugs?  Likewise.  Grasshoppers and Leaf footed bugs?  Flea beetles?  Into the soapy Bath of Doom you all go.
This image from last year (Aztec spur throated/Aidemona azteca). Immature nymphs show up later in the season but I've already spotted at least one of the duller brown adults hopping off at my approach.  
Honestly, I take no real pleasure in the process. The tiny bodies in the soapy water are hard for me to look at, so for that very reason I make myself look at what it is that I am doing.  I try very hard not to accidentally soapify beneficial insects, but the truth is there is often a bit of collateral damage.

Occasionally in the process I end up mauling the very blossoms I'm out there trying to protect.  Pleasant or not, I feel this population control response is a necessary part of being a good steward to the plants I've introduced into these spaces.

I can sum up my philosophy best with this borrowed and slightly altered phrase from medicine:  "Better the planter than the pest".
An ongoing ID nemesis - some sort of Skipper, subfamily Hairstreak
I am not proud that I purposefully kill in my garden.  It seems antithetical, incompatible with what I believed gardening, and especially "Gardening for Wildlife" would comprise.  I try to assure I am killing specifically, personally, and accountably.  I try to understand who the visitors are that the plants are receiving, and potentially, why they felt invited in.  Beautiful, or not.
Anolis carolinensis on San Francesco d'Assisi
As native daughter and native plant/wildlife gardening inspiration Ladybird Johnson herself once said, "The nature we are concerned with ultimately is human nature.".

Wildlife Wednedays