| Bugs are often regarded as insect equivalents of weeds. Hence we call pesty plants weeds, and annoying
insects bugs. However some of us call any insect a bug. The more we learn about a subject the more refined our
language, the keener our distinctions. There are more than 2 million different insect species, perhaps many more. The
vast majority of them are wholly beneficial or inconsequential to human civilization; a tiny fraction of species "bug" us
in a big way. Mosquitoes make us itch, flies buzzing can drive us mad, various little things munch our plants. In
the garden, most plants we cultivate host at least some insects; highly domesticated crops can be especially vulnerable
to damage. Like it or not, fight it or not, inevitably there will be some bugs active in our lives.
| Human response varies from frantic (even obsessive) "control" efforts, to casual defense, to doing nothing
or turning the other cheek. My approach is logical: I never pulled a weed or squished an insect if I didn't
know its names and attributes. Gradually I learned that some weeds and bugs are beneficial, others neutral, and some should
be killed on sight. Assume innocence unless there is proof to the contrary; give Nature the benefit of the doubt.
Moreover, even if insects or weeds do cause some definite trouble, one should also consider whether they do some
good, too. Or whether the trouble necessarily merits the death penalty. Don't mistake me for a latter day St. Francis,
or doe-eyed pacifist: I don't hesitate for an instant to drown squirrels and rats, slice slugs, and smash snails -- it's
just that I have weighed the pros and cons, and given these creatures a fair trial.
| Keep in mind that insects and plants have coexisted for hundreds of millions of years. Even if tent
caterpillars practically defoliate a cherry tree or alder, that does not mean the tree will die as a result. The population cycle
of caterpillars goes up and down, and Nature can allow -- and may even be helped by -- the occasional population
boom. There is a great deal more going on in the web of life than you or I understand. But probably the good outweighs
the bad. If I interpose unilateral action to attack any organisms which bug me, am I doing so from an informed
vantage, knowing fully the consequences? Or am I being prompted by emotions and acting on hasty impulses?
| My garden has many kinds of insects, worms, birds and other animal life. The more than 500 different kinds
of plants are, in effect, an open buffet, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. What a deal. Any animal can come on in, eat
its fill of whatever it wants of plants or other animals, then depart or stay as long as it likes. Truth is, I am just
another animal, eating what I want, when I want. If I was starving I'd eat the insects, slugs, squirrels and possums. As it
goes now, I sow enough, or plant enough, that I don't lack for sufficient plant food to eat, nor do my animal
associates; we're all fairly content.
| When a given animal annoys me by booming in population or doing extraordinary damage, I often take
action. For example I gathered cabbage worms and fed them to my frog. I squish aphids to encourage predatory insects
such as ladybugs. I pick off asparagus beetles. I trap rats and squirrels since they take the lions's share of my plums. If
they would just eat one plum at a time and lick the pit clean, as hunger dictates, it would be no problem. But they eat as
if the world was going to end tomorrow, taking a few bites out of hundreds of plums, dropping one to move
| Slugs and snails are not insects but most gardeners would gladly trade our mollusk population for pure insects
any time. Even though I kill these moist crawlers on sight, there never seems to be an appreciable decrease in
population. Going slug-hunting at night with a flashlight holds no appeal for me. In spring, I am willing to kill a dozen or
two before breakfast, as a way to start the day feeling good while reveling in my garden. Some people have suggested
that I try talking to the devas of these pests. Sort of like negotiating with criminals. Poisons are simplistic
short-term solutions, often with long-term disastrous consequences. If everyone keeps using metaldehyde or iron phosphate
to kill slugs, the slugs will develop resistance. Rats have done this with d-con®. The biggest problem with poisons
is that they're indiscriminate: killing the good with the bad. Its as if, in order to kill dandelions in your lawn,
you sprayed the whole lawn with Round-up®, killing every speck of vegetation. Well, insecticides do the equivalent.
The side-effects of poisons in the environment are usually bad when known at all, and where unknown -- scary.
| When all is said and done, my garden teems with life in many forms, and its balance seems -- to the extent I
can judge -- stable. Certainly I am at peace with it. Pretend we could wave a magic wand so the various bug damages
and plant diseases would all disappear. Well, then what? Think about it. There would be an astonishing and
frightful explosion of plant growth. With no slugs, cutworms, sowbugs, etc., editing a percent of seedlings, not an inch
of ground would remain uncovered by plants. The lack of viruses in plants would cause them to grow far larger.
A jungle of plants, huge and rank, would result. Such a situation is impossible because Nature is all interconnected,
so no one person can have a pest-free garden.
| An analogous situation to this imaginary scenario that leaps to mind is if all people in a given locale -- say,
Seattle -- became immune to parasites, diseases or other natural phenomena which we tend to brand as bad. Why, we'd
be never sick, so would not really appreciate our health. We'd not be subject to germs, so our cleanliness would likely decrease. We'd all be living so long that we'd bankrupt social security and perhaps would die only from boredom.
I fear that this existence, in some ways at first seeming heavenly, would actually prove hellish, and we would long to
be real again, with all of life's blemishes.
| To be happy in life is to have a positive outlook and loving people with which to double our joys and divide
our griefs. Bugs in the garden, like the common cold, tantrums in children, rainy days, freezing winters, or machines
on the blink, are the way of the world, whether Nature's way or peculiar to human society. Nature is infinitely
variable, complex, fascinating, and the source of our life. If we don't shut out its influence, it lends us also our
psyche's content. Star Trek type science fiction, showing sterile space ships and no plants, dirt or bugs, is fiction. God,
or evolution (take your pick and be glad you have free choice) intended or randomly caused humans to fit in
with Nature. Bugs are part of the big plan. So what if we walk into a spider web or step into dog doo -- life goes on.
| Humans dress up drab words. Bug eating is entomophagy. We have a cultural bias, nay prejudice, against insects
as human food. Although we find the topic distasteful, bugs may have the last laugh. Anthropologists
reconstructing human diets from long ago, as well as comparing modern practices in numerous societies, know that many
people have ingested insects. I dare say if your body could vote, and could get your mind to refrain from meddling
temporarily, its preference would be for caterpillar larvæ rather than, say, a candy bar. The candy bar will be largely
cane sugar and chocolate, maybe with corn syrup and a few nut bits. Insects mix protein, minerals, vitamins, fiber,
and whatnot. Human beings have been on this planet for at least some 3 or 4 million years, and candy bars have
been around for a century or so. Our bodies evolved on a broad-spectrum diet; now we tend to be overfed yet
| If we choose, we can taste some insects and may even find them agreeable. My sister Terri used to relish
frying grasshoppers; I eat cabbage worms and aphids routinely. There are those who eat baby slugs, and snails are
well known to gourmet eaters. Yes, people in general turn green at the mention of such atrocities, and yet think
nothing of gobbling foodstuffs which are far less wholesome, contaminated with chemical residues or hormones,
dangerously laden with fat, salt, empty calories or the like. Humans are not rational, we're capriciously emotional.
| An underappreciated fact is that some insects are natives, and others were introduced from abroad. The
common honeybee is European. It has been getting wiped-out locally by a deadly microbial parasite. As a result
orchardists and home fruit growers are encouraging native orchard mason bees to pollinate fruit trees. We all hate it when
some shade trees (such as birches and lindens) get aphid infested in summer, whereupon the ground beneath them
becomes sticky with honeydew. Well, to combat the aphids we buy ladybugs, right? Turns out the non-native ladybugs
are now common as dirt, whilst the natives are in decline. Opps. The non-natives were introduced intentionally, with
an enlightened view of biological pest-control.
| Here's the crux: whether we douse our trees with bug-killer, which kills the good with the bad, or we
import "good" bugs to eat bad ones -- still we are not addressing the cause, only the symptoms! The reason the linden
or birch tree gets an abundance of aphids is because they are not content. They are from Europe, and like rich,
moist soil and summer rainfall. If they could, they'd go back home. In Seattle during June and July they get too dry.
If, however, we put compost around their roots, and water them, perhaps occasionally showering their leaves with
the hose, they will likely be strong enough to resist significant aphid populations. And insignificant populations can
be dealt with by ladybugs, lacewings, or birds.
| People who are allergic to bee stings or spider bites, etc., are indeed at a great disadvantage. It is hard to find a
silver lining. Their best defense may be learning the lifestyle of their nemesis and accordingly avoiding doing
anything likely to provoke a sting. For example, some flowers are irresistible to bees. If you're allergic to bee stings, why
not plant flowers which attract moths or hummingbirds? Move slowly when near bees. If you don't bug them
they likely won't sting you.
| My advice, for dealing with insect and disease damage on your plants: 1) Acquire plants known to resist
damage. Be rational in selecting plants, not merely emotional. 2) Learn the cultural needs of your plants, and change
anything you can to make them happier. Move a mite-infested Skimmia from the sun to the shade, for example. 3) If
anything gets especially out of bounds, learn about its names and life history, and discover some specific, natural way
to intervene. Don't try a blanket approach to a specific problem. 4) If you don't want to deal with these things,
and choose to hire someone else, select someone who practices IPM (integrated pest management) and biologically
safe approaches. Warning, such folks are -- like careful tree pruners -- outnumbered by profiteering toppers and
pesticide applicators. 5) Stay calm and maintain a broad perspective. If you look at a insect-destroyed crop or
fungal-blighted flower, your initial reaction of hurt, anger, and longing will pass. The clouded brow, like the sky, by and by gives
way to smiles.
| To scientists, an insect is a six-legged creature with a pair of antennæ and an external skeleton. To most of us
an insect is a bug, as are spiders, centipedes, mites, or any sort of tiny creature unfamiliar to us. We tend to call
butterflies by their cute name, which is apparently a corruption from the original
flutterby -- a literally apt name. Most of us know dragonflies, dog fleas, cockroaches, etc. If we disregard human nomenclature and look at a "bug" as a relatively little animal that bothers a big one, then
humans ourselves are the biggest bug problem afflicting the
earth's ecology. If you don't want to liken our species to a bug population gone out of control, call us a cancer. The
one crucial difference between us and other organisms is that we are conscious, and can thus choose to change our
ways. The fate of most insects, plants and other life now depends on our actions.
(originally published in The
Seattle Weekly, April 1997)