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Barry Fugatt: Garden is a bug-eat-bug world

Barry Fugatt: Garden is a bug-eat-bug world

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Praying Mantis

Predators like ladybugs and praying mantises have voracious appetites.

Two male praying mantises were sitting at a bar late one night. One turns to the other and says, “we might as well have another round, you know our wives will bite our heads off when we get home.”

The little joke makes sense only to those who are aware of the gruesome mating habits of praying mantises. To put it ever so delicately, when a female mantis says to her male partner, “honey, you’re so handsome I could just eat you alive,” she means it: literally! While I’m a firm believer in giving one’s all in a relationship, mantises take that time-honored principle a step too far, in my humble opinion.

As a young boy, I was thoroughly taken aback, horrified really, the first time I witnessed a female mantis systematically devouring a smaller male mantis, during the act of mating no less! My dad tactfully explained that after mating the female mantis needs a high protein meal to perpetuate the species. And with a twinkle in his eye he added, “aren’t you glad you’re not a male mantis.”

Thoughts of that childhood experience came flooding back to me while taking my young grandson on a walk through the garden. We spotted a large female mantis stealthily moving through low-hanging foliage in search of prey. I pointed out that the large 5-inch-long insect with huge grasping front legs was a garden “good guy” in search of dinner, a grasshopper perhaps. “Will it bite?” grandson excitedly asked. “Nah,” I cavalierly replied, “a little pinch perhaps if she’s roughly handled.”

My grandson then made a request I could never accept. “Pick it up, pappa,” he demanded. Chills immediately ran up and down my spine. There was zero chance that I would touch, much less pick up, the scary looking creature. I have, since childhood, been squeamish around mantises and their dinning habits. I was not about to add my hand to the menu. That said, I was hesitant to appear as a complete wimp, which I am, when it comes to handling a praying mantis. Therefore, I did what any “brave” red-blooded American grandpa would do. I distracted the boy by excitedly pointing to butterflies flittering about over a bed of Salvia.

The garden truly is a bug-eat-bug world. And if we gardeners play our cards right, we can put the good bugs — praying mantises, ladybugs, and lacewings — to work on our behalf. There are two classes of beneficial insects: predators and parasites. Predators like ladybugs and mantises have voracious appetites. A hungry ladybug can easily eat scores of plant-destroying aphids in a single setting. Parasitic insects, on the other hand, lay their eggs on host prey. The eggs hatch and tiny larvae burrow into the bodies of their prey. Gruesome, but highly effective.

So how do we get beneficial insects to help us control garden pests? One way, after the weather turns warmer, is to buy live beneficials like ladybugs at local garden centers. Egg clutches of other beneficial species, praying mantis, for instance, also may be purchased and strategically placed in the garden. There are many online sources along with some local retail garden centers that sell beneficials. But there is another, and perhaps more effective way: create a garden environment that favors and attracts beneficial insects.

Start by rarely using insecticides in the garden, particularly broad-spectrum ones that kill the good bugs along with the bad ones. When the good guy population is given a healthy environment to grow and expand, natural control begins to manifest.

Also, plant flowering species that are known to attract beneficial insects. Yarrow, blazing star, coriander, lobelia, cosmos, sunflower and goldenrod are just a few of the flowering plants that attract beneficial insects to my garden. And lastly, spend some time online researching beneficial insects. There is a wealth of university-based research that explains how to attract and maintain a health population of beneficial insects.

And don’t be a scaredy-cat like me around praying mantises. They truly are garden good guys.

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Barry Fugatt is a landscape horticulturist. He may be reached by email: barryfugatt@cox.net

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