Beneficial Insects: Not All Bugs are Bad

Some insects have important jobs to do, such as pollinators, pest predators and spiders. Others, such as aphids, caterpillars and Japanese beetles, just want to lunch on your garden.


| April/May 1995



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Praying mantids are the single members of the beneficial insect family capable of looking over their shoulder.


ILLUSTRATIONS: ALLISON MIA STARCHER

I have a confession to make. When I first moved from the city to a little New England hill farm a quarter-century ago, I found the old barn choked with spiderwebs. Walking into the long-unused milking parlor or up the stairs notched into a log and into the hay loft was a battle with one tough, sticky web after another. Old ones were matted together in dusty ropes. Each fresh one that splattered coldly against my face was filled with dead flies. And, up in the corner was a great, fat, hairy gray barn spider (technically: Araneus cavaticus ) measuring up to an inch-and-a-half from leg-tip to leg-tip. Yech! And they all seemed able to rebuild destroyed webs bigger than ever overnight.

Though fresh from the suburbs, I had enough Nature education to wait till the young barn swallows were fledged and gone from their half-cup—shaped mud nests stuck high on the barn rafters. Then I went to Sears and bought an insecticide fogger that fit the rotary lawn mower. I filled the reservoir with the all-purpose oil-based bug killer that came with it and plugged the liquid-to-smoke converter into the exhaust. That night, after the bats had taken flight from the roof peak, I started the machine and walked the length of the barn, filling the whole of it with a virulent white smog. From the next morning on, a brushed away web stayed gone.

Then I began taking on livestock. I put 50 newly fledged chicks into a pen I built on the back barn wall, then added cages of rabbits, a pair of dairy goats, and then a horse. With the animals came droppings and, as you've doubtless guessed, with the manure came flies—a buzzing, humming, swarming plague of them.

Unimpeded by the former spiderweb gauntlet, entire hatches of mosquitoes, blackflies, no-seeums, deerflies, and horseflies flew in from the pond and woods to seek blood—avian, animal, or human. Horn flies appeared in swarms and attacked horns and hoofs. Carrion flies, flesh flies, and screw flies teemed around moist animal eyes and noses. The air buzzed with bluebottles and green bottles, and little biting stable flies stabbed into my ankles as well as the animals: Blowflies and houseflies bred in the manure, and then tried to move into the house. An invasion was underway.

I used one spray on the manure piles and another for the animals and still another for the sunny side of the house where flies in their hundreds congregated each morning to warm up for the attack. Nothing seemed to have any effect—not even curtains of long, gummy fly strips that I bought by the box. So, I had to invest scarce funds in rolls of window screen that I stapled over every door and window in the house and barn. 1 helped some, but not much.

Then came the revelation. Next spring, while helping a neighbor catch sheep for shearing ... an dodging the many years' accumulation of dead fly-filled spiderweb in her sheep shed, I realized tha there weren't all that many live flie around ...and, at last I made th spider-to-fly connection. I asked my sheep-raising friend if I coup borrow some spiders. When he spring crop of barn spiders pro duced their marble-sized spun-sill egg sacks, I pulled several from their webs and hung them around my own barn. In short order, each sack produced dozens of tiny spiderlets and by fall, my barn was once again becoming one big flying-bug trap. The following spring, the different fly species appeared at the usual times, but the spiderwebs were up first, blocking all the insect' flyways. The spiders seemed to grow huge overnight, and flies never became more than a minor nuisance ...so long as I kept up with the manure. With that I began to gain more than a book-learned understanding and appreciation of nature's wisdom. I became more than an observational environmentalist and started practicing chemical-free agriculture and natural living in earnest.





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