Bug Hunt: Bugs on the Move

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by AdobeStock/butus
The Big Bug Hunt tracks the movements of all bugs on a national level.

In a garden, you’re never truly alone. The great outdoors is a shared space, alive with the colors, sounds, and movements of the many creatures that call it home. Out of all these creatures, gardeners are particularly interested in the many species of bugs – some welcome, others less so. The “good” bugs include an army of pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, whose work helps bring the harvest home. Pest predators are also beneficial to have in a healthy garden. The “bad” bugs — at least as far as a gardener is concerned — are the pests that seek to eat crops before we can.

Aphids are a parasitic insect that sucks juice from plants.

“Bug” can mean different things to different people. For our purposes, “bug” includes all the invertebrates found in our gardens — that’s anything without a backbone, whether it’s an insect, spider, worm, or mollusk. Common “bad bugs” tend to get the most attention from gardeners, because knowing where your enemies are and when they’re arriving can mean the difference between a flourishing garden and a patch of half-eaten plants. Maintaining a record of when specific bugs first appear in your garden can form the cornerstone of an effective and natural pest control strategy, and allow you to track their behavioral patterns. With enough experience, you may be able to predict when pests are likely to show up — and be ready with a battle plan.

Nature’s Calendar

Phenology — the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals in relation to weather and climate changes — is the starting point on your journey toward better understanding your garden nemeses, as well as the beneficial bugs that help keep them at manageable levels. For instance, cold-blooded insects are massively influenced by temperature. They typically emerge and spread sooner during a warm spring, and vice versa. By building up an annual record of when you first spot insects, and matching your findings to local weather data, you can infer how temperature may have influenced the bugs’ behavior. The downside to this method is the inevitable time required to either trawl through past weather data or meticulously collect your own.

Plant phenology sidesteps that lengthy process by using plants as a proxy for weather. This branch of phenology links plant events, such as bud break, with the presence of specific bugs. For example, Eastern tent caterpillars hatch at exactly the same time that forsythia comes into bloom. If you know when forsythia’s about to flower, there’s no need to trawl through weather records.

Often, the association between plant and insect events is uncannily precise. In fact, the sequence and timing of events can be so precise that the association doesn’t deviate when observed across states, or from season to season. Organizations such as Ohio State University’s Phenology Garden Network are blazing a trail in this fascinating area of research; their project studies phenological associations in 31 research gardens across the state of Ohio.

Carrying a notebook and pen is the simplest way to jot down your own findings and observations, but the MOTHER EARTH NEWS free online Garden Journal is even more effective. You can upload photos to the program directly from your cell phone or tablet, and then record notes to save with a specific photo. The Garden Journal also automatically saves local weather data to your account, helping you develop a fuller picture with less hassle. The more you use it, the better you’ll understand the conditions unique to your location that trigger pest explosions.

The Big Bug Hunt

The Big Bug Hunt is the gardener’s pest prediction tool, and the largest citizen science project of its kind. Launched in 2015 by my employer GrowVeg (the team behind the MOTHER EARTH NEWS garden planning apps), the goal of the project is to help gardeners help themselves by tracking the movements of bugs through various species sightings reported by other gardeners. Working together, we can track bugs at a national and potentially international level.

Experience is valuable, but imagine if you were forewarned of an impending pest attack on your garden. You could put up defensive barriers or at least be on the alert for the first infestations, primed to act quickly and tip the advantage in your favor. The success of The Big Bug Hunt relies on a dedicated legion of citizen scientists. To date, around 20,000 individuals have visited the project’s website to report the bugs they’ve found in their gardens. In seconds, participants can report which bug they saw, when they saw it, and what plant it was on or near. You can join this effort by reporting bugs at Big Bug Hunt. Sharing your location (anonymously) then pinpoints that bug to a specific ZIP code, building up a picture of where bugs appear and how they spread. As the number of reported sightings increases, the information becomes more precise, and allows us to better prepare ourselves.

By offering a few moments of your time, you can help bring this pest prediction service another small-but-significant step closer. We expect it to become an integral part of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Vegetable Garden Planner, giving Garden Planner subscribers a powerful advantage.

Citizen science delivers results, proving that many hands make light work. Project FeederWatch, for example, uses winter bird counts to help scientists track long-term trends in bird populations across North America. Similarly, the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project has greatly improved our understanding of the distribution of monarch butterflies, which has helped contribute to their conservation.

The Big Bug Hunt tracks all bugs, friend and foe. This has a couple of benefits. First, we’re not presupposing which bugs we think people will see; rather, we’re learning from what actually appears in gardens. Second, by tracking all bugs, we can look for relationships between them; it stands to reason that if different bugs follow a similar pattern of emergence and spread, then the presence of one bug could be used to predict the presence of another. Connections like these mean even more usable data, and more data means better accuracy.

Fascinating Findings from The Big Bug Hunt

  • The top three plants most affected by pests are tomatoes, cucumbers, and kale.
  • Japanese beetles are the most reported pest, with squash bugs running a very close second.
  • The least reported bug is the Imperial tortoise beetle, which so far has been reported just once.
  • The most frequently reported bugs in the United States and Canada have remained remarkably constant, with 9 out of the top 10 bugs consistently topping the charts over the past three years.

Working Toward Perfect Predictions

One of the biggest challenges faced by The Big Bug Hunt team is ensuring that pest predictions are reliable enough to be genuinely useful. A substantial portion of the work lies in refining predictions to reach an acceptable level of accuracy. This way, gardeners can prioritize their efforts toward those pests most likely to appear.

This is where we welcome your involvement: Every report made through The Big Bug Hunt improves the ultimate accuracy of predictions. The most accurate results stem from having reports from many different locations over multiple seasons. The Big Bug Hunt uses cutting-edge machine learning to help the systems further develop and adapt as more data comes in, which increases the data accuracy.

One of the most satisfying aspects of a project operated over such a wide geographical area is the chance to develop visual representations of the collected data. Our research team is currently using the data to create maps that show, on a weekly timescale, how pests such as aphids appear in the South, and then advance steadily northward with spring. These maps bring the data to life and clearly display the patterns in bugs’ behaviors.

Top 5 Reported Bugs and How to Manage Them Organically

Bug Main Host Plants Prevention Managing Outbreaks
1. Japanese beetle


Roses, beans, grapes, raspberries Protect plants with row covers during the beetles’ 6- to 8-week feeding period. Handpick often by knocking the beetles into a bucket of soapy water.
2. Squash bug Squash, pumpkins Use row covers until flowering, or delay planting to early summer. Rub or scrape off any eggs using a wet cloth or knife. Shake to dislodge bugs into a bucket of soapy water, or lay towels beneath plants overnight, and then collect hiding bugs in the morning.
3. Aphids Most ornamental plants, vegetables, and fruits Inspect plants regularly. Clip off and compost stems holding aphid clusters. Encourage predators, such as ladybugs, lacewings, and hoverflies. Blast off small infestations with high-pressure spray from a garden hose. If necessary, follow up with applications of an organic insecticidal soap.
4. Tomato hornworm Tomatoes, peppers, tobacco Cultivate soil in fall to expose overwintering pupae to birds and frost. Regularly check plants for missing leaves, starting in early summer. Gather by hand and dispose of away from host plants. Look out for hornworms covered in small, white egg capsules; these are braconid wasps, which will help control hornworms.
5. Cabbageworm Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale Protect plants with row covers. Pick off and discard leaves with eggs. Plant nectar-rich flowers for predator insects, such as wasps. Attract insect-eating birds. Inspect plants regularly for frass (excrement). Control outbreaks with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a safe and natural pesticide made from soil-dwelling bacteria that has no impact on beneficial bugs.


A Promising Future

Already, some tantalizing results are starting to develop; most promising is the progress made in predicting the emergence of Japanese beetles. The Japanese beetle is consistently the most reported bug. With so many reports, The Big Bug Hunt researchers have now arrived at a prediction accuracy approaching 90 percent.

First recorded in North America in 1916, Japanese beetles are a highly destructive menace, causing billions of dollars of crop damage annually. In gardens, they munch on everything from grapevines to roses. Americans spend more than $450 million attempting to kill and control them each year. Clearly, getting a heads-up on such a voracious pest could help avoid a lot of heartache.

If you knew Japanese beetles were on the way, you could roll out row covers days before the bugs’ unwelcome appearance. Then, when the danger period went “live,” you’d be ready with a plan of defense. (Handpicking the beetles is especially effective early in the morning. Lay an old sheet on the ground, then shake the plants to knock the beetles off. From here, the collected beetles can be deposited into bowls of soapy water to neutralize the threat.)

Advance warning of any pest will help both gardeners and commercial growers become less reactive and more proactive. Better technology enables wider adoption of natural, organic growing and pest prevention and control methods. As a forewarned gardener, you can act with insider intelligence, knowing that your efforts won’t be wasted. The Big Bug Hunt’s ultimate goal is cleaner, healthier food, grown with fewer pesticides and less impact on the natural world. It’s a delicious prospect.

Benedict Vanheems is a prolific garden writer and contributor to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS website, where his articles and videos demonstrate how to get the most from your garden. At home, he tends an organic kitchen garden, where he trials new growing methods.