Saturday, April 12, 2008
War and Peace in the butterfly garden
When Judi's arborist son was advising her on setting up her butterfly garden, he warned her that it had to be organic: "If you want butterflies," he said, "get over the idea that you can solve problems with chemicals."
The first challenge arose a few weeks ago, when the garden was attacked by aphids. The first attempt at aphid control was spraying with horticultural oil. That didn't work. So, last weekend, it was time to unlimber the big guns: You fight fire with fire, and that means you fight insects with, well, insects.
In this case, ladybugs.
Perhaps I have lived my life under a rock, but I confess that I did not know you can go to your friendly neighborhood Ace hardware store (at least, you can if this is your neighborhood), and fork over ten dollars and leave with a small plastic tub containing 1,500 ladybugs (I didn't count them -- 1,500 was what it said on the tub). The friendly hardware store people keep the ladybugs in a refrigerator, "so they stay fresh." The ladybugs aren't moving when you first buy them, but they become active quickly as they warm up, and then they crawl all around inside the tub.
I have to tell you that Judi loves ladybugs. Loves, loves, loves. She had been excited at the prospect of going to the hardware store "to pick up my ladybugs," and on the way home in the car, as the ladybugs warmed up and crawled around, she looked through the air holes and chortled, "Oh, look at you! You are so cute! I see you in there!"
I have to tell you that Judi is young at heart.
Following the instructions on the tub, we waited until dusk to release the ladybugs in the garden. Ladybugs don't fly when it's dark, so releasing them at dusk ensures that they remain in your garden as they start on their dinners. Which, of course, consist of aphids. The plastic tub said one ladybug can eat up to fifty aphids a day.
Early the next morning, Judi went out to check on her ladybugs:
"But they're flying away," she wailed to me on the phone.
At lunchtime, she could only find a few ladybugs. By the end of the day, there were none.
"My ladybugs are gone. I wanted my ladybugs to stay!" She was almost crying.
"There's nothing left for them to eat," I said. "The aphids are wiped out. Do you want the ladybugs to stay and starve, just for you?"
Maybe you are laughing at us, but after all this was our first attempt at organic pest control. Fifty aphids a day times 1,500 ladybugs means a buffet of 75,000 aphids a day. There were nowhere near 75,000 aphids in Judi's garden. There were maybe a couple hundred. Tops. In retrospect, we probably should have released just a few ladybugs, and put the rest in the refrigerator for future use. As it was, dumping 1,500 ladybugs in Judi's ten-by-twenty-foot garden was probably like sending the 101st Airborne to deal with a schoolyard fight. In fact, we've probably wiped out the entire aphid population for blocks around. Yes, neighbors, that was us. You are welcome.
Anyway, now an aphid-free week has gone by, and yesterday I noticed some holes chewed in the leaves of the milkweeds. I turned a leaf over, and saw this:
Caterpillars! Aren't they cute? Albeit very tiny. How tiny, you ask? See that flesh-colored thing on the right side of the picture? That's my finger. And you can see the whorls of my fingerprint. Look at your own fingerprints for a moment, and you will realize how tiny.
But still, caterpillars!
That is very exciting! I don't know about others, but the Monarch egg is a tiny white bubble found on the underside of the milkweed leaf, about the size of a pinhead.