Report from the Field: IPM course has unexpected effect

All set to learn how to identify and murder insect pests this last spring, I took copious notes in class, printed out each slide presentation, downloaded articles and bookmarked ID sites. I made an insect collection, went scouting, set elaborate live catch traps. I memorized families and orders, made flash cards, practiced forecasting from biofix dates and weather data. I wrote a proposal for an undergraduate research project to study native bees.

Now it is summer and my own garden is buzzing with insect life. On a shelf in the shed sits my tiny arsenal of pest control products: neem oil, sulfur powder, and a bottle of Sevin – all untouched this year.

First, I gave myself permission to not interfere because I needed the insects for my collection. When the term ended, I waited a little longer because the ornamental plum, which was teeming with aphids and thrips, was also raining lady bird beetles, larvae, and pupae. A couple weeks ago I saw the first telltale signs of coming mantids in their cracking egg case under the kitchen window. Yesterday I saw my first young Osmia, electric blue in the mid-morning sun and satisfying confirmation since I’d been noticing the cut leaves on the lavatera. I stood in the rose garden last night pelted with impatient Bombus and Apis traveling back and forth to the lavender and the mallow. Trying to catch a glimpse of another Osmia and picking through the shrub rose with a hands lens, I saw cucumber beetles, minute pirate bugs, crab spiders, crane flies and wasps.

And I decided. For the time being, any insect pest control efforts are over in my garden. I am willing to part with perfection – or am I? This feels like perfection. This feels alive: ground beetles under my feet and cinnabar moths flying into my forehead. Jumping spiders on my pants leg and Swallowtails levitating above the dogwood. Dragonflies and Halictids hovering in my peripheral vision.

When it occurred to me, I smote my own forehead. What have I been thinking? Of course this is how it should be for me. I’ve never liked sanitized looking gardens, beds that dare a weed to grow or an ant to enter. I’ve never minded a 75 or 50% harvest because insects ate the rest. I plan for that reality when I plant crops I know are in high demand among the birds and the bugs. There’s no food shortage: I can share. And there’s no beauty shortage in my garden: I can spare some buds and leaves and flowers. The insects ensure there is no shortage of wonder.

I’ll feed and water and prune everyone as always to help the plants be robust and tolerant. I’ll ensure no standing water, because I draw the line at welcoming mosquitoes. But that’s it. This season and for the foreseeable future, I’m doing homegrown biodiversity research.

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3 thoughts on “Report from the Field: IPM course has unexpected effect

  1. I visited a vineyard once that didn’t use any pesticides, only natural predators. They planted little patches of plants all over the vineyard that attracted “good” bugs or that provided shelter for bugs or birds that ate pests. They also allowed “weeds” to grow between the rows of grapes because those plants were adding nutrients back in to the soil. It was pretty cool (at least from my non-professions point of view).

  2. That is cool. I’m seeing more use of that technique up here, and it really works given the time to get established. Lots of vineyards up here too.

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