Are you gardeners ready for spring?
If you're like me, you probably don't know as much about the insects in your garden as you should. The ones I notice are either eating me or stinging me or about to land on me for some reason. Other than that, I haven't spent much time thinking about bugs.
That's why I was so glad I volunteered to help two of our Carbon County Master Gardeners, Slate Altenburg and Ed Knittle, give a presentation in Schuylkill County about bugs. The program is called "Good Bug Bad Bug" or "To Swat or Not."
We started with a challenge. Altenburg stumped the crowd by asking folks to look at insect specimens through a magnifying glass and decide what kind of bugs they are. This is a huge decision. You sure don't want to swat a bug, only to find out later that it's main goal in life was to eat your cucumber beetles.
So what do you do if you're not an entomologist and you find a weird bug?
Well, first you immobilize it by putting it into the freezer overnight, and now that it can't get away, look at the mouth through a magnifying glass. The business end of most bugs is the tool kit at the front end.
If the mouth looks like the creature on the far left, the insect is going to chew. That's trouble for leafy plants because those chewing mouthparts are going to make holes in your vegetables and ornamentals.
Next we come to the sucking insects. Some, like the butterfly and bee, drink nectar. Others like our new friend, the brown marmorated stink bug, and our old friends the aphid and the leafhopper, pierce the stem or fruit of the plant and inject a chemical to create a liquid smoothie which they suck up through their built-in drinking straw proboscis.
These insects not only disfigure the plant, they also spread viral and bacterial infections as they move through your garden.
So to swat or not? Learn to recognize your insect friends. They are the ones who feed on the bad bugs and help keep your garden in balance. They include the well known praying mantis and the ladybug, but there are many more like the tiny wasps that lay their eggs on caterpillars, and on the eggs and larva of bugs we hate.
You want to encourage good bugs to live in your garden, just like you encourage birds and butterflies. Good bugs need food, shelter and water. Many of the bug killing wasps feed on nectar, for instance, and double as pollinators as well as bounty hunters. Keep your garden in bloom, and they will come. The tiny ones prefer small flower clusters, and a bit of water in a pan on the ground if there isn't enough rain.
Now that you have had a good look at your bug, if you still need help, do this. Pop the frozen specimen into a little bottle filled with alcohol and bring it to the the Penn State Extension office. If they can't identify it for you, they will send it away to the identification lab at the university and mail you the results.
Penn State Extension is located at 529 Lentz Trail, Jim Thorpe (in the small house near the dam at Mauch Chunk Lake).
The number for the Master Gardener hotline is (570) 325-2788. The hotline is open every Tuesday, and someone will get back to you if they can't answer your question right away.
Also, the Master Gardeners in Carbon County present community outreach programs at the Nature Center and at various festivals and fairs throughout the summer. Ask for a schedule of their events.