Know Your Enemy: Garden Insects

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tsu, The Art of War

Back in 2017 when I was a less serious and more neglectful gardener, I experienced an infestation of squash bugs. I didn’t know what they were, and I wasn’t visiting my garden daily, so by the time I saw them, they were EVERYWHERE. I was completely grossed out and pulled up the whole garden. I was done for the year. Gave up. Threw in the trowel.

Things changed with the arrival of the 2020 pandemic gardening season. Because we were in lockdown, I was out there at least 5 minutes every day. I also got on a learning kick, and studied at the feet of YouTube gardening channels, Facebook groups, podcasts, and a good half dozen new books. It was on one of the groups that someone mentioned the Insect ID app.

I was about to start knowing the face of my enemy. And my friends as well; only about 3% of insects are pests in the garden. The rest are either harmless or downright beneficial. Insect ID has an annual cost, but it’s been worth it. Not only has it helped me identify when a bad actor is in my garden, it’s got a Pokemon “catch ’em all” element to it that makes it fun to identify new bugs.

For example, during one garden inspection, I came upon two little yellow beetles on my cucumber. I was immediately suspicious, and took a mug shot. With beetles in the garden, it’s totally guilty until proven innocent. And sure enough, they were anything BUT innocent. Striped cucumber beetles. Knowing this allowed me to research my enemy and fight them. I went out every day with a little bowl of water to which I’d added a drop of dish soap. Chopstick in hand, I’d creep up on my prey and knock them into the water. Along the way, I discovered a couple spotted cucumber beetles. All told, I killed more than 90 cucumber beetles this way. If I hadn’t known what they were and how to attack them, I would have had a repeat of 2017 for sure.

Not THIS time, squash bug!

I soon learned that almost every beetle you see in the garden is an issue. But not ALL of them. Obviously ladybugs are allies, but I also found predatory beetles and harmless ones like a stag beetle, that I was able to confidently leave in peace. Everybody wins.

Through paying greater attention to the insects in the garden, I noticed multiple species of bees, a very cool 4-toothed mason wasp who stopped by the birdbath for a drink, and some really weird slugs with their own convertible tops.

Four-toothed mason wasp

And of course… I learned to recognize the squash vine borer moth. It wouldn’t end up mattering that I knew this creature, and all the research and treatment measures I put into place couldn’t save the multiple squash, zucchini, and pumpkin plants that fell to the spawn of this deceptively beautiful insect.

Her wicked highness, the squash vine borer moth

This is a prime example of needing to know both your enemy and yourself. Next year, I’ll be taking all the preventative measures but have also ordered varieties of squash that are known to be more resistant to borers. The way a borer destroys a squash is to bore into those hollow stems and just start eating in relative safety. I gotta hand it to them, that’s a great strategy. Consequently, squash varieties with thicker or non-hollow stems give the borer more trouble. These include Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Cucuzzi Squash, Waltham Butternut, and Striped Zucchini.

Mantidfly, most definitely an ally!

The app doesn’t always identify the insect correctly, and it can be frustrating when it doesn’t. Like in the case of the mantidfly, I had to take that picture to another forum to find out what it was. But it gets most of them right, and really adds an element of study to my gardening effort. It’s relatively expensive in a world of 99 cent apps, but for me it was money well spent.

Black swallowtail caterpillar on dill. Not great news for the dill, but exciting to see in the garden!
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