If you've dropped by the farm for your produce in the past few weeks, you might have noticed that it looks like I've got my Halloween decor up a little early. I know, they can be a little startling. I do keep them clear of the front entrance. But they are one of several of my favorite beneficial insects (yes, I have favorite bugs) that appear this time of year.
Large black-and-yellow garden spiders (also known as writing spiders, due to their intricately built webs) have set up shop all around the house, with even more out on the farm. They do tend to get disturbingly large, and while I don''t want one for a housepet, I go out of my way to leave them to do their business. I think of them as my late summer clean-up crew. They have voracious appetites, and will snare and consume non-benefical insects by the dozens. They are the only creature I've ever seen that will eat a squash bug (even my chickens won't touch those stinky specimens). They are not poisonous, and will not bite you. If you find them around your garden, let them be. They're doing you a favor!
Everyone knows that ladybugs are a wonderful beneficial insect. But do you know what a ladybug looks like in her infancy? Ladybugs are great, but the adults prefer a diet of mainly pollen and plant residues. It's the junior ladybugs, the larvae, that are working the hardest for you. The young ones eat aphids by the thousands. Many organic gardeners will spray BT (a natural organic insecticide that targets caterpillars) on their fall crops to keep the cabbageworms from destroying new seedlings. Be sure to scout your plants for baby ladybugs first - the BT will kill ladybug larvae as well as the caterpillars, and then you'll have no ladybugs next spring.
The most amazing multi-legged beneficial out there right now are miner bees. They only show up for a few weeks in late August and early September. There are a number of different species - I'm not sure which one lives here, but it's a pretty nifty-looking bug with iridescent blue wings and an orange-gold striped body. The adult bees tend to hover over bare cultivated ground in the middle of the day. It's admittedly a little un-nerving to work surrounded by a swarm of bees, but they don't sting unless agressively bothered. They pollinate many edible crops, and also eat irksome cicadas and grasshoppers. Their neatest trick of all? Miner bees don't live together in colonies like other bees. Instead each and every miner bee burrows one to two feet down into the soil in the evening to sleep, then digs it's way back up again in the morning. In the process, they create millions of tiny little vertical channels through the soil structure. I could get an expensive sub-soiler and rig it to the tractor and burn a lot of diesel to aerate the soil and break up any hardpans. Or I can sit back and watch the miner bees do the job for me, gently, naturally. How cool is that?