At Home With Jeff: Good bugs & bad bugs


I have always loved bugs. As a child, I would watch them and play with them for hours. My mother believed that children should be indoors only as long as they were occupied doing something useful, otherwise they should be outside. My brothers and I spent a lot of time outdoors, much of it playing with bugs.

Who cannot be inspired by an ant carrying a leaf weighing a fifty times its own body? How about a grasshopper that can jump ten times its length straight into the air and twenty times its length horizontally? Insects are marvelous little things but not all are created equally.

When leading environmental programs for the City of Concord, I learned the concept of good bugs versus bad bugs. It makes sense that some bugs are beneficial while others are detrimental. Some people see the world as gray – full of contradictions and nuances – I prefer to look at the world as black and white with clear choices, with good, and bad.

During training, each team of students received a laminated sheet. On one side were color pictures and descriptions of “Good Bugs,” on the other side were “Bad Bugs.” Teams of students spent time looking around outdoors for these bugs with a magnifying glass, net, collection jar, notebook, and pencil. It was great fun. Over the years, I have made my own observations which I freely share with anyone who shows the slightest interest.

Tomato hornworms, for instance, are one of my worst enemies. I have seen one tomato worm eat half of a full grown tomato the size of a baseball. Their appetite is insatiable. The best way to prevent crop damage is to pick them off of your tomato bush. Unfortunately, they are camouflaged. You don’t know tomato worms are there there until you see their trail of destruction. They can be as big as and long as your thumb. They eat the tomato leaves, the stock, the fruit, the flowers, and everything else. I pick them off one by one as soon as they appear and fling them out into the middle of the street as far as my arm will reach. The neighborhood birds have learned this and wait in the telephone wires for me to throw a tomato worm before they swoop in. It’s very satisfying to see a worm meet his swift end. A little bird can feed her family for a week on a single tomato worm.

Aphids are bad bugs too. They turn foliage yellow, curl the leaves, and stunt the flowers in my garden. They leave behind sticky honeydew that turns black with sooty mold fungus. Aphids are much easier to handle than tomato worms. When you see the aphids arrive in the spring, wait patiently for about two weeks, then the ladybugs will arrive.

Ladybugs are one of my favorite bugs. They are pretty. They eat all manner of bad insects and provide food for the birds, who love them too. I have found that, if you spray pesticide on the aphids, you will kill the ladybugs too and just end up with a bigger infestation.

Honey bees are good bugs, useful and enterprising. Wasps and yellowjackets are bad bugs.

Mealybugs are bad bugs, they suck the life out of your plants, all the juices, and give back nothing in return.

Butterflies are good bugs because I like them. I don’t see as many butterflies nowadays as when I was a kid. There used to be millions of Monarch butterflies. A study by the National Institute of Health linked a sharp decline in Monarch butterflies to loss of habitat with milkweed in the United States and overwinter forests in Mexico. To attract more butterflies, Vivian and I have loaded the garden with flowers they love: Alyssum, Daylily, Delphinium, Lavender, Marigold, Nasturtium, and Verbena. All part of our effort to encourage good bugs.

Spiders are good because they eat bad bugs. Anything that eats mosquitoes, wasps, and yellow jackets is my friend. Mosquito hawks are also good bugs because they eat mosquitoes.

Ants are good as long as they stay outdoors. Ants are entertaining and industrious. Remember the story about hard working ants and the last cricket? If they try to come indoors, we shoo them back outside.

Earwigs are bad bugs. They eat tender, new plant growth and may chew around the edges of older leaves and on soft fruit like strawberries. I have yet to pick a artichoke and not find an earwig lurking in the petals. I am forced to submerge every artichoke in a pail of water for 30 minutes until the earwigs float up.

Earthworms are good bugs. I love earthworms. They help decompose organic matter. They aerate and fertilize the soil. The more worms, the richer the soil.

Mosquitoes are bad. I don’t know why they are on Earth. There used to be places you could go to get away. For example, did you know there were no mosquitoes in Hawaii until 1826. I call that Paradise Lost.

Just as every cloud has a silver lining, even the worst bug has some redeeming quality. I learned writing this article that the United States owes its independence to mosquitoes. It turns out that British troops stationed in the Southern colonies had no resistance to malaria. Troops in the Continental Army had grown up with malaria every summer. In the summer of 1780, half the British Army was too sick to move because of an epidemic in the South Carolina lowcountry. No one knew that mosquitoes carried malaria, and the British did not have the means to combat it.

In June 1781, Lord Cornwallis moved his army north to avoid, “the fatal sickness which so nearly ruined the army.” Not knowing better, he camped next to the water, and the mosquitos, in Yorktown. By late summer of 1781, malaria had taken hold of his army once again. With the British forces unable to conduct military operations, American and French forces forced Cornwallis to surrender in October, which decided the outcome of the American Revolution.

I could go on but you get the idea. There is a war going on between good bugs and bad bugs. It is incumbent on us to help the good bugs and foil the bad.

If you would like more information on controlling bad bugs, Contra Costa Water District offers courses on Integrated Pest Management and less toxic gardening. One of the tenants of these courses is that we should exhaust all other options before resorting to poison chemicals. Insects can usually be controlled more effectively by natural means than by pesticides.

There hasn’t been much time to play with bugs recently, but I’m looking forward to the holidays. While “the grownups” are busy, my two granddaughters and I will amble into the backyard, crouch above rocks and dirt, and see what there is to see! Maybe in December we’ll find a Humbug.

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