Hindering Hoodlums and Helping Heroes: Free Backyard Habitat Workshop Set for Saturday
Winter is not a favorite season for those who like to putter around in the garden, but it does have advantages, namely a scarcity of insects.
As spring approaches and plants begin to show signs of life, so does the insect population. Insects can be a nuisance but gardeners must keep in mind that they are a natural part of the cycle of life and many insects are truly beneficial. Even those we consider pests serve a purpose because some of them are a major food source for our feathered friends.
So how can the average gardener determine which insects are "hoodlums" and which are "heroes"?
A workshop titled "Hindering Hoodlums and Helping Heroes: Understanding Insects in the Garden" scheduled for Satur-day, Feb. 28, will help local homeowners understand the types of insects that populate their gardens. It will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the Pinehurst Village Hall, 395 Magnolia Road, and it is open to the public free of charge. The workshop is another in a series of backyard habitat workshops sponsored by the Greenway Wildlife Habitat Committee of the Pinehurst Conservation Commission.
Taylor Williams, Moore County extension agent of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, will provide information and answer questions to aid in understanding insects common to the Sandhills. Williams' background in entomology makes him qualified to speak on this topic.
Hoodlums vs. Heroes
Williams defines "hoodlums" as "those that, if not kept in check, can do serious damage in the garden or to gardeners, in the case of fire ants. This can be from excessive plant feeding or spread of disease."
Among the top 10 examples of "hoodlums," he includes Japanese beetle grubs, fire ants, aphids, scale, spider mites, lace bugs, borers, bark beetles, miscellaneous sucking insects (adelgids, mealybugs, whiteflies), caterpillars (azalea, bagworm, imported cabbage worm, hornworm, armyworm), and thrips.
Beneficial insects are the ones Williams refers to as "heroes." They include pollinators such as honeybees; general predators (spiders, ants, assassin bugs, lacewings, paper wasps); and host-specific predators that specialize in attacking a very narrow group of pests, often a single species (ladybugs, parasitic flies, parasitic wasps).
Williams cautions Sandhills gardeners to be vigilant for certain insects on plants popular in local gardens.
Gardeners should check white pine, birch, crape myrtle and crab apple for aphids. Camellias, cherries and members of the rose family should be inspected for various types of scale; azalea, rhododendron, and hawthorn should be inspected for lace bugs. Beetle damage to pines and borer damage to dogwood and peaches are common.
When asked about detecting pine bark beetles in the prolific pine population here in the Sandhills, Williams says, "Look for pitch tubes on the outer bark. Pine tree defense against borers is pitch production, which is used to entrap the beetle. Pitch tubes are diagnostic (size and shape can be used to tell which species). Later symptoms, like discoloration of the needles, occurs too late to prevent loss of the tree."
The tendency to view most insects as pests is a misconception.
"Beneficial insects are myriad in number," Williams says. "In fact, most insects are beneficial. Plants and insects have over the eons developed a mutual coexistence. Plants depend upon insects for pollination, protection from pests, and pruning. Even plant-feeding insects are vital, since they keep weeds in check and help recycle nutrients from dying plants to renew the soil. Finally, as birds and other wildlife add to our lives with color and song, insects form the most important food source, especially for fledglings."
Williams explains how to differentiate between beneficial insects and pests.
"Recognizing beneficial insects is possible only through close observation," he says. "To me, this is one of the great blessings of a garden. The opportunity to develop an appreciation for the order, complexity, and yet simple economy of a beautiful garden is possible only when we stop, listen, and watch.
"As a general observation, insects that are fast moving tend to be beneficial. It takes a lot of movement and energy to pollinate a flower, catch a predator, or break down dying plant tissue to return it to the soil. Pests tend to be slow-moving and sedentary. Aphids and scales, and others of their shiftless kin, sit on the plant, suck up the goodies, and excrete excesses which mold, disfigure plants, and block sunlight from leaves."
Signs of a Problem
Williams provides advice for gardeners who find it difficult to determine whether an insect infestation is simply a cosmetic nuisance or a death knell for the plant.
"Holes in leaves show plant feeding, but rarely pose a problem," he says. "Most plants can suffer the loss of a third or more of their foliage and still show no loss of growth. Sucking insects, on the other hand, are more insidious.
There is rarely a visible injury, until the sooty molds, twisted or droopy foliage, or discoloration appear. To recognize real damage, you have to be a careful observer of the plant. Is the damage old or new? Is it to new parts of the plant, or old? Is the insect present, and if so, are its numbers increasing or decreasing?"
The importance of knowledge and experience in diagnosing problems in the garden should not be underestimated, Williams believes.
"This is where experience, as well as knowing the major pests, is essential," he says. "In this seminar, I will make frequent reference to our insect notes, which organize the insects by plant group and by season, tell you how to recognize them, and what time of year to expect them."
These notes are online at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes.
For information about the workshop, call (910) 295-1900 or visit www.villageofpinehurst. org.
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