Last night, despite the swamp cooler’s rattling efforts, it was sweltering inside the house. Our little family took refuge outside in the backyard. The sunset was glowing and the gentle breeze swayed the sweet peas ever so slightly. While my girls splashed under the spray of the hose and my husband watered our hanging baskets, I booked it inside for my camera. The sweet peas are in full bloom and quite magnificent. It occurred to me, I hadn’t made the time to capture their beauty and their peak will soon come to an end. The sun was going down fast. As I was photographing a blur of something fluttering caught my attention. A big blur.
I snapped photo after photo, thinking it was a hummingbird (but it was a little late for hummingbirds… I personally don’t tend to see them at dusk). I was giddy, called my husband over to look at it, he told me it was a type of moth and not a friend of ours. Instantly, my heart sank. We have been having quite the battle with bug babies, especially my poor zinnias! Even though I was staring right at a potential foe, this moth captivated me. It really was acting like a hummingbird, flighty yet graceful. It was quite amazing, and it didn’t mind me getting right up in it’s business or the snaps of my camera. Something so spectacular couldn’t be my enemy (we’ll save that slot for the earwigs and aphids!). So, I did what any wife would do to prove their husband wrong… I went to Google.
This mystery-to-me-guest turned out to be a friend after all! It is a type of sphinx moth, specifically the whitelined sphinx (hummingbird) moth: Hyles lineata. According to this University of Reno article, these particular moths are attracted to sweet-smelling flowers and feast on the nectar, much like… a hummingbird! Now, there are a ton of of different hummingbird moths. Each of their larvae have a horn. Hit PANIC! Yes, the tomato hornworm (manduca quinquemaculata) and tobacco hornworm (manduca sexta) are closely related to the white-lined sphinx moth. Their larvae look pretty close with some slight color variations and food preference, which can give these poor white-lined sphinx moths a bad wrap! The white-lined sphinx moth is not considered sinister in the garden like the tomato hornworm and tobacco hornworm. The white- larvae don’t tend to be devastating to the plants (unless there’s an incredibly high population) and their larvae typically prefer feasting on weeds. I can get behind that! Atypical of moth behavior, these guys are active during the day and at dusk rather than being nocturnal. Bonus: these guys do their part in pollinating the garden!
I know when I think (or even talk) pollinators, I think bees and butterflies but there are so many unnoticed beneficial pollinators.
After the fire-pits in the backyard are nothing more than a handful of embers, and our heads are nestled on our fluffy pillows, the garden comes alive. In the morning, we may find evidence of the after-party that we weren’t invited to attend (how rude!). Unfortunately, sometimes it appears that the party got a little out of hand. Seedlings chomped to nubs and earwigs crashed out in the folds of the dahlia petals. Other than facing your nemesis, a flashlight in hand and a stroll of the garden at 10pm can tell you a lot. It can tell you your chomping enemies and some beneficial insects. I welcome spiders into my garden, they do a great job keeping some of the other annoying pests in control!
This year, I’m growing a flowering tobacco. My first year and so far it has captivated its place in the garden. I must admit, I was hesitant. Flowering tobacco becomes fragrant at night and is known to attract moths, which in turn lay larvae that become the “tobacco hornworm,” which does not play nice with plants (we kind of covered this already). They’re hungry caterpillars, I get it, I loved that book when I was a little. On the other hand, moths are amazing pollinators. While the bees take refuge to their hives and the butterflies snooze hanging from the branches of the trees, the moths continue to work through the night. Our little hummingbird moth friend is an exception to the nocturnal rule. Sadly, many varieties of moths leave hungry larvae that can quickly decimate your garden by literally acting as nibbling lumberjacks on your young plants. Hawk moths are a neat sight and pollinate but their offspring are the ever-menacing tomato hornworms. Despite their name, tomato plants are not their only entrée. They love any member of the nightshade family which can leave your eggplants and potatoes just as vulnerable to these naughty guys. Handpicking the caterpillars off the plants into a bucket of soapy water and spraying BT each week can help manage this pesky problem.
During the daytime, working side by side with our favorite pollinators are some pollinators that are beneficial but also are annoying. Wasps are decent pollinators but are jerks. We love our homemade insecticidal soap recipe and are liberal on using it with wasp nests. Our poor little Janey sees anything that flies and screams. Though very young, a wasp bit her three times in the face! Poor little girl! I think it was quite traumatic and she has had quite the insect-phobia since. By staying up on the wasp nests, we see them in the garden but they have been much less aggressive and seem to overall ignore us.
Flies are another pollinator. Super annoying and gross, they do play a part in pollination (in between visiting piles of dog poop and your Fourth of July hot dog). Unfortunately, there are fly varieties that leave menacing larvae such as leaf miners. Leaf miners can ravage your luscious swiss chard fast or any other delightful greens. We have spotted them on our orach and sunflowers in the past as well. The good news with leaf miners is, with a little diligence early in the season, they can be easily managed. We check under the leaves of their favorite foods and with some handy duct tape pick up their tiny eggs and destroy them.
We welcome all sorts of pollinators and use natural methods to control their dreadful offspring. Here are some tips to add to your collection to create a welcoming for beneficial pollinators and coexisting peacefully:
Plant a variety of flowers and vegetables
There are definitely certain flowers that pollinators prefer for breeding grounds and feeding grounds than others. For example, the monarch butterfly will only lay its eggs on a milkweed plant and that is what their young feed off of. Milkweeds are poisonous, by the larvae eating that plant they take on those toxins. This keeps predators from wanting to ingest them, along with their bright warning colors. With monarch butterfly populations down, planting some milkweed in your wildflower garden (away from pets, children, and your garden) can be a nice way to help a specific breed of pollinator. If there’s a specific pollinator or other beneficial insect that you feel called to help their populations, research them. Find out their favorite breeding grounds and food. Create a hospitable environment for them.
With that said, the garden is a place for diversity! Embrace it, enjoy the glorious flowers that open wide during the day and the others that open for the moonlight with their scrumptious scents of jasmine or floral bliss. Bumble bees are the only insect that can pollinate tomatoes (crazy right?) bring them to the garden with some flowers that bloom before the tomatoes are ready to flower and set fruit. Bachelor buttons are easy self-sowing flowers year after year. Enjoy the blue colors, there are not many flowers who can naturally produce blue (yes, blue carnations are not natural!). They also come in an array of pinks, purples, and whites. Any flower that tubular is welcoming to bees and butterflies alike, think foxglove and snapdragons. We have an array of different shapes, sizes, and scented flowers and our pollinator buddies do not discriminate! There’s no need for “pollinator friendly mixes” follow your desire and plant the flowers that you love and enjoy (the pollinators will too!).
The time to work and harvest in the garden (especially during the crazy hot months of summer) coordinates really well with having a peaceful schedule with our stinging and biting beneficial pollinators. Water and harvest early in the morning. If you can muster it, between 6am-730am. The bees are still sleepy and its nice a cool. Your flowers were able to rebuild those lovely carbohydrates and re-hydrate during the night, therefore, are nice and sturdy for cutting. Also, you can capture some flowers before they open and get pollinated. Once a flower is pollinated, its vase life drops dramatically. Some flowers are affected by this rule more than others. Don’t worry about “leaving them for the pollinators” there are more than enough flowers for you and the pollinators to enjoy. If you’re not interested in cut flowers, periodically deadhead your flowers so more will bloom for the pollinators and for you to enjoy outdoors.
A balanced garden will take care of itself. At the same time, we need to keep it clean. No, no vacuuming the dirt but be sure to pick up debris, clean up the garden beds in the fall and rotate crops. Most foes like to overwinter, catch those tomato hornworms by surprise by not giving them a cozy bed to hibernate in and not handing them their favorite food on a platter! Snag a soil test in the fall and amend accordingly. Plant only healthy, vibrant plants. Weakened, root-bound or diseased plants will holler for pests to come wreak havoc in the garden. Many times when insects become pests it is because the garden is not balanced, so let’s work on that!
If you get bit or stung… activated charcoal to the rescue!
I have a wonderful beekeeper friend and I expressed my fear of being stung by a bee in the garden. I know this is a concern for many of us, some have a severe allergy to it and it just plain hurts! My friend let me in on a little secret of their behavior and language. If they buzz right by you (even super close) you are simply in their path and they pose no harm. If they start “bumping” you, that’s a warning and its time to get out of dodge! After those warnings, stinging comes next. Knowing those two little tidbits has definitely given me confidence to work in the garden side by side with the bees. Also, don’t wear fragrance in the garden. We tend to wear bright colors (mainly us ladies) and then we make ourselves smell like a flower? No wonder bees and wasps will flock to us. We probably seem the like Holy Grail of all flowers to them!
Bugs can bite and sting. As a precaution, along with some Benadryl, we always keep activated charcoal on hand. No, this isn’t the charcoal from your barbecue or fire pit. This charcoal is found in the health food section or supplement section of most grocery stores. What does this mystery charcoal do? A lot of different things, we take it for food poisoning or stomach viruses but topical it has a different application (it can even detox your soil!). Activated charcoal basically absorbs toxins. It is even recommended to keep it in your hiking pack, because if you get bit by a rattlesnake, if applied to the bite immediately, it can buy you enough time to make it to the hospital. It really is life and death stuff. On a smaller scale, it helps with bug bites and stings.
As soon as you get stung or bitten apply some of an activated charcoal paste (mix it with water) and bandage it. Don’t let the paste dry out, change and refresh as needed. It’s remarkable how fast it helps to heal it and take the pain away! I must warn you, this stuff is messy and stains. Don’t put it on any deep wounds (unless you want a new tattoo). I encourage you to research activated charcoal, it is quite amazing but with any supplement should be treated as a medication and be researched.
As always, I am looking forward to handing you blooms soon.