TEXAS BUG BOOK
Here is some of the introductory information about our insect book. Purchase The Texas Bug Book: The Good The Bad and the Ugly here online.
TEXAS BUG BOOK - THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Howard Garrett and Malcolm Beck
University of Texas Press, Austin
Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Howard Garrett and Malcolm Beck
All rights reserved
Second Edition, 2006
Front Epigraph: To all the entomologists and organiphobes who tried to keep this book from being published. The delays you caused forced us to make a much better book and created more interest in buying it. Thanks much!
How to Use This Book
Insect Pest Management
Insectivorous Animals and Other Beneficials
A. Beneficial Insects
B. Pest Control Products
C. Growing Organic Roses, Pecan Trees, and Fruit Trees
D. Basic Organic Program
E. Texas Organic Research Center – Acceptable/Unacceptable Products
Texas Bug Book is for gardeners, farmers, ranchers, landscape and nursery people, and even those who don't grow plants at all but want a better understanding of nature. It's fascinating to learn why so many different types of creepy, crawly creatures were put here to aggravate us, help us, and offer great beauty.
Yes, we understand that all insects aren't bugs--we wanted a book title that you would remember, buy, use, and recommend to your friends, your family, and your business associates. Our inspiration to do this book really came from customers, readers, and listeners who would ask us about insects or bring them to us in a jar or plastic bag for identification and solutions to the problems they seemed to be causing. We would often find that people had been spraying poisons on beneficial insects that feed on troublesome insects, pollinate flowers, break down organic matter, and perform many other less publicized duties. The so-called troublesome insects are also interesting and quite useful in their own way. They help us understand and improve our agricultural and gardening techniques, and they encourage genetic study of our food sources.
This book concentrates on Texas bugs, beetles, and other critters--those that are the most visible, the most troublesome to humans and crops, and those that are the most helpful. Even this number is almost overwhelming. But read on—you will definitely find this book different, educational, interesting, and an important tool for all growers of plants. Incidentally, in these pages you'll also learn the difference between a bug, a beetle, and an insect.
Being open-minded and willing to share information is a critical part of finding the truth. The following people have helped us greatly by sharing information on the insects covered within these pages and making format recommendations for the book: Dick Richardson, Pat Richardson, Jim Marshall, Richard Fullington, Brian Keeley, Truman Fincher, Dan Clair, Mike Rose, Phil Callahan, Jim Jones, Richard Hogsette, Delbert Weniger, Bart Drees, and Buddy Maedgens. We greatly appreciate their help.
We also thank Texas A&M, entomologists and authors of other books on insects. The books that have been most helpful with our research are listed in the Bibliography.
Malcolm would especially like to thank Del Weniger, Charles Cole, and Buddy Maedgens, who many years ago, before this book was ever conceived, helped him identify and appreciate many of the little creatures described here.
Special thanks to Tracy Fields, Howard's assistant for help with the original book and Howard’s current assistant, Jenny Timberlake Bellamy, who helped greatly with the updates and changes to this addition.
Special thanks should also go to Shannon Davies, who, while working at UT Press, not only helped create and edit the Texas Bug Book, but also was largely responsible for its successful journey through the approval process to become a reality. Also, special thanks to Peter Kazan for his review and recommendations.
Nature is often seen only from an altered or artificial view. With our modern lifestyle few people take the time to study and know nature's wisdom and perfection or see its beauty and design. Instead, they regard many of the life forms, especially the insects, as having little or no meaning. They see nature as something to be dominated or manipulated. They don't see themselves as part of nature.
To understand nature, walk into the woods or meadows and look around. You'll be in the presence of many living things--plants and animals, large and small. Then look down. You'll find equal amounts of death, many expired life forms covering the soil. Dig into this mulch of dead things and you will find it beginning to decay. The deeper you dig, the more advanced the decay until the individual pieces fade into humus. This makes the soil rich and fertile to grow healthier plants. Remain for a while in the presence of this cycle of life, death, decay, and new life. Imagine yourself as part of this environment. Then study and think. A good thought to start with is, "Nature is perfectly designed, and everything, even death and insects, are designed for a purpose." Since we are the highest form of life on this earth as far as we know, consider the purpose of even the troublesome insects.
When you study from this approach, you make discoveries and learn things that would otherwise be blocked from view. The aphids, for example, are considered to be our most troublesome insect. They reproduce extremely fast. They can give birth to live young or deposit eggs. When born alive, they are all young females that are born pregnant, and their young are born pregnant. They may grow wings or not grow wings, depending on their needs. They can alter their character to suit almost any environment.
With all of these life- and generation-sustaining abilities, you think they would soon destroy all plant life, but they don't. Organic gardeners and farmers have known for years—and now science is proving—that the aphids are attracted to and can flourish best on plants that are stressed: weak and sick. The aphids act as censors to seek out and destroy the unhealthy and unfit plants. This allows "survival of the fittest," a natural law.
By destroying the unfit, the aphids have kept the plant world healthy so the plants could survive through the centuries to supply us and all other life forms with food, fiber, and energy. This censoring by the aphids makes them and the many other small insects we call troublesome very beneficial and necessary.
Except for man, nature designed checks and balances so no single living, reproducing creature would get out of control. Mother nature put the lady beetles and the other predator and parasitic insects here to act as a police force to keep the aphids and other plant-censoring insects in balance and prevent them from overdoing their job.
Instead of letting nature act out its role of destroying the unfit, we put poison on the sick and weak plants to destroy the censoring insects. Then we eat from the poisoned, unfit, nutrition-poor plants and wonder why we get sick. In our failure to properly study and understand nature and our desire to dominate nature, we have caused ourselves much anguish. Poisonous synthetic chemical toxins can now be found everywhere--in most of our food and in the tissue of every human being.
We hope that reading our book about bugs will help you better understand and enjoy not only the little critters but all of nature and help you live without the need of harmful toxins. Let's help protect this beautiful and fascinating planet. It's the only home we have. Let's keep it safe and productive for ourselves and our children.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
Source of Common and Scientific Names
Neither of us is university-trained in entomology, and we don't claim that this book is the last word on the subject of insects. We did consult many other books and research papers and several schooled entomologists to help us in the correct identification of the insects, but we were often frustrated to find the experts and the references in disagreement. That's understandable because of the millions of insect species that exist. Many more are out there and still not identified. In addition to the fact that the existing books disagree on insect identification and many of the entomologists disagree on the names, the accepted names keep changing. We had to make a decision on how to give readers some consistency, so here it is. The scientific names in this book agree primarily with Destructive and Useful Insects (5th ed.) by Robert L. Metcalf and Robert A. Metcalf.
The common names used by farmers, ranchers, landscapers, pest control people, and entomologists vary even more than the scientific names. Under each listing we have shown the various common names in use, but the primary common names we list agree with the publication Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms, published by the Entomological Society of America.
INSECT LIFE CYCLES
Throughout the book, you will find references to "complete" and "incomplete" life cycles. A complete life cycle or metamorphosis is the type of insect development that has four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Insects with this development include mosquitoes, wasps, flies, beetles, green lacewings, and ladybugs. An incomplete life cycle is a gradual metamorphosis. It is a type of insect development with no prolonged resting or pupal stage. The three stages are egg, nymph, and adult. Insects with this type metamorphosis include silverfish and the true bugs like stink bugs, boxelder bugs, minute pirate bugs, and squash bugs. Instars are the immature forms of incomplete insects.
Some animals we call insects really aren't. These insectlike critters include spiders, mites, and galls. Galls aren't even animals; they are plant growths that are caused by fungi or insects. Insect galls are the most common. Mites and spiders are different from insects in that they have eight legs instead of six. These critters are included in the book because they are so similar and because of their economic importance and influence on the balance of life.
WHY THE STORIES?
One of the unusual features of this book is the inclusion of personal stories. We both have had many experiences with insects, and our observations serve both to back up our reporting of the insects and to debunk some previously held theories that we have found simply wrong.
During our research, it became overwhelmingly apparent that most of the scientists and university-trained entomologists simply don't agree with us on lots of insect issues. For example, almost no entomologists (among those we've spoken with, anyway) believe that fire ants eat plants. It's simple to establish the truth, however. The fact that they eat plants isn't based on anyone else's book or scientific paper. It's based on our experience of sitting and watching fire ants eat eggplant, okra, and other plants.
Our stories also illustrate how we got our knowledge of controlling troublesome insects with organic techniques and protecting the beneficials with commonsense approaches. The stories might also give readers clues to management techniques that we haven't thought of yet. Getting people to think a little more before blasting away with toxic pesticides is one of the primary goals of this book.
INSECT PEST MANAGEMENT
The known number of insect species is certainly arguable, but there are at least a million and scientists are discovering new species daily. Some scientists estimate the number of species to be as high as 60 million. Of those already discovered, it is our opinion that less than 2 percent should even be considered pests.
Organic growers work under the philosophy that plants growing in their preferred environment and in soil balanced to suit their needs will be healthy, and that a healthy plant's immunity prevents the destructive insects from multiplying into damaging populations. Natural enemies such as beneficial insects and microorganisms are usually able to hold these pests in check. This natural balance can't work when the natural predators aren't present, and that of course is one of the main reasons we are opposed to the traditional practice of spraying broad-spectrum toxic pesticides.
When insects (and diseases) attack plants, organic growers search for the cause of a plant's inability to stand off the attack. Nonorganic growers (those who still use synthetic pesticides and artificial salt fertilizers) treat the symptoms by trying to kill the pests with toxic poisons. These pesticide treatments often worsen the problems by killing off beneficial microbes and insects, thus giving the pests more free rein.
Many so-called pest problems are created by bad land management practices and poor plant selection. We have used compost and natural fertilizers to grow pest-free vegetables and ornamentals, while other plants nearby but not properly fertilized have been heavily infested with pests. Pecan trees that were severely infested with mealybugs, after being mulched with compost, were completely cleared of the pests after two years. Nematodes were gone in one year from a tomato hotbed used to start seedlings after the introduction of compost and earthworms. Peach and other fruit trees with trunks oozing sticky sap healed themselves after being mulched with compost.
When plants in apparently natural conditions become infested with diseases or insects, stressful factors may be quietly at work: the water table has changed, air pollution has increased, or competition is pushing one plant out for others. We have also learned that erratic weather conditions can stress plants and cause insects and diseases to attack. But plants in balanced, fertile soil are not as easily stressed and therefore have a very powerful resistance to diseases and insect pests.
The skeptics will argue, "But we don't have enough compost for all the farms in America." For that reason, really big organic growers don't always use compost. Instead they grow cover crops for additional organic matter. They also test for fertility elements, adding the specifically deficient nutrients to the soil when needed. Organic growers are careful not to use toxic pesticides or any toxic chemicals that harm the living organisms of the soil, such as the beneficial microbes and earthworms that are essential in making a soil fertile enough to grow healthy plants.
Getting rid of all the bugs, beetles, slugs, snails, and other bothersome critters in the farm, garden, or landscape is impossible. It's also a bad idea because most of these living organisms are beneficial. Insects usually do a great job of controlling themselves if we don't foul up the balance by spraying toxic pesticides, using harsh salt fertilizers, or watering too much or too little. Even the insects we would classify as harmful, such as aphids, are helpful in their own way. They attack plants that are in stress from problems of the soil, from unusual climate, or from poor plant selection. In doing so, they help to eliminate unfit plants.
A common misconception about organic farms, gardens, and landscapes is that they are wild looking, more brown than green, and insect-infested. That simply isn't true. Infestations of the allegedly harmful insects can be controlled with organic techniques and products. Pests in the harmful category can include aphids, ants, bagworms, beetles, borers, caterpillars, crickets, chiggers, chinch bugs, fleas, grasshoppers, grubworms, lacebugs, leafhoppers, leafminers, mealybugs, mosquitoes, nematodes, pillbugs, spider mites, roaches, scale, squash bugs, slugs, thrips, whiteflies, and others. These "bad guys" can be controlled by using much safer products than synthetic toxic chemical poisons. Aphids, red spider mites, and other small pests can be controlled with garlic/pepper tea and liquid seaweed while the tougher insects such as beetles and bugs can be controlled with pyrethrum, citrus oil, horticultural oil, or even something as simple as all-purpose flour. We recommend these "killing" organic sprays only as last-resort tools. Spray or dust only when a serious infestation exists because most pesticides, organic or chemical, will hurt or kill more beneficial insects than the targeted pests.
Garlic spray, for example, is an excellent mild insect control. It doesn't kill insects as much as it acts as a repellent. When hot pepper juice is added to the garlic, it becomes a more powerful, yet still mild insecticide. Other good insect repellents include castor oil, neem, liquid seaweed, molasses, citrus oil, and compost tea. However, the best insect control tools are other insects—the ones we call the "beneficials." Protecting native beneficial insects and other animals is critically important for horticulture and agriculture.
There are basically two types of beneficial insects--parasites and predators. Parasites or parasitoids lay their eggs on or in the pest insect's eggs or in the bodies of the pests. The larvae hatch and eat the pests. Predators do the work more directly. They eat the pest insects with powerful chewing mouthparts or they suck them dry by using tubelike mouthparts. Beetles and true bugs are examples of predators. Flies and small wasps are examples of parasitoids. Large wasps are predators. Among our best-known helpful insects are lady beetles, green lacewings, ground beetles, praying mantids, minute pirate bugs, dragonflies, damselflies, fireflies, assassin bugs, spiders, wasps, and predatory mites. Other forms of helpful wildlife include lizards, frogs, toads, turtles, nonpoisonous snakes, and birds. They provide important functions in the balance of nature and should be protected and encouraged. Remember that toxic pesticides can't tell the beneficial animals from the harmful.
Protecting existing native insects is important, but releasing collected or insectary-raised insects to build up beneficial populations is sometimes needed. Springtime is the key time to release most beneficial insects. Soft, succulent new growth on plants often attracts aphids and other critters, especially when high-nitrogen fertilizers are still being used to encourage unhealthy fast growth. Releasing beneficial insects on a regular schedule and fertilizing with soil-improving materials will help provide excellent long-term control. The best beneficials to buy and release include lady beetles, green lacewings, fly parasites, and trichogramma wasps. Keep them cool and watered and don't spray them with any poisons, not even organic insecticides. Their favorite food is juicy, plant-eating insects. If you don't have troublesome levels of plant-eating insects, there's no reason to buy and release beneficials.
Beneficial insects need lots of energy to be active and search for prey. The adults of many beneficials rely on pollen and nectar as food sources. Flower pollen is a source of protein, and nectar is a source of complex sugars called carbohydrates. Therefore, an important part of a successful beneficial-insect gardening program is to plant and maintain a wide variety of flowering plants. In the garden design it is important to use plants that flower in the fall as well as those that flower in the spring and summer.
Lady beetles can be purchased in mesh bags or in small boxes that hold anywhere from 1,500 bugs per pint container up to 70,000 beetles per gallon. The best way to release lady beetles for the control of aphids is to sprinkle or spray the foliage with water and release the beetles directly on the infested plants at dusk or early in the morning when dew is still on the plants. If you apply water, add two tablespoons of molasses per gallon of water. The lady beetles will definitely appreciate the added sweets.
Green lacewings are excellent broad-spectrum beneficial insects because they control so many different kinds of pests. Containers of eggs or larvae can be purchased for release to control aphids, spider mites, thrips, caterpillars, and other pests. It's best to release them in the cooler part of the day. These insects are very small but aggressive and voracious. The adults are about a half-inch long and feed on honeydew and nectar. The ferocious little alligator-like larvae actually do the insect control. Green lacewings can be released throughout the spring and summer in a series of releases until natural populations are established.
Trichogramma wasps can be released from small containers or cards attached to plants that are having problems with pecan casebearers, cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, corn earworms, armyworms, and many orchard pests. These beneficial insects are tiny gnatlike parasitic wasps. They should be released in a succession of releases, starting in the spring when affected plants first leaf out. Repeat the release every two weeks. Once established, these beneficials don't necessarily need to be released every year. In an organic program the gnatlike wasps will establish natural populations and be around every year to help control pest insects.
ELDARICA PINE TREE'S UNUSUAL INSECT PROBLEM
A widely planted pine tree is running intro trouble in Texas. Eldarica pine has been planted all over the state—in home landscape, commercial projects, even along the highways. It's been commonly sold as a good living Christmas tree choice. The only problem is that most of these trees planted in the eastern half of the state are dying. Eldarica, also known as Mondell and Afghan pine, is a desert tree. It has no chance of living long term in an irrigated landscape. It also has serious problems with the normal amount of rainfall and soil conditions we see in most of the state. After the root system gets in trouble from too much moisture the insects attack the tree trunks. It does okay in West Texas, but everywhere else it's getting root fungal disease and borers in the trunk. Nothing can be done short of applying the Sick Tree Treatment to postpone the inevitable results.
Pitch moth or sequoia pitch moth (Synanthedon sequoiae) larvae sometimes cause only relatively minor injury to the trees because they usually do not girdle the trunk. In other cases they kill the trees quickly. Larval feeding sometimes causes one or a few limbs to die or become weak enough to break. These insects produce copious amounts of resin. The most effective control of this insect is to only plant Afghan (Eldarica) pines in desert or xerispace situations and don’t irrigate after establishment.
INSECTIVOROUS ANIMALS AND OTHER BENEFICIALS
There are many helpful animals that control insect pests. Some of the most noteworthy are birds, especially purple martins and hummingbirds, bats, toads, frogs, snakes, lizards, and turtles. Here are some stories and details about some of the most beneficial animals that help us with the control of troublesome insects.
Birds provide important insect control as well as add great beauty and sound to the garden. It is important to encourage wild birds to come to the garden, farm, and ranch even though some of our feathered friends can become pests.
Attracting birds with food or shelter to your garden allows you to enjoy their songs and beauty; what's more, their presence helps with the control of many troublesome insects. Hummingbirds, for example, like to eat many flying insects, including mosquitoes and gnats. Purple martins, swifts, and swallows also eat an enormous amount of flying insects. Purple martins are large swallows that are uniformly blue-black. Females have light-colored bellies. They glide in circles, alternating quick flaps and glides, and they spread their tail feathers more than other swallows. They nest in loose masses of debris in tree hollows, barns, other buildings, and purple martin houses. They feed on flying insects, but contrary to popular opinion, mosquitoes make up only about 10 percent of their diet. Sorry about that. Bats are much better for mosquito control.
Sapsuckers are birds that drill holes in vertical columns or rings around the trunks of trees. Do they hurt anything? You bet they do. Sometimes called a woodpecker, the beautiful red-headed sapsucker is lovely to look at but a serious menace. When a tree is in stress, the sugars concentrate to help fight infirmities and to help repair injuries. Certain animals like the sapsucker can detect that concentration. We know this from research at the USDA's Northwest Forest Experiment Station. This theory is also backed up by Lawrence Kilhan in his book Woodpeckers of Eastern North America. The birds like the sweet sap and drill the holes in tidy rows so the sap flows and is easy to suck up. Other animals including butterflies, other birds, squirrels and other critters will also take advantage of the sweet oozing sap. To solve the problem, splash some hydrogen peroxide on the wounds, then smear on Tree Trunk Goop, which is 1/3 each – compost, soft rock phosphate and natural diatomaceous earth. Commercial products are also available. Then apply the entire Sick Tree Treatment program to improve the health of the tree so the sapsucker will no longer be attracted.
To help keep these beautiful pests from damaging your trees in the first place, make sure trees are planted properly, use the gentle organic fertilizers instead of the high nitrogen synthetic products, make sure the soil is aerated rather than compacted, avoid physical damage to trunks and limbs and maintain the proper soil moisture.
A Howard Story—Why Feed the Birds?
I feed the birds at my office and at home although some people question the activity. I also end all my radio shows with "Don't forget to feed the birds." Some gardeners from time to time tell me I shouldn't feed the birds at all because it makes them lazy or "it isn't natural." Adding seed and berry-producing plants to provide natural food in the garden is certainly good to do, but supplementing with bird seed mixes is also recommended as a helpful addition to their diets and an effective way to attract more birds to the garden.
My recommendation to feed the birds started as an attempt to get people to slow down and take time to enjoy nature. At the time, I didn't realize how helpful wild birds are at controlling insects. Bird feeding is easy, doesn't take much time, doesn't cost much, and isn't harmful to them in any way. Providing food is simply a supplement to their natural diet. Most bird experts will tell you the same. A good book on the subject of bird feeding is Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens by Thomas Pope, Neil Odenwald, and Charles Fryling Jr.
There are times of the year that are better for bird feeding than others. For example, birds will appreciate your help more during the winter and summer than in the spring and fall months. You should feed birds year round, but don't expect to see as many cardinals, sparrows, doves, and others in the spring when the juicy insects are plentiful or in the fall while plants are producing plenty of berries and seed.
Because of their different feeding habits, various birds are attracted to different foods. Some birds are almost exclusively seed eaters while others eat both insects and seeds. Among the seed eaters are cardinals, chickadees, finches, nuthatches, titmice, sparrows, juncoes, jays, doves, pheasant, and quail. To attract juncoes, doves, and other ground feeders, put sunflower seed and smaller seed on the ground or in dishes. Finches, on the other hand, prefer hanging feeders filled with black thistle seed. If sprouting occurs under feeders as a result of feeding birdseed and this is a nuisance, try using safflower or peanut hearts. These seed will not germinate under feeders, and birds love them. Many birds love sunflower seed, but be aware that the raw, uncomposted hulls are toxic to plant growth. Expect a dead spot under the feeder (or put the feeder over a paved or mulched area). Cardinals, chickadees, and even finches like safflower seed. Squirrels, jays, and grackles don't like it. Most sparrows don't either.
Probably the best way to feed the birds is to plant or conserve plant varieties that produce edible seed, berries, or nectar. Good choices include yaupon holly, elderberry, serviceberry, camphor tree, hawthorn, dogwood, persimmon, loquat, fig, eastern red cedar, magnolia, crabapple, mulberry, wax myrtle, Mexican plum, black cherry, hog plum, Carolina buckthorn, barberry, burning bush, cotoneaster, American beautyberry, hollies, mahonia, Chinese photinia, roses, rusty blackhaw, viburnum, coral vine, Carolina snailseed, sunflowers, hibiscus, lantana, Turk's cap, coral honeysuckle, poke salet, blackberries, and nasturtiums. The mockingbirds in my garden definitely have a favorite food—it is chile pequin. They eat the small, hot red peppers like jelly beans as fast as they mature. Chile pequin is a perennial in most of the state. Burning bush (Euonymus elata) is another favorite of several bird species. A good resource for what and how to plant is my Plants for Texas—even if I do say so myself.
A Malcolm Story—Birds and the Bees
An old gardening friend from the city visited my wife, Del, and me one day in 1957. After I showed him around my little farm, he told me it would be the perfect place to keep honeybees--especially since I didn't use any poisons. It wasn't long before he had brought a dozen or so hives and put them on the farm. Besides being good for pollinating the plants in the garden, the bees were fascinating to watch. Del and I were learning a lot about the art of beekeeping, since our friend had been at it a long time.
The beekeeper always gave us some honey each time he robbed the hives. We enjoyed the sweet amber bonanza, and everything was going great until he came out one day and discovered that I had put up a big purple martin house, where several pair of birds were already in residence. The beekeeper was pretty upset at seeing those birds patrolling the sky. He said I'd better take down the martin houses because he was afraid they would catch and eat all his honey bees.
By then, I was already attached to the friendly martins, and they must have been attached to us too. They acted as if they belonged to the family. They never flew away when we walked near their house but simply gave us a friendly chirp. I just couldn't see taking down the house where our friends were living. Besides, I couldn't believe that such a beautiful and beneficial creature would attack and eat such a beautiful and beneficial insect.
I didn't remove the martin houses, but I did promise to pay the beekeeper for any hive that was lost. As time went by, the martins and bees seemed to be getting along well with each other. One morning on the way to the barn to milk the cow, however, I noticed a martin flying toward its house with swift and erratic maneuvers. It appeared that something was chasing it, as it zoomed right into its house at full speed. I can't imagine how it stopped without slamming into the inside wall of the house. On several occasions, I noticed the same flight pattern by the purple martins and was puzzled. One morning I was close enough to understand. The honey bees were escorting the martins home whenever they accidentally flew through the bees' flight pattern.
Since that discovery, I always watched for the escort bees. Usually there would be three bees, one on each side of the martin about a foot away and one directly behind the bird at about the same distance. I never saw more than three bees, but occasionally there would be only two, one on each side. I'm sure the martins didn't enjoy the escort service, but it was really fun to watch. The bees seemed to fly at the same speed the martins did, and regardless of any evasive move the martins made, the bees kept up and remained in perfect formation.
I knew from then on that I wouldn't be paying for any lost hives, at least not because of anything the martins did. We have always had martin houses on our farm, and my children loved them. The birds would perch on their front porch and look down at the children and chirp to them rather than flying away like the other birds. One beautiful shiny male became our special friend. When we walked out into the barnyard, he would fly high in the air, then fold his wings like a hawk and dive directly at one of us at full speed until he was about six feet above our heads. Then he would spread his wings and flutter to a halt, with a lot of wild chirping sounds as he flew back up into the air. Most evenings, he was ready to put on his show. Usually he came from the direction of the setting sun and tried to sneak up and startle us.
My kids named this dive bomber "Old Dover," and every spring they couldn't wait for him to come back home. He returned at about the same time each year for five or six years. We were all sad to be without him when he didn't return, and no other martin has learned to play like Old Dover did.
Bats in most regions can outnumber the martins as much as one hundred to one. They come up from their winter homes in Mexico about the same time the martins arrive, but they stay three to four months longer.
Bats are important to the ecosystem, especially in insect control. One bat can eat about 600 mosquitoes and other night-flying insects per hour. Twenty million bats return each year to one Texas cave alone. In a single night this colony eats a quarter of a million pounds or more of flying insects. Bats also help to pollinate flowers by feeding on plant nectar and pollen.
There are many misconceptions and outright falsehoods about bats. They aren't evil. They don't suck blood from your neck--the only blood-loving bats are the vampire bats that live in Latin America. Bats are quite interesting furry mammals with large wings. They do look somewhat peculiar hanging upside down in caves and under bridges, but their mysterious sleeping habits shouldn't bother anyone, especially since they do all of their beneficial work at night and don't bother anybody during the day.
Bats are intelligent, friendly, gentle, clean, and little if any health threat. They cause less rabies than do cats and dogs. According to bat expert Merlin Tuttle, more people die from dog attacks annually than have died throughout history from contact with bats. Because of the misunderstandings surrounding these wonderfully helpful creatures, their populations have been dwindling all over the world.
The nectar-eating bats aid the pollination primarily of tropical fruits in warm regions but also of the agave plant from which tequila is made. That of course is especially important!
Texas has the highest population density of bats in the United States. There are two particularly interesting bat communities. The first is the largest urban colony, which is estimated at close to a million bats, roosting under the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin. The second, located in a natural cave north of San Antonio, has been proclaimed by the National Geographic Society to be the largest concentration of mammals in a single place on earth. If the one million bats in Austin eat an estimated 20,000 pounds of mosquitoes each night, imagine the benefit we receive from the 20 million bats that leave Bracken Cave every night from April to October to feed on flying insects.
Merlin Tuttle, in his excellent book America's Neighborhood Bats, points out that all bats in the United States and Canada are insectivorous except for three species of nectar-feeders found along the Mexican border of Texas and Arizona. Anyone interested in receiving more information about our furry flying friends can write or call Bat Conservation International, P.O. Box 162603, Austin, TX 78716; (512) 327-9721. Another excellent book on bats is The Bat in My Pocket by Amanda Lollar. The book and other educational information is available from the nonprofit organization she runs called Bat World, located at 217 N. Oak, Mineral Wells, TX 76067; 817-325-3404.
To attract bats, you can build or buy specially made houses. Bat houses work best in a location within 1,000 feet of water. Insect populations will be higher around water. The houses should be oriented toward the east or southeast so they warm up quickly in the morning. Hang them in an unobstructed spot about 12 to 15 feet above the ground, but not too close to your living quarters because bat guano will accumulate underneath. Bat guano has a strongly sweet and powerful aroma. It is very high in nitrogen and great for your garden soil. An excellent publication on bat houses is The Bat House Builder's Handbook by Merlin Tuttle and Donna L. Hensley. Bat World provides plans in exchange for a small donation and also sells state-of-the-art bat houses.
Malcolm's Poem: "The Bats"
The purple martins get glory by day
As insect eaters while they glide and play,
But in the dark of night
Many bad insects are in flight.
Troublesome bugs of all type,
Moths, beetles, and mosquitoes that bite,
All feel free to fly about,
Bugs know when the birds are not out.
But when the light of day fades away,
Many hungry bats come out to feed and play.
All night they fly and eat,
While the martins are fast asleep.
They are able to catch bugs by the pound
While they navigate using high-frequency sound.
But at light of day they hurry on back
To a dark deep cave or spooky old shack,
And rest up for another night
Of catching bad bugs while in flight,
And return the skies of day
To the martins that glide and play.
FROGS AND TOADS
Frogs and toads are similar, and both are beneficial. In general, frogs have smooth skin, narrow waists, and long legs for leaping. Toads are wider, have warty skin and short legs for hopping. Both of these amphibians are found on land and in water, but toads can live far from water.
Chorus frogs are not seen as much as heard. During breeding season, they sing day and night near shallow bodies of water. They hide in grass and other vegetation and are extremely hard to spot. Tree frogs are equipped with adhesive-padded toes and long legs and toes to help them cling to twigs and climb trees. Many tree frogs can change color from brown to green to gray to patterned. Some baby tree frogs are bright green. Spadefoots have a small sharp-edged spade on the hind feet, used to dig burrows in the soil. They spend most of their time underground but appear on the surface after heavy rains.
All toads and frogs eat and thus help control insect pests, slugs, and snails. These garden friends can be encouraged by using organic products and avoiding toxic pesticides. They are all very sensitive to pesticides. Toxic poisons are easily absorbed right through their skin and do great damage.
The most common lizards in Texas gardens are the anoles, often mistakenly called chameleons. They are usually bright green, and the males have a pink throat fan that they display when showing off for the ladies. They can change color to brown. They eat insects and add beauty to the garden.
Geckos are great lizards for insect control. There are at least three species here in Texas. Asian geckos are smooth-skinned and about 4 to 5 inches long at maturity. The Mediterranean gecko is the same size but has bumps and a ringed tail. Both love to eat young roaches, grasshoppers, katydids, ants, and other insects. They are pale and translucent and have large lidless eyes. Their toes have broad pads and claws extending beyond the pads. The Mediterranean gecko was introduced to Texas several years ago and has now naturalized across at least half the state. This is the most commonly seen gecko because it likes to live around lighted buildings so it can eat the insects that are attracted to the light. Breeding takes place for four or five months in the spring. They lay one to two eggs under shutters or even in the bases of light fixtures. The third species is the tokay gecko, also an Asian import. It is much larger and much more aggressive; although naturalized in some parts of Texas, we do not recommend its release. Unlike the small geckos, it can give you a painful bite. It feeds on insects but also eats small geckos and other animals.
The Mediterraneans can be bought at pet and feed stores. They should be protected and released as an important part of your organic pest control program.
There are about 220 distinct kinds of snakes in North America. All are beneficial since they eat rodents and insects. The United States has only four major types of snakes that are poisonous to humans: rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and coral snakes, and they all can be found in Texas. Children should be taught the dangers and the benefits of snakes because all others than those mentioned above are harmless and beneficial to humans. Some of the nonpoisonous and very helpful snakes are blackheads, brown snakes, ground snakes, earth snakes, garter snakes, ribbon snakes, patchnose snakes, rat snakes, king snakes, hognose snakes, bull snakes, coachwhips, whip snakes, racers, water snakes, and milk snakes. These benign snakes need to be protected because they help control lots of troublesome insect pests and rodents.
Turtles have a long fossil history. Most are carnivorous, but some eat plants as well. Snapping turtles are the most dangerous because they are aggressive and will bite. Don't mess with 'em! Soft-shell turtles look harmless but also bite. Box turtles are the most common in the garden and can be helpful in eating insects, slugs, and snails. They also like the taste of strawberries and other low-growing fruits and vegetables, so they can become pests, especially in the vegetable garden.
Besides the myriad of microscopic plants and animals in each cubic foot of healthy soil, there are lots of macroorganisms, the ones we can see, such as spiders, centipedes, millipedes, springtails, and other insects and critters. But the most fascinating and helpful one is the earthworm. Earthworms inhabit the cool, moist soil in your garden and have a much more important role than that of fishing bait. They are good friends because they provide nutrients, improve the structure of the soil, and benefit other beneficial soil life. There are many species of earthworms, ranging in size, color, soil preference, and life expectancy, but they are all beneficial.
These "Intestines of the Soil," as Aristotle called them, break up soil hardpans, drill miles of burrows that soak up fast-falling rains, help plants root more deeply into the soil, shift chemically unbalanced soils toward a neutral pH, help make soil nutrients available, and loosen compaction.
A single earthworm deposits its weight in castings every twenty-four hours. That may not seem like a lot, but earthworms in an acre of soil are able to produce about fifteen tons of castings in one year. The earthworms also help increase soil microorganisms while they destroy the harmful fungi, bacteria, and root nematodes as they digest them. The earthworm's digestive system also helps neutralize the soil if it is either too acidic or too alkaline. Charles Darwin, who discovered the great importance of earthworms, stated that vegetation in many parts of the world would be eliminated without the helpful benefits of the earthworm.
Earthworms are attracted to soils that are high in organic matter and free from pesticides and harsh synthetic fertilizers. Earthworms can be purchased from growers or grown at home in moist compost. In order to confine them to a particular area while you are "raising" them, feed them periodically with cornmeal and molasses. This will prevent them from leaving the compost "nursery" until you are ready to introduce them to your garden or landscaped area. Growing your own earthworms or adding them to your garden can be enjoyable, but they will return naturally and increase in population rapidly if you stop using synthetic chemicals and go organic!
What we organic gardeners should be most concerned about is the level of life in the soil. The best soil test is called the earthworm test. Dig a 12-inch by 12-inch by 6-inch-deep section of soil out of the ground and slowly sift it into a box, bucket, or wheelbarrow. Count the earthworms you see in this half cubic foot of soil. If your test is in turf, there should be at least six earthworms. If the test is in a mulched-bed area, you should see about ten earthworms. They should be big earthworms—about the size of your little finger. If your test doesn't uncover enough worms or if they are puny little worms, your soil needs more improvement.
The presence of lots of big plump earthworms shows that nature has been at work and has filled the soil with life. If you see lots of worms, you can rest assured that the beneficial microbes are there too. If the soil is full of life, the chemistry can't be too far from balanced. If the earthworms are present, the soil will be well aerated and aggregated. Earthworm-rich soil will drain better and also hold just the right amount of water significantly longer. Wait until you see the improved plant growth. The bottom line will be improved soil health, greater biodiversity, and greater plant production.
Unusual worms may be in your garden that you need to know about. You also need to kill them. They are land planarian, slimy iridescent flatworms with a hammer heads. We once thought these creatures to be neutral only eating some beneficials and some pests, but that is wrong. Rather than helping control termite larvae, grubs and other pests, flatworms seems to be destructive and need to be gotten rid of. Flatworms only eat earthworms.
They can stretch out up to 20 inches long and glide along on a layer of mucus secreted from glands along its underside. These gruesome worms feed by extending their throat out of their mouth and into earthworms. Small bits of earthworm are swallowed a little at a time.
Land planarians are native to Indo-China, but have been transported to many other parts of the world in the soil of greenhouse plants. They can survive in freezing climates but don’t do well in dry climates. They are primarily nocturnal, but can often be found out and about early in the morning especially on wet surfaces. They can also be found on the trunks of trees.
Smashing these pests completely is the thing to do. Be thorough because they grow back from small pieces. A better solution is to spray them with orange oil to completely destroy and prevent return.
Horsehair worms are also called Gordian worms because they will often twist into a loose, ball-shaped knot. They occur in knotted masses or as single worms in water sources such as ponds, rain puddles, swimming pools, animal drinking troughs, and even domestic water supplies. Adults measure 1/25 inch in diameter and may reach 1 foot or more in length. A common misconception is that these long, thin, brown to blackish worms develop from horsehairs that fall into the water. They are parasites of invertebrates, especially certain insects and commonly found in agricultural areas having water-impoundment and irrigation facilities.
Horsehair worms are harmless to vertebrates because they cannot parasitize people, livestock, pets or birds. They also do not infect plants. If humans ingest the worms, they may encounter some mild discomfort of the intestinal tract but infection never occurs.
In conclusion, it could be said that most wild animals are beneficial. Sure, some of them do damage to the soil, eat our plants, and perform other mischief, but they are simply part of that quilt we call biodiversity. The troublesome animals like raccoons, skunks, armadillos, squirrels, and coyotes can be controlled through commonsense management. They can also be repelled with organic products--for example, those that contain hot pepper and castor oil.
Protecting and improving biodiversity is what good land management is all about. It's done by introducing many plant types and allowing insects, frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, birds, and microorganisms to repopulate and flourish. Balanced life and healthy biodiversity are encouraged by introducing beneficial animals and protecting those that exist. Use of native plants and well-adapted plants from other regions also helps. Nature doesn't allow monocultures in the wild. Why should we in gardens and on farms and ranches? If you simply stop using products and techniques that kill, biodiversity will materialize like magic. It is this biodiversity that gives us true pest control.
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