Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I startled this praying mantis when I cut some of the basil this past weekend. Since then I've checked for it whenever I'm in the vicinity, and it has always been there. I wouldn't have thought basil was especially appealing to insects of any kind, with the essential oils being so strong, but apparently praying mantises and lady bugs are actually drawn to herbal plants. Since both insects are known for eating garden-destroying bugs, I'm always glad to see them around. I also just think they're cool. 

I don't think the mantis is as pleased to see me as I am to see it. After I had taken a few photos, it began to climb ponderously away towards the inner reaches of the plant. Perhaps it felt like I was blowing its cover. Camouflage is a key tool in its strategy for hunting, so I suppose a persistent paparazzo would be a problem. 

Inviting insect life was one of the goals with this garden, though mainly I was picturing honeybees and butterflies. Other ones like this surprise and delight me when they show up though. I feel the same sense of guardianship for them that I do for the plants themselves; this is MY praying mantis, even if it seems to think I'm a bit of a pest. The fireflies still rising from the copse each night delight me, but don't inspire the same sense of stewardship. I rejoice in their beauty, but can't take credit for the environment in which they thrive. They feel more like wildlife, creatures that share my space, and thrill me when sighted, but don't feel like MINE. 

There are other bug rankings in my world. Any earthworms turned up from digging are greeted as members of the family, while Japanese beetle larvae discovered in the same manner are treated as intruders and summarily squished to death. My gorge often rises as I do so, disgusted by the little ball of fat and mucus.Yes, earthworms are beneficial, while the beetle larvae are most definitely not, but it amuses me nonetheless that my visceral reaction to two essentially slimy creatures can be so different. 

To a lesser degree, I also rank pollinators. I'm glad when anybody is interested in the flowers I've planted, but when I'm honest with myself, I really hope honeybees will be the ones who show up. Bumblebees are nice enough too, I suppose, a perfectly acceptable second-best if for some reason honeybees aren't available. After that comes a whole slew of bugs whose names I've never bothered to learn. Most of them seem like impostors, to be honest: bee wannabes. They may have stripes, stingers perhaps, possibly even the suggestion of fuzz, but I'm not fooled. I don't squish them, or chase them away of course; they still serve a useful purpose.They just don't excite me. 

I learned last month that the big box store that provided almost half of my plants probably treated them all with a neonicotinoid. This class of pesticide has been implicated in bee colony collapse by several studies. Much of Europe has banned their use on crops and garden plants accordingly. Neonicotinoids apparently stay around for the life of the plant, permeating its nectar and pollen, so even if I've stopped buying plants from the box stores (and believe me, I have), there is still reason to wonder what this garden is doing to the insects I hoped to cultivate. Swell. 

Since learning this, I've been looking even more closely for insect life, and frankly it has seemed distressingly sparse. Beautiful hot sunny days will bring just a handful of insects, mostly bumblebees, to the blossoms. So far I've only seen four honeybees, and one of them was dead. Over half the garden came from organic seeds, which I hope will help balance out any harm from the box store plants. Many of the plants are also herbal, and will never be allowed to flower. I hope that helps. The common milkweed that I transplanted throughout all came from the back patch where it grew wild. I trust the monarchs will be all right, if any show up.

 I've taken perverse comfort in the fact that some bug has been munching away on the all the sunflower leaves. I figure the presence of pests means a lack of pesticide.The praying mantis inspires a similarly tortured logic; it wouldn't show up if there weren't good things to eat, right? There must be something to make it worthwhile to be hanging out in my basil bush.  It's not much comfort, to be honest, but it's the best I have for now.  

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