Getting The Jump On The Equinox

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SO many bugs are benign!

Ladybugs Prefer Meteorological Spring

It’s Spring! Sort of. For some reason, every news source seems to be discovering that, according to the meteorological seasonal system, today is the official First Day Of Spring. Those of us who are tired of waiting for the endless winter to roll away can enjoy an extra three weeks of feeling springy while people clinging to the astronomical method of reckoning seasonal swings have to wait until the Spring Equinox on March 20. While the astronomical reckoning is as old as the hills (in one form or another, including the ancient Celtic system and other sun-based methods), the meteorological method of neatly dividing the year into tidy three-month sets has only been around since the mid 20th century. The National Weather Service has been a huge fan, since it’s much easier to work with than the ever-shifting Old Way (and don’t even get me started about figuring out when Easter is supposed to be).

Anyway, gardeners are thrilled to receive the gift of some warmish, sunny-ish days, whether right on schedule or not. Bulbs are popping, buds are swelling, catkins are blooming, and once again, my windows are busy with ladybugs. Like many older homes, this one has become a haven for a colony of ladybugs, which were happily hibernating in the walls, waiting for spring to arrive. As the recent Pineapple Express winds blew in, the walls warmed up and our hidden neighbors emerged. I know quite a few other homes that host these hidden guests, which are as good an indicator of spring as any bulb or calendar. Several friends have asked this week just where the ladybugs came from and what they should do with them.

Nurturing Good Bugs

Fortunately, though they’ve lost their way, these ladybugs are both benign and useful. These house-dwellers are Korean ladybugs that were introduced in the late 1970s by the Washington State Department of Agriculture to control agricultural crop pests. ough they are not native to this continent, they’re just as welcome as their Mexican kin but definitely beneficial, they were introduced in the late 1970s to control field pests. Like migrating birds, ladybugs apparently use a kind of internal GPS to find their way along their accustomed routes in their homeland. However, once shifted from Korea to Washington and elsewhere along the West Coast, their internal monitors can’t guide them home, so they take refuge in hospitable homes. Our local ladybugs also hibernate, sometimes in a cozy stump or cave, and sometimes in house walls. The ones we buy at nurseries are mostly wild-gathered, often from high altitude caves in Mexico, where the slumbering critters are scooped up and bagged and sold to gardeners for backyard release.

When spring arrives and windows get covered with swarming ladybugs, some people freak out and try to get rid of them. It’s worth remembering that hungry ladybugs eat their weight daily in pests like aphids and whitefly eggs, and those stuck-indoors little ladybirds can be beneficial garden helpers. However, put outside too soon, ladybugs will quickly die unless there are plenty of aphids and other tasty pests around. To help them as well as your garden, tuck these hard working beneficials in the fridge until warmer spring are here. To avoid harming these delicate creatures, gently sweep them into a clean dustpan or use a hand-held vacuum cleaner with a clean, empty bag. Put a wide-mouth funnel into a canning jar, then gently slide in the ladybugs, adding a small piece of damp (not soaking wet) paper towel to keep them from drying out. Loosely screw on the jar lid and refrigerate the jar until garden aphids arrive in April or May.

When Sleeping Bugs Awaken

Whether you’re releasing home-grown or commercially sold ladybugs, a few simple steps will help keep them in your garden. It’s frustrating to release dormant ladybugs only to have them all fly away. Remember that they’re going to wake up thirsty, so spray a wide swath of foliage before letting the ladies go, or pick a rainy, warm day for their release. That way, emerging ladybugs won’t immediately fly away to find water. Please ignore internet tips that suggest spraying dormant ladybugs with sweet drinks (such as fizzy pop) to glue their wings shut for a week or so. This is horrible torture for your ladybugs, which often die without mating (not at all what you or they want) when hampered by this “glue” treatment. Water’s what they want, and after a refreshing drink, they want to mate (after all, it’s spring). Very soon, they’ll be laying fuzzy orange ladybugs eggs that will hatch into larvae that resemble tiny black alligators with orange or red spots. These weird looking larvae are excellent eaters who demolish even more aphids than adults.

By now, I sincerely hope it’s obvious that if we invite beneficial bugs like ladybugs, bees, and other native pollinators into our gardens, we must avoid toxic chemical pesticides. Many garden toxins have a broad-spectrum kill effect and some target up to 100 kinds of insects. Since the maritime west only has about a dozen harmful insect pests, more non-target insects than pests are needlessly harmed. I’ve heard those who are squeamish about bugs say “so what?” quite often, but let’s all remember that over 97% of all known insects are either harmless or beneficial. If you want to rid plants of pests without harming ladybugs and bees and other beneficials, the best place to start is with water. Many pests can be washed away with the hose, especially if you attach a high-pressure nozzle to a watering wand. They’re great for blasting off spider mites, aphids, and whitefly, which are killed by the force of the water, though our plants are unharmed. It’s also good for rinsing pollen, molds and mildews off decks and outdoor furniture and cleaning moss off stairs and sidewalks. Onward, right?

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