Great Gardening: Stink bugs, jumping worms and other critter sightings – Buffalo News


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When a homeowner spots an unfamiliar insect in the house, a common reaction is eeuuw, followed by swatting, squashing, or stomping on it. When gardeners see insects on the vegetables or among the flowers, many assume the worst. Many ask “What should I spray?” and buy a pesticide. These reactions are not smart, helpful, or even safe. The better response to an insect sighting is the question, “What is it and what is it doing?”Unfortunately, we have an entomophobic culture, with little tolerance or appreciation for the importance and value of insects. Abhorrence or fear of insects, spiders and worms is prevalent and getting worse, partly because most people live in built and paved environments, far from nature. Advertising of products to “kill all the bugs” is also responsible, with the narrative that implies that all the buzzing, humming, crawling and flitting things in the yard or garden are unacceptable.Understanding of other living things and ecosystems, based on science information, is desperately needed if we have hope of caring for the natural world and for ourselves.
Some of the creatures I mention below are commonly seen in late spring in Western New York. Most of them are harmless; some are annoying; some very beneficial. One or two are seriously troublesome. Several here are insects, but this list also includes spiders (which are not insects) and one very troublesome worm.Stink bugs and Western conifer seed bugs (WCSB)Most people have seen them in the house or apartment, unless the building is completely airtight and sealed up all year. (They come in when cool weather starts in late summer.)The WCSB became familiar in the Eastern U.S. in the late 1990s, having traveled state by state and tree by tree from the Western U.S. They feed on certain conifer seeds and cones, and do no harm to our plants, animals, homes, or ourselves. They are about ¾-inch long, shades of brown, with very long legs. They do not bite and can be handled with bare hands. If you kill them they smell terrible, so I suggest you simply put them outside.Stink bugs somewhat resemble the WCSB – also with an odor. They have a shield shape on their backs. Some are green and others brown; some are pests of fruit or vegetable crops, but don’t harm most ornamental plants or you. Just put them outside. A newer one in our area is the long Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (up to 5/8 inch), with a marbled brown color and distinctive light bands across the antennae and legs.Black fliesAccording to New York State Integrated Pest Management (affiliated with Cornell University, “The only way to tell what (insect) bit you is to see it biting you. You can’t tell by the reaction itself.” However, for about three weeks in May, gardeners can guess that their bites are from small black flies that hover around faces and ears. There are 33 species in North America. In our region they proliferate after damp spring conditions. The good news is that they will go away. Products containing DEET are labeled for repelling them.Jumping wormsA certain worm is a serious invasive threat to our soil and therefore ecosystem health. I hope you have not found the jumping worm in your yard, but it is already well known in parts of Buffalo. It can colonize entire landscapes, forest understories and compost piles, where it consumes all valuable organic matter and leaves behind a useless, crusty, granular product. It slightly resembles the common European earthworm, but its narrow band (clitellum) is smooth along the brown body. It can grow many inches long. You will know it by its thrashing or jumping when it is disturbed. Be very careful about plant exchanges, one way that it is spreading in our region. (Isolate a new plant before introducing it.) Learn more about these and other invasive animal and plant species at are arachnids, meaning they have two body parts, and eight legs (unlike insects). Spiders are beneficial predators of many undesired insects. All spiders are valuable. It is nearly impossible to encounter one that is venomous in our region (unless you are reaching into damp, dark caves). They are blamed, mostly unfairly, for all kinds of skin infections or bites. Spiders with larger fangs can bite if disturbed, but the bite is almost always harmless. Same goes for another arachnid, Daddy Longlegs (aka Harvestmen), which eat decaying organic material. Just catch spiders in a cup and put them outside, while saying thanks for all the pests they manage for us.The insect world is complex and fascinating, if you take the time – ideally with children – to learn what is going on. Make bio-diverse gardens, full of flowers and herbs that encourage beneficial insects. You will find that most insects are helpful and so-called pests are manageable in a healthy, organic setting.

A Western conifer seed bug. They do no harm to our plants, animals or homes.

A short lesson on classifyingIt is difficult to get answers about perceived pests if you can’t identify them. Scientists classify living things in a hierarchy, starting with plant or animal. If you were trying to identify a six-legged critter, for example, you would follow this path: Kingdom: AnimalPhylum: ArthropodClass: Insect (an animal with three pairs of legs, antennae, three body segments, and wings at some point in the life cycle)Order: 29 possible orders of insects. They include beetles (Coleoptera), flies (Diptera), bees, wasps, and ants (Hymenoptera), butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), stick insects (Phasmida), lacewings (Neuroptera), and true bugs (Hemiptera).Although people like to call all insects “bugs,” only true bugs (Hemiptera) are bugs.After identifying the Order, the scientist narrows down the classification by Family, Genus, Species – as is done with plants.Try naming what you see. It will lead to better choices, and it’s a wonderful world to explore.Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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