Monday, September 29, 2008

Insect Observations

If you lived next door to me, you might see me kneeling next to our raised bed with my eyes a few inches above the soil level. For a long time. No, I am not watching the lettuce grow. I am watching the soil insects.
The rulers of the raised bed are the ants, who have conquered the entire plot for their own uses. The tiny granules of soils mixed in with the dried mulchy layer on top are a result of their tunneling. Earlier this fall the ants were farming yellow aphids on the lettuces, but I became vigilant and brushed the aphids off every day for a week or so and the ants seem to have given up. Now the aphids are on the kale, this time gray ones.
Most noticeable, however, is the population explosion of pillbugs in our garden.
Apparently these population explosions happen sometimes. I've been finding nests of them underneath our lettuce leaves, a ring of them gnawing on the pea plant that had just sprouted, and sometimes they are crawling on the lettuces, nibbling holes in the leaves. I know they normally like to eat decaying plant matter, but they will also eat tender shoots. When I find one of these nests, I scoop it up with my garden spoon and fling it in the compost bin. I am hoping they are not all marching back across the garden at night back to my lettuces. This isn't a major pest crises, just an annoyance. They are actually pretty mellow and peaceful creatures, bumbling slowly over the soil like miniature VW vans and curling up into balls when I pick them up. Eventually, I had to find out more. Here is what I found in an article by Louise Kulzer at the Bugs of the Month website (pillbugs are isopods, an order of crustaceans):
Female isopods have a marsupium, a brood pouch in which the eggs are incubated until they hatch. The young leave the brood pouch and typically molt soon after: in Porcellio laevis, within 24 hours (Nair 1984). After leaving the marsupium, they live in family groups until the young are grown. Each family has a chemical "badge" which distinguishes it from the rest of the population (Linsenmair 1984).
Now I feel a little bad about scooping up the family members and flinging them into the compost heap. Maybe I should just let them nibble. I do wonder, though, what kind of relationship the ants have with the pillbugs--do they cooperate? Or do they just exist side by side? I haven't been able to find anything about that.
There are some soft green caterpillars--Cabbage White larvae--on the kale and the arugula. They are pretty easy to spot and pick off, even though they are usually the exact shade of green of whatever plant they are eating. Here are little, bigger, biggest:

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