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June 6, 2006 > Summertime bug fest

Summertime bug fest

by Pat Kite

Hopefully this post-rain season will result in fewer pest bugs. However I've already seen aphid clusters snacking on my rose buds and spittlebug froth decorating green stems.

There are green apple aphids, rosy apple aphids, pea and potato aphids, root aphids, cloudy-winged cottonwood aphids, giant willow aphids, gall-making aphids, and woolly apple aphids, among many others. They come in a rainbow of colors, including green, yellow, black, brown, red, gray, lavender and even pink.

Aphids have two major life objectives:
First, they suck the sap out of plants with a needle-like proboscis, or feeding tube. Sap is the lifeblood of plants. It carries nutrition to plant parts. When sap is slurped out, plants go on starvation rations.

Second, they reproduce. Aphids are mostly female. Each can donate about 100 offspring to your garden. And, each offspring is mature enough to reproduce within a week. If you have nothing to do in an evening, and like math, figure out how many aphids your garden can host in a year.

Sometimes people ask me what an aphid looks like. Aphids are about 1/16 of an inch long, pear shaped, soft, and may or may not have wings. Once you have identified them, you never ask again.

Aphids are not whiteflies. Whiteflies are just like their name. White flecks with transparent wings. They also feed, in groups, on plant sap. When you disturb their meals, they fly around the plant. After you leave, they settle down again. Each female whitefly can have about 300 children. This adds up to lots of annoyance.

Spittlebugs make the white froth you see on plant stems. Underneath each protective bubbly mass is a young spittlebug sucking on plant sap. Move the froth away, and you may find the little green nymph, or young. When it grows up, it hops away. An alternate name is "froghopper."

A little later in the spring/summer season you will find leafhoppers, spider mites, and thrips. In brief, leafhoppers are about a 1/2 inch long, wedge-shaped, and often colorful. They can hop, run sidewise, and even fly. Personally I think they are pretty.

Not pretty are spider mites. They look like someone sprinkled pepper on a plant that is allergic to pepper. Spider mites multiply like crazy. One today, seems like one zillion tomorrow. Spider mite damage shows up as a pale yellowish leaf mottling. With severe infestations, you may see very fine webbing on the leaves.

Then there are thrips. There is no singular "thrip," which should give you some idea of how fast they reproduce. Thrips are super tiny too. They are usually black or brownish. Thrips can fly. They hide near petal base, where they suck plant sap. Flower buds turn brown and petals stick together.

So, what to do? Well, I always kind of hope the garden will take care of itself if I water enough, fertilize once in a while, and hold a plant conversation or two. I'm not a fan of pesticides. What bothers pest insects also kills bees and other beneficial insects, butterfly caterpillars, and birds that feed on all kinds of bugs. However I do admit, every so often, if the aphids get so numerous that I can't see the rose buds, I opt for a systemic insecticide. Basically, systemics travel through the plant, and when the insects feed on the poisoned sap, they die.

Before you do that, try ladybugs, which love aphid meals. They are sold at most garden stores. Water first, and then release the ladybugs in the evening. They won't stay around after eating all your aphids, but one welcomes all beneficial help in life.

Have a lovely early summer day. And, if your family is looking for places to go: The Botanical Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is ideal for a picnic, as is the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley.

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