Release the hounds

Or the ladybugs, to be exact.

You probably haven’t seen many photos of my garden lately because I’ve had an embarrassing problem: something was making most of my plants look like Swiss cheese. It took me awhile to figure out what it was. I was seeing a lot of ants, and by a lot, I mean hordes of them. I assumed that it was them munching away on the corn, squash, and melons, so I wasted a couple of weeks of time and effort sprinkling their nest with cornmeal, dousing them with neem, and trying to drown them with seltzer water.

After nothing really seemed to be working, I actually did some research about ants and crop damage and come to find out…ants don’t really eat plants. In fact, they can be good for the soil because some of them tunnel and help reduce compaction.

However, one thing that I did find out is that ants also do something funny, something that I didn’t know existed in the animal kingdom: they raise livestock for a protein source, and that livestock is aphids. Ants love the sticky sweetness that aphids produce by feeding on plants, and so they’ll actually protect aphid populations in the same way we would protect a herd of cows. Who knew?

Aphids are tiny, and oftentimes difficult to spot. Your garden can also host several kinds of aphids. One day, I turned over the leaf of a sunflower that the ants seemed to particularly be drawn to, and sure enough, I could pick out tiny dark specks on the bottom.

I tried washing the aphids away with water. I tried more neem. And finally, I called in the big guns and decided to play God: I ordered 1,500 ladybugs from Hirts Garden Center.

I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that feels sort of uncomfortable with rushing the process along. In an ideal garden system, the ladybugs would come on their own and take care of the problem. “Jump starting” the population may not be good for native ladybugs. If I had any, that is; which is why I ordered them. I’ve never, ever seen a ladybug in my eight years of living in Milwaukee. I don’t know if the population is just non-existent or if they’re really, really shy.

So, I took a risk and ordered them. Can I just say how funny it is that you can order bugs in the mail? And even funnier that, to calm them down until you release them, you stick them in the fridge?

Anyway, I released them into the garden last night, at dusk. It was a very relaxing thing, I’ll admit. It was neat to see them find the little water droplets on the plants that I’d provided, and to see them head underneath the leaves and hopefully start chowing down on aphids!

Everything I’ve read about this says that maybe 1/5 of the release will stick around, if you’re lucky. Most of them fly on to greener pastures (or aphids, in this case). We’ll see how things shape up over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying seeing them scamper around the garden. They’re pretty darn cute.


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