Spring is in full bloom and gorgeous flowers are on display all over Darlington County. Although the seasonal pollen is a chore to deal with, that messy yellow dust is crucial for plant reproduction, and it comprises the life’s work of many of God’s creatures, most notably those buzzing critters flitting en mass through the azaleas. I refer not to the tireless members of the Kalmia Garden Study Club, but to the only gardeners who outwork them this time of year: the bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.
Don Manley, a retired professor of entomology who taught at Clemson University for almost 30 years, says that our area has a rich and varied insect population, and these winged workers are crucial to maintaining agriculture.
“When people think of pollinating insects, honeybees are often the main ones that come to mind,” says Manley, noting that bees are the franchise player for farming and gardening. “They are pollinators of vegetables, fruits, and even some of our field crops (like cotton).”
In fact, honeybees and bumblebees pollinate plants that produce about 25-percent of the food our nation consumes. Unfortunately, bees can suffer colony death due to mites, parasites, and pesticides, so when choosing an insecticide, look for one that doesn’t harm pollinators.
Manley notes that one very popular type (Sevin) renowned for being safe to use around people and pets is deadly to bees. Also, study after study shows that a group of pesticides called “neonics” kills tens of millions of bees each year.
Activist beekeepers have organized protests and petitions urging stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop selling neonics, with mixed results. Lowe’s recently announced they would phase out neonics in their plants and shelf products over the next four years. Home Depot has asked suppliers to state on their labels whether their products contain neonics, and the chain is investigating how to eliminate the chemicals in plant production without harming plant health.
Warmer weather also brings back many non-pollinating insects, some of which make outdoor activities a real pain – literally. Stinging insects like wasps and hornets are out in numbers already, but even these guys serve a purpose: as predators, they feed on other insects and keep populations under control.
For your own safety, never swat or kill a hornet or wasp unless you have no choice, as killing one releases chemicals that draw others to the area. Best policy is to calmly walk away from an agitated insect. If a nest is located in a dangerous spot (close to kids or those with allergies) and you choose to remove it, use a jet spray pesticide in the late evening when the drones are resting.
Among other non-pollinators, the colorful dragonfly is also very beneficial. Manley says dragonflies are excellent mosquito hunters but, ironically, they fall victim to a misinformed, traditional attempt at mosquito control.
“A lot of people put out these gourds, like bird hotels, to attract purple martins because martins supposedly eat mosquitoes, but analysis of the stomach contents of purple martins show that the main thing they eat is dragonflies,” says Manley. “Dragonflies eat mosquitoes, so it’s actually counterproductive.”
To learn more about insects, pests and helpers alike, visit www.insectidentification.org or head to your local library and check out a few books on the subject. If you’re not squeamish, Manley says it’s guaranteed to be interesting reading.
“I think they’re fascinating. I started studying insects when I was about eight years old and I’m still studying them, even though I’m retired,” Manley says.
Mobile users, please click to view slideshow: The bugs are back!