Saturday, July 4, 2015

Personal Note: Attack of the Tingids

All gardens recall the original garden we were cast out of eons ago, and prefigure the one we may return to in the not so distant future. Our humble horticultural efforts prepare us body, mind and soul for that long hoped for destination.  Or, for the more secular minded, our efforts help lay the groundwork for a garden we can bring about here on earth, through a judicious application of socialism, political correctness, and ever more centralized government.  Good luck with that!  For Nature, even the small part of it we can sequester within our yards and parks, is forever “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson put it.

My wife and I have been avidly cultivating the same postage stamped sized yard for nearly three decades.  Our front yard is not a lawn but a mass of native plants mixed with some invasive ornamentals: butterfly weed, coneflower, yarrow, bee balm, and daisies, but also day lilies, hostas, peonies and lavender.  From time to time I also allow interesting weeds—brought in by the birds and mice from our next door neighbor’s generous bird feeding—to flourish for a time if they spark my interest.  (A fair amount of wheat and corn has also sprouted in our yard as a result.)  We get many compliments from passersby, but also worried looks.  The rain this year has brought especial lushness to the garden.

Our back yard is much the same, though a small lawn of diverse grass and clover species separates the vegetable garden from a similar mix of natives, ornamentals and “guest species”.  More pristine gardeners, those with emerald green lawns devoid of all but just one species of puny, fertilizer dependent grass, would be horrified at what we have allowed to thrive and multiply in our yard.  It’s not that we have any great ideological commitment to preservation; Nature is quite able to preserve itself.  We have achieved biological diversity from sheer lack of effort and lack of time. 

Still, we don’t use pesticides of any kind, which allows a considerable variety of small organisms to exist in close proximity to the house.  My granddaughter is assisting me in systematically inventorying these, using an essentially binary classification scheme: “good” and “bad”. 

Unlike some of the more zealous organic gardeners in my town, we do not annually set fire to our yard in imitation of Nature’s lightning strikes or the Native Americans, who supposedly did this to rid their fields of annoying insects or invasive weeds.  The People’s Republic of Ann Arbor provides permits for this activity.  Around here it is not uncommon in the early spring to find the occasional front yard or wooded park blackened by eco-pyromaniacs.  (My preference would be to set neighbor’s yards on fire and then watch innocently from the front porch as naturehuman nature at leastunfolds.  My wife does not share this enthusiasm.)

Alas, a wild aster I have successfully cultivated for over a decade is succumbing this year to an attack by members of the Tingidae family.  Until this week, I did not know they even existed—forgivable because they are quite small.  Years ago I had moved this plant from the very back of the yard.  The neighbor behind our house had created the equivalent of a small duck pond and marsh by damming the flow of water down the hill from our house.  The micro-environment of my aster changed from “dry prairie” to “lowland swamp” or even “rice-paddy” in a season.  To save it, I had to move it.

I know that my neighbor created her small earthen dam as revenge for my cutting down of several young spruce trees that lined the berm separating our properties. The previous owners of our house had planted them, so we claimed them as ours, but she believed that her property included the berm itself and everything growing on it.  Her duck pond project caused a spectacular increase in mosquitos, rendering our back yard uninhabitable all summer.  Balance was somewhat restored by clouds of hungry bats that circled overhead at dusk, attracted by the unusually high concentration of mosquitos.  Bats are cool.

I considered fighting bio with bio, and thought about setting up bee hives—also legal within the city limits and a big craze not long ago—orienting their entry ways towards my neighbor’s back yard.  I knew from the movies that bees could be weaponized, as in the 1967 under rated classic The Deadly Bees, (“Hives of Horror!”).   However, a local beekeeper informed me that bees are not easily aimed, which was a disappointment and a setback.

Because we live in a horribly small world, I learned too late that my neighbor was also vice president of a local hospital system where I applied for a position back in the 90s.  I had made the short list, and was excited at the prospect of a new career opportunity.  I arrived for my second interview, and as she turned around at her desk we instantly recognized each other, the amateur mosquito breeder and the novice lumberjack.  We exchanged awkward pleasantries, but our mutual landscaping prevented any future together as close colleagues. 

We have since achieved a level of peaceful coexistence along our shared border:  she put in a drainage pipe to siphon off the stagnant water and even gave us a compost bin she no longer needed; I hacked down some invasive buckthorn trees for her and rerouted our gutter drains to reduce the inundation of her property during the rainy season.  Symbiosis is sometimes possible among humans.

I moved the wild aster to the front yard where it thrived for many years, until it was recently overwhelmed by an invasion of Tingidae, specifically, Corythucha marmorata, the Chrysanthemum Lace Bug or Goldenrod Lacebug.  The insect resembles a tiny moth in form, but with magnification displays a spectacularly ornate wing form.  Female adult Lacebugs guard their eggs and herd their offspring away from potential predators, which would be quaint and appealing if they had fewer legs.  Pictures of the creature that is eating my aster are available at:

Akin to aphids, mealybugs, and scale insects, the Lacebug feeds by sucking on plant juices.  Different species, of which there are around 150 in North America, are “host specific”, that is, assigned to decimate a particular plant.  There are Oak Tree Lacebugs, Eggplant Lacebugs, Rhododendron Lacebugs and so forth.  Oak Tree Lacebugs occasionally fall on people and attempt to resume feeding, resulting in mutual frustration and dismay.

As is typical with learning new names and new facts, once my attention had been drawn to the Tingid family, I began seeing them everywhere.  Last night, while strolling a local nature park, my wife and I found a beleaguered thistle, about as tall as I am, with the telltale stippling and discoloration of the leaves.  Sure enough, I saw numerous adults, differently colored from the ones in my garden, but with the same shape and habit.  A thistle is a pretty tough plant ordinarily, but its spines were a useless defense against the insect.

Which made me wonder about the thousands of organisms we walk by or step on or even inhale in the course of our daily meandering—unnamed, unknown, relentlessly busy and focused, just as we are in securing our livelihoods and raising our offspring.  My four year old assistant and I will continue our inventory in hopes of learning the names and habits of at least a few of these.    

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