Most of us have been bitten or worse by a variety of insects, bees, ants, ticks, spiders… They are the essence of “being bugged”. The usual response is fight or flight, (see Tina Tolliver Matney’s article on Yellow Jackets in the August, North Columbia Monthly.) As a farmer, insects can be much worse than annoying. They can be devastating. The knee-jerk reaction is to kill them all. A lot of people think that the only good bug is a dead bug. That is not necessarily true. In a couple articles that I have read lately, the authors go on to point out that even wasps and bees feed on destructive insects. An article in the British periodical, the Guardian, showed posters on the wall of a regenerative farmer in England. One poster showed beneficial insects and the other harmful ones. There were a lot more beneficial insects. Praying Mantis, Lady Bugs and most spiders come to mind. So, knowing your bugs is important.
That is not always easy. Case in point: leaves were disappearing from my apple tree and cherry tree. There was no tell-tale tent that indicated an infestation of tent caterpillars, though those do show up regularly. The leaves looked like they had been cut off at the stem and there were branches at the top of each tree where every leaf had been removed. On closer inspection, I found the culprits, fuzzy caterpillars that I didn’t recognize. I captured a couple and took a picture.
That didn’t tell me much. I looked online with a Google search for “defoliating caterpillars”. There are plenty but none looked exactly like these. Therein lies a big problem. There are lots of insects, an estimated 5.5 million of which only 1 million have been identified. Maybe “bugs” is a better term because there are 1.5 million beetles, and they aren’t insects. Don’t even get started on millipedes, spiders and ticks, which are also not insects. There is actually a classification of insects called “true bugs”, Hemiptera.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, each insect, very much including these caterpillars of the order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), goes through 4 life stages: egg, flying moth or butterfly, caterpillar, and pupa. So, there are four different-looking critters to identify depending on the stage they are in.
I was talking to my neighbor and fellow viticulturalist, Don Worley, about the caterpillar mystery when his wife, Alice, showed up with a container of more defoliating moths, which were different than those I had, and were taking the leaves off their apple trees. The plot thickened.
Now I was looking for some serious help figuring out what these things were. Enter Picture Insect, an app that lets you snap pictures of bugs and uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify them. I was eager after installing it to see a bug, any bug, and try it out. The first was a spider. A few seconds after taking the picture, the ID appeared: hobo spider. I added it to my new digital bug collection. Alright, technically not an insect or a bug but the app didn’t seem to care. The hunt was on. But it was not always right on. My mystery caterpillar was not a tent caterpillar as the app suggested. Realizing that I could enter other people’s pictures into the app, I tried Alice’s caterpillar. Bingo! It is a Red-Humped Caterpillar.
This is what makes the whole good bug = dead bug approach unsustainable. The Washington Post reports that studies by Entomologists show that Habitat destruction, pesticides and climate change contribute to this potential-but-still-debated “bugpocalypse.” Over 40 percent of insect species may go extinct, according to a 2019 study, with butterflies and beetles facing the greatest threat. Healthy plants and plentiful predators discourage insect pests. There are biological controls for most of the damaging bugs. The first thing to think about when you find them is how to encourage these natural controls. I’m worried now because the grapes I have that are usually attacked by paper wasps as soon as they ripen but Bald-Faced Wasps have taken up the slack. Wasps will usually stick with whatever they get started on and I have a variety that is not great for wine but is the first on the wasp snack list.
Personally, I’m getting an annual subscription to the Picture Insect app ($30). I want to be locked and loaded for next year. Artificial intelligence builds its accuracy by repetition. The more people who contribute pictures and clarify identification to the app, the more accurate it will become over time. This is real citizen science. So instead of fearing bugs, we need to learn what they are and how they live and die. Finding them is an opportunity to live and learn.