For the love of pollinators, control yourself

Clockwise from top left, Oleander aphids, swamp milkweed leaf beetle, milkweed longhorn beetle, milkweed tussock moth.
Clockwise from top left, Oleander aphids, swamp milkweed leaf beetle, milkweed longhorn beetle, milkweed tussock moth.

Have you ever heard the phrase “loving something to death?” Well, I am here to tell you we gardeners, with the best of intentions, do it all the time.

We try to support our tomatoes and use twine instead of something flexible and end up with a tomato sawed in half, just when the fruit are about ready because the twine sawed into the stem.

The same is true with our pollinators. Who doesn’t love a pollinator? Well, sadly lots of people, actually. I am always trying to get people to understand, nature is an open invitation. You may want bluebirds and orioles, but you will also get sparrows and starlings. You may want hummingbirds, but you may also get ants, bees and wasps and the occasional raccoon.

You plant milkweed, and you get all these other “bugs” you don’t want. And the wrong choice can be deadly; not for you, but for those monarchs you are so desperately trying to save.

If you are gardening for monarchs, pollinators and/or wildlife as a whole, just don’t do it. Don’t spray, don’t sprinkle, don’t pesticide, or at least make some educated decisions before you decide to “get rid of everything” so “your” monarchs will be “safe.”

First, let’s remember, they are not “our” monarchs, or bluebirds or hummingbirds. And I am not telling you chemical treatment is bad. But whatever we do is like the proverbial pebble cast into the pond. There is a rippling effect that affects everything else.

Milkweed is an excellent example. Countless times a year, I am asked to identify the other insects and related invertebrate kin. Notice I didn’t say the “bad insects” or the “pest insects.” Milkweed has its own ecosystem, and that is in the larger ecosystem of your yard, your neighborhood, your community and the whole world.

The pumpkin-colored oleander aphid (Aphis nerii Boyer de Fonscolombe) can blanket every fresh, succulent new leaf of your milkweed. Milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle) caterpillars that look like a black, orange and white version of my grandpa’s bristly moustache, can appear in great numbers seemingly overnight. There are also a wide variety milkweed bugs, longhorn and other beetles that inhabit milkweed.

And guess what, they specifically evolved to do just that. And the idea of trying to kill off everything to “save” the milkweed for monarchs, isn’t ecological at all. Yes, there is competition for resources, like those delicious, yet poisonous, milkweed leaves. And, no, there isn’t always room for everyone. But when it comes to supporting pollinators, you have to make some concessions.

Ideally, a pollinator garden is pesticide-free. The song “Only the Good Die Young” comes to mind. Our beneficial insects are easy kills compared to the pests. If this is a hard method to swallow (you probably have an aphid in your throat), then decide to limit a portion of your gardens to being pesticide-free. I almost guarantee, over time, you will start to see beneficials being attracted to help wage the war on the pests – naturally — as nature intended.

I was just showing this to the students of the 13-year, 47 students strong, Joliet Central Garden Club. I am so proud of the way these youth have learned to ask questions first, and only then decide what to do. (All the Will County Master Gardener Project Gardens are pesticide-free due to the fact they are public/demonstration gardens).

So the kids noticed the huge amount of oleander aphids. Then I asked them to identify what else they see. Ladybugs, lots of ladybugs and ladybug larvae. Even though they are so cute, don’t let ladybugs fool you, they are vicious serial killers. And that is a good thing because their prey are those aphids.

The kids also noticed lots of ants around the aphids, and what appeared to be a clear, sticky substance on the leaves. Did you know ants “milk” the aphids for their sweet honeydew? Ants literally farm aphids, like we do dairy cows. Honeydew is insect excrement, and it is sweet because the aphids are plant vampires, with piercing, sucking mouthparts that suck out those sweet plant juices (carbohydrates/sugars). Ants love that sticky sweet substance.

So who knew? The kids marveled at the Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who” moment. If you are not familiar, Horton is a Dr. Seuss book about an elephant who discovers an entire world that lives on a speck of dust. Nature is so like that. Just when you learn something, there is a whole new level of a world you didn’t know anything about.

If the choice was made to spray for the aphids, not only would this ecosystem be destroyed, but the unknowing female monarch may lay eggs on this treated plant. And when her caterpillar hatches out and after eating its egg sac starts the natural process of eating the milkweed leaf, the life cycle of that insect ends there. Now we have an anti-pollinator garden, attracting, then killing.

Are there some strategies you can use to reduce the insect load in your pollinator garden if the numbers of one type of insect are huge? Sure, you can spray a strong spray of water to dislodge the aphids.

Will that hurt any other insect? Probably not, unless that milkweed tussock mustache, I mean caterpillar, gets into the spray. But definitely, it will not leave a chemical residue that could kill a monarch.

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