“Eww, gross! What is that thing?” I exclaim as I spot what appears to be a bizarre alien creature resting on a leaf in my garden. A strange mix of disgust and fascination well up inside me as I move in for a closer look. It’s big, green, and squishy, but other than that, I have no idea what I’m looking at. It’s an insect of some kind, but is it a good bug or a bad bug? Garden friend or garden foe?
We, gardeners, have learned to categorize insects based on these two criteria, friend or foe, good or bad, depending on their purpose in our gardens. For example, are they there to eat everything in sight and transmit disease? If so, they are bad. Or, are they benefiting the garden by pollinating our plants or by eating the bugs we’ve classified as bad? If so, then they are good. But, I have to wonder, is it that simple?
Most gardeners view caterpillars with suspicion and a wary eye but cherish the sight of a beautiful butterfly sipping nectar in the flower patch. However, you can’t have the butterfly without the caterpillar. So, how can you classify one as bad and the other as good?
Gardeners generally categorize the assassin bug and praying mantis as garden friends because of their voracious appetite for leafhoppers, aphids, and grasshoppers; however, they are both indiscriminate eaters and will just as likely eat beneficial pollinator insects. So, do we classify them as good when munching on the dreaded grasshopper but bad when we see them devouring a bumblebee? It can be quite a conundrum.
I once saw a cartoon that showed a caterpillar reading ‘A Bug’s Guide to Garden Pests .’ On the first page of the book was a picture of a gardener. The point of the cartoon was that it is all a matter of perspective. To us, the caterpillar is a pest, but to the caterpillar, we are pests.
Loathed by gardeners, a tomato hornworm will do devastating damage to tomato plants. However, they eventually turn into magnificent sphinx moths that are wonderful pollinators. These caterpillars are also food for many bird species and crucial in the life cycle of parasitic wasps (another insect we gardeners have labeled as a friend). I find myself torn between having a fascination and respect for Mother Nature and a need to protect my precious plants.
Can there be a happy medium between loving and loathing? I don’t have an answer to that question. But, I’m starting to rethink labeling bugs as good or bad, friend or foe. Instead, I wonder if I should look at them as simply bugs, doing what bugs do, acting out their part in Mother Nature’s food web. I don’t have to like seeing them munch on my plants, but I can appreciate that they are part of a thriving ecosystem. An ecosystem that I am also a part of.
No, I won’t ever be best friends with some of these insects (I can’t find even a shred of camaraderie with ticks or mosquitoes). And I admit it’s easier to love a beautiful butterfly or cute ladybug than it is to like a giant, green, squishy caterpillar, but perhaps I need a new perspective. A perspective that is not rooted in labeling love or hate, good or bad, friend or foe, but rather an acknowledgment of having a purpose in Mother Nature’s grand scheme.