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This week's Book of the Week feature is Lessons in Natureby Malcolm Beck.

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From: Lady Bugs-A Lesson In Nature

One evening many years ago while resting on the porch thumbing through a farm magazine, I ran across an article about the Colorado potato beetle and all the losses it was causing. The article told of a poison being used to control the beetle and went on to tell the range of that troublemaker, which included Texas.

After reading the article, out of curiosity I went to inspect my potato patch. Sure enough, while walking down the rows I noticed that there were beetles crawling all over them, even though there were no holes in the leaves and the plants looked healthy.

Early the next day I got the recommended poison and was out dusting when a friend walked up and said, “Beck, stop! You are killing the lady bugs.” He was too late. I had already dusted the whole patch. My friend described the difference between lady beetles and potato beetles. I thought, “So I poisoned a few good bugs, so what?” He also told me that lady bugs and lady beetles are the same critter with two different names.

A week or so went by, and I was out looking over the field again and saw no potato bugs — also no lady bugs. The plants, however, didn’t look so good; they looked sick. The leaves were cupped and curled and weren’t that healthful green they had been before. On closer inspection, I discovered why. Plant lice (aphids) were all over the stems and undersides of the leaves. The plants looked terrible and I began thinking, “What do I do now? Maybe I’d better call my friend who said to stop killing the lady bugs.”

 Lady bug feeding on aphids.

My friend informed me, “The lady bugs were there feeding on the aphids and keeping them in check. The poison killed potato bugs, aphids, and lady bugs alike. The aphids, however, reproduce extremely fast, a gener- ation a week, while lady beetles are much slower. It will take the lady beetles a while to come back in numbers large enough to get the aphid population back in control. Now you will probably need to use more poison because you upset the balance of Nature.”

Then I began to feel upset, not only because I killed the good bugs and the bad bugs were destroying my garden, but because I, a country boy, was being told something I should have known by a city boy.

I asked my friend how he knew all about good and bad bugs. He replied he had been reading a magazine called Organic Farming and Gardening. He gave me some back issues, which I read. All through the magazines the editor tried to sell the idea that adapted plants in their proper environment, in a soil balanced in minerals, rich in organic matter, with an abundant, balanced soil life — meaning earthworms on down through the microscopic soil life — would be strong and healthy. Nature’s censors, which include many of the destructive insects, would not be attracted to them, or be able to destroy them, and we wouldn’t need a lot of toxic materials to grow the food we eat.

Then I read more in my modern farm magazine, and all through it the idea was being promoted that we need poison and chemicals of all kinds to grow our food and be profitable farmers.

I thought for a while on this chemical philosophy and then on the organic philosophy, pondering which idea was really modern or the best. The question kept coming back: why should we need toxic materials to grow the food we eat? Was Nature designed that way? After more thought, I decided gardening or farming could be more fun, a lot more challenging, and even just as profitable if we followed the natural or organic laws, and the food we ate would be more healthful too.

The Colorado potato beetle. These insects started me on my lifelong study of Nature.

I really became a student of that organic magazine, and in it I noticed an ad selling lady bugs: a whole gallon (or about 75,000) for $12.50. Since I had killed some, I felt maybe I should order some replacements.

Soon the mailman dropped the lady bugs off at the mailbox and blew his horn to let me know of the perishable delivery. All excited, I picked up the container, ran out to the garden, took out my pocket knife, cut the pack- age open, and the lady bugs crawled out by the thousands — all over me. Then they flew up in the air about 15 feet and headed west, right back to California. It was then I read the instructions: Be gentle when handling them and first release only a few late in the evening. If they crawl about searching as if hungry, release the rest. If they only want to fly away, close the container and put it in the refrigerator for a few days, then try releasing again.

Lady bugs are the best known and most valued of our predator insects. In the larval and adult stage, they are the chief enemy of the troublesome aphids. There are about 350 species in this country. The young unmated adults hibernate through the winter, and these are the ones that are sold to gardeners. You may need to keep them in the refrigerator a while because they need to use the food they’ve stored as fat for hibernation. Otherwise they won’t be hungry and will only want to return to hibernation.

The benefits of lady bugs have long been known but sometimes need rediscovering. In 1922 a group of citrus growers in California banded together to eradicate the California Red Scale by chemical methods. They tried, unsuccessfully, until 1961. Then they switched to a total program of biological control. They bred and released parasites and predator insects on 8,000 acres. They proved a big success at controlling the scale, with a savings of about $40 per acre. The lady beetles were a big part of this control program.

Almost all gardeners recognize the lady beetle in the adult stage, but it is also important to know it in the larval stage. So many times I catch people destroying them through ignorance. The larval stage is the growing stage, and that’s when their appetite is the greatest and they eat the most aphids.

Here in Texas we have many different species of the lady beetle. Most are shaped like a Volkswagen bug. They are solid colors — orange, white, black, or red — no spots to 12 spots or more. Spots can be black or various colors. Buying and releasing more is fun and sure can’t hurt anything, although it isn’t always necessary. Most important is that you don’t destroy those you may already have. Nature will build and keep the population balanced in numbers that your garden environment will support. But the main thing is not to mistake them for potato bugs!

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About The Author:

Malcolm Beck was a lifelong organic farmer and the founder of Gar­den-Ville, a composting/recycling business and retail horticultural supply house. He spoke widely throughout the country, but was particularly well known in south-central Texas. His Garden-Ville operation has grown from a composting pile on his family farm to a multi-million-yard operation in a few years. His compost, fertilizers, bedding mixes, and soils supply leading landscapers throughout Texas. He authored and co-authored many books on organic gardening, including The Secret Life of Compost.

More By Malcolm Beck:

The Secret Life of CompostBeck shares his insight into the processes of decay that can transform everything from lawn trimmings to sewer sludge into life-giving earth.

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