The pedigree of honey does not concern the bee,
a clover, anytime, to him, is aristocracy. – Emily Dickinson
All gardens are full of insects and other wildlife. Most of them go about their business with little thought to humans. Butterflies roam from flower to flower, and caterpillars feast upon host plants, like parsley, dill or tropical milkweed. In the middle of summer, depending on the time of day, I may see bumblebees, paper wasps, honeybees, carpenter bees, hornets and flower flies feasting upon nectar while spreading pollen on every flower they touch. At night, moths come out to play.
Inevitably, when a bumblebee gets too close, visiting friends ask with an involuntary shiver, “What do you do about the bugs?”
I give them a knowing smile and say, “Not much.”
I try to garden as organically as possible, and so a lot of wildlife other than insects also exists beneath and in between my plants. In my garden, we have several kinds of lizards, tree frogs, toads and even a few garden snakes that feast upon the insects and small animals. Fortunately, the snakes are shy and rarely appear in the daytime much to the relief of my friends. I never tell them about the time I had to chase off a Speckled Kingsnake with a concentrated spray from the garden hose because he kept surprising me in the garden.
My personal fright bug is the common paper wasp, but after seeing one carry a caterpillar three times its size away from my vegetable garden, the wasp earned my instant respect and admiration. Allowing the insects to do their jobs also lets me observe patterns of behavior I would normally miss like male butterflies fighting over a prime puddling spot, or parasitic wasp larvae emerging from a tomato hornworm.
So, how does a gardener get to observe without being bitten or stung? Here are a few simple guidelines:
- Try not to wear perfume in the garden. This includes deodorant/antiperspirant, lotions and soap.
- No bright colors, especially blue and yellow. Bees and wasps are attracted to these. I also don’t wear red or pink.
- No clothing with complicated color patterns, especially those resembling flowers. Leave the printed capris at home and instead, opt for clothes in white, tan, khaki or green. Think foliage.
- Most gardeners like something to drink in the garden. Take water, or drinks like unsweetened iced tea. Sorry, to all my Southern friends! Sugary drinks are a magnet for yellow jackets and bees.
- Move throughout the garden at a measured pace. That way, if you encounter a snake or a lizard, it will usually move quickly away from you.
- I use an organic insect repellent that doesn’t contain DEET, like Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent to ward off mosquitoes. Because it’s oil based, you may need to reapply it. If you’re not afraid of DEET, you can use any of the regular repellents on the market.
- All of the spiders I come in contact with in the garden, usually the Wolf Spider (shown above,) the Brown Recluse and the Flower Spider, aren’t aggressive. However, it’s important that I know what they look like and watch out for them. I always wear gloves when clearing brush and/or mulch, places the wolf spider and brown recluse tend to hide. I’ve been bitten by a brown recluse, and it wasn’t pretty. I was bitten in the house.
- Wearing gloves is a good idea. Don’t squish an unknown bug with your bare hands. Once I did this, and I regretted it when blisters began to form. I discovered the culprit was a Blister Beetle. Also, Assassin Bugs (or as we call them in my house, Satan Bugs) will give you a nasty bite too if they get into your clothing, or you accidentally grab one. Like many bugs, they drop to the ground if threatened. I was weeding some grass, and grabbed one by mistake.
I also remind myself that for the insects my garden is their entire world. They live, procreate and die here. Just as I consider a plant’s needs for sun, good soil and rain, I also need to be aware of the small creatures abiding therein. To them, I am the visitor, even if for me, it’s partly my home too.