Duches of Dirt: Nature at play in the Cox garden

Moths following the example of the ‘birds and the bees’

Leslie Cox

Special to The Record

I came across a spectacle in the garden recently…a pair of moths locked together, end to end, doing the wild thing in broad daylight. They were at it for hours.

How did I know how long, you ask? Because I scooped them into a glass jar to be properly identified. Once found, I was not about to allow an impregnated female moth loose in our garden until she was labeled friend or foe.

A good thing I had taken precautions. They were a pair of Hyphantria cunea moths: fall webworm adults. We dodged a potential problem because each female is capable of laying anywhere from 400 to 1,000 eggs. But it begs the question: How many other mating pairs of Hyphantria cunea were loose in the garden?

We will certainly know soon enough. The eggs will be hatching by the time this article is published and the tell-tale webs will start to form as the larvae feast on their diet of leaves.

You usually see the webs at, or near, the treetops, where it is most difficult to get at them for removal…like the one in our ‘Crimson King’ Norway maple tree last year. (Explains why we have mating pairs of moths in our garden this year.) But if you spot any in your fruit trees, which are also favourite host plants for the hungry larvae, be sure to remove the webs and bag them.

Now… you may be wondering why I would “save” a pair of white moths instead of snuffing them out immediately, just on general principle they were potentially bad bugs. Well, I live by Dr. Linda Gilkeson’s maxim: “Kill an insect and you inherit their job in your garden.” And truthfully, I have enough work to do in our garden, thank you very much, so I always make sure, as near as possible, that I do not snuff out any good bugs.

In this particular case, I wanted to be sure the mating white moths were not Virginia tiger moths, (Spilosoma virginica), a relatively harmless species, common in the area. This moth has a fairly large and varied range of host plants. Add to the fact each female only lays 20 to 100 eggs, and overall damage in the garden is minimal from the fuzzy larvae, known as yellow woolly bears.

(For more information about both moth species, go to duchessofdirt.ca and type each name in the search box.)

Honestly, you must think I spend all my gardening hours looking for insects in my garden. Not true! I recently did a spot of snake wrangling – in front of garden visitors, no less. (Warning! If you are squeamish, skip the next two paragraphs.)

While escorting the visitors from South Surrey through our garden, I spotted a garter snake in the pond. It was avidly poking in and around the roots of some irises planted at the pond’s edge. Almost without thinking, I reached in and grabbed the snake. No way was it going to have my baby goldfish for lunch!

The visitors were a little startled, I think, but they were quite gracious about my abrupt behaviour, especially since I did not harm the snake. I only re-located it to the compost bin where it could forage for slugs instead.

From unusual behaviour to an unusual plant… I must mention Dictamnus albus ‘Rosea’, which is looking quite stunning. Pale purple-pink flowers are resplendent with dark magenta veining and long, upward tipping stamens. Be aware its fragrance is not to everyone’s taste. The flowers emit a flammable gas, which, if you hold a lit match near the flower, it will cause the flame to flare. Supposedly. I have not tested this fact because the flowers are always full of bees and they obviously have precedence.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her website is at www.duchessofdirt.ca and her column appears every second Thursday in The Record.

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