A yellow underwing moth - adult cutworm - found in the Cox garden. Photo by Leslie Cox

A yellow underwing moth - adult cutworm - found in the Cox garden. Photo by Leslie Cox

DUCHESS OF DIRT: Snowfall-induced break allows some time for insect identification

Leslie Cox

Special to The Record

Small wonder gardeners get frustrated over the weather. We had happily been spending hours working in the garden only days ago. Puttering on the pruning chores, pulling leaf mulch away from some early flowering perennials to expose the fresh buds, cleaning up the debris from the fierce windstorms.

And now the entire garden is buried under a blanket of snow just when we had worked up to a full head of steam to tackle spring gardening. Thank goodness I have some young seedlings sprouting under lights in my laundry room to soothe our tortured souls.

I guess I should not have been so surprised to see the white stuff this month.

Checking my weather data records, I discovered there have been five years out of the last 10 where I recorded snowfall in February. And it would seem we are on par this year to surpass all but two of those snowfall amounts… although we may just slide past one of the two records yet. There is still more snow coming.

I have traded raking and pruning duties for thawing hummingbird feeders and refilling bird feeders. Poor things. I know they are wondering “what the heck” just as we are.

Trying to curb some of my angst at not getting out in the garden, I have been checking out some of my favourite websites. Still trying to identify a few insects and critters I came across in the garden last year, and thankfully had a camera close at hand.

The hardest ones to identify are the larvae (caterpillars, nymphs) and pupae. Honestly, when you find a brown pupa in the soil, you have no idea what it could be – good guy or bad. Unless it happens to be chestnut-brown in colour, bullet-shaped and at least an inch (2.5 cm) long. Congratulations! You have found a cutworm pupa.

You know. Those nasty yellow, green or brown larvae who chew the heck out of your leafy greens, devour whole bean seedlings, eat their way into the centre of your tomatoes… you name it… like the stealthy, night-stalking felons they are.

This is a good example of just how difficult it can be to properly identify insects. And you want to know who is who so you do not annihilate a good guy. Beneficial insects do a lot of good work in keeping nasty pests under control in your garden.

So, to further your insect education… who knows what ametabolous, hemimetabolous and holometabolous mean?

Some of you may have clued in if you removed the “a” in the first word. Ametabolous refers to insects who do not go through metamorphosis, i.e. bristletails and silverfish.

Hemimetabolous insects have a three-stage metamorphosis: egg, nymph, adult. Aphids, scales, leaf hoppers, crickets, earwigs, damselflies, and dragonflies are some examples who do not pupate.

Homometabolous insects have a four-stage metamorphosis: egg, nymph, pupa, adult. These include ants, beetles, flies, bees, wasps, lacewings, butterflies and moths. This group is the hardest of the three because the larva or nymph looks nothing like the pupa, which looks nothing like the adult.

It is frustrating to finally identify a butterfly or moth – the latter admittedly the harder of the two – only to find out there are no photos or detailed description of what the larva or pupa look like. And even more frustrating, trying to properly identify a larva or pupa. You may, just may, be able to shorten the scope of your search if you catch the larva on a particular plant and look up that plant’s pests. But you are not always so lucky.

And not so lucky with the weather lately either. If the snowfall keeps up, it is going to be a while yet before we see bare soil again.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her website is at www.duchessofdirt.ca

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