I have been watching the black swallowtail caterpillars slowly devour a dill plant next to my patio for over a week. Within that time they’ve gone from dark specks to fat bands of black, yellow, and white, chewing the ferny foliage down to a skeletal stalk. Most visitors walk right past that plant on their way up the steps to my back door. They see pink geraniums cascading over containers and fuchsia-colored petunias crawling around the posts. Focused on big color, they miss the drama right under their nose.
In June the garden is awash in color and fragrance, a killer combination that humans can’t resist. For entirely different reasons, neither can the insects. Their survival depends on what we plant in our gardens and if we’ve got the right stuff, the bugs can rival the beauty queens for our attention. For that reason, June finds me either shoulder-high or bent low in the garden with my camera set on macro zoom.
I deliberately plant dill for the swallowtails, who feed on plants in the parsley family like carrot, fennel and Queen Anne’s lace. Two years ago when I picked some parsley from a neighbor’s garden, I inadvertently brought home a chrysalis and witnessed a butterfly birth in my kitchen. Both feeding cycle and metamorphosis from caterpillar to winged adult were remarkable to watch, experiences I might have missed were I focused elsewhere. I’ve only once managed to catch newly emerged praying mantids swarming over their egg casing, looking like thousands of miniature aliens with their black eyes and dun-colored bodies. Other insects, while not so theatrical in appearance, are nonetheless mesmerizing.
Honeybees may be disappearing from the beekeepers’ hives, but their wild brethren are alive and well in my garden, swarming over the oakleaf hydrangea in huge numbers. Because they must bypass the showy white bracts for the tiny, nectar-filled flowers within, the entire plant vibrates with their humming. Solitary bees like the bumble and mason are similarly devoted to the tall, furry spikes of lambs’ ears, whose tiny purple flowers they work in a frenzy, never stopping on any one bloom long enough for me to get a glamour shot. Tiny, parasitic wasps, the kind that lay their eggs atop the tomato hornworm, favor umbrella-shaped flowers similar to those visited by the swallowtail larvae. They are often so small as to be mistaken for part of the flower.
Lady beetles, the best known of the beneficial insects, are charming in color and design, but lethal to aphids, tiny pests that suck the life out of ornamental plants. If you see lady beetles, look for aphids, too. Then start looking for ants, who “farm” the aphids for the sticky sap they produce, offering protection from predators both above and below ground. Ants that appear on flowers like peonies or foxgloves are likewise feeding on the plant’s nectar. Their love of all things sweet and sticky crosses the line when they come indoors for a cinnamon bun left out on the counter or some spilled soda on the kitchen floor. (To get rid of them, make a mixture of water, sugar, and boric acid and put out cotton balls soaked in it.)
Insects, who do so much work in our yards, are the true actors among the scenery of our gardens. Their chewing, buzzing, sipping, and boring provide daily drama, if we have the eyes to see it. ###