A vast ignorance…

By May 15, 2010 Insects, My Garden 4 Comments

It's a hoppy...thing....

I took my cup of coffee out on the front porch today and sat on the steps for awhile, and I am struck, once again, by the depths of my own ignorance.

My garden is alive.

It’s an ugly garden by the standards of garden design–it’s got one of everything, and a couple of bare patches, and in other places things are shoved too close together, and it has not yet achieved that dramatic growth that makes even an ugly garden lavish and impressive. I have not arranged things based on harmonious color combinations, being rather more concerned with “Is there room?” and “Will it grow here?” because I’m really quite inept and cannot take these things for granted, so orange zinnias are trapped between purple sage and pink petunias and lavender chives.  I did try to put the tall stuff in the back or the middle of the bed, whereupon the native vervain grew a lot taller than the stuff behind it and the Culver’s root, which “adds an impressive vertical element to the garden” promptly fell over, and is now providing an impressive horizontal element to the garden.

And the poppies, which I remember as a deep red-orange from the days my mother grew them, are a sort of regrettable-bridesmaid-dress salmon pink.

Despite these failures on my part as a designer, the garden is alive. It is hoppin’. And this is where my own ignorance strikes me, because, while I’m pretty confident that in a few years, I’ll be good enough at the plant-care thing to maybe practice some garden design, I’d need to go back to school and get a degree to ID most of the stuff out there.

I can do birds pretty well. Birds aren’t bad. I’ve even gotten pretty good at our local lizards–the garden’s alive with Carolina anoles and five-lined skinks and even a few adult broadhead skinks, which are big honkin’ monsters the color of burnished metal. But the bugs…lord, the bugs.

I’m trying to keep up with the butterflies, but even they defeat me. What are those rapid little grey things? What’s the big bark-colored moth spending the day on the inside of the porch roof–or that other one–or that one? Those things are some kind of skipper, but I’ve no idea what. The red-spotted purple, the question mark, the mourning cloak I love, but what kind of azure are those teeny bopping things, and what’s the little grey one feeding in such numbers on the oak tree sap?

Are you a good ladybug or a baaaaad ladybug?

Get off butterflies, and I’m lost completely. What’s that vividly colored green hopper, or that bouncing iridescent green thingy? What are those slender beetles with the white spots, or that stark white hopper with the little red spot? What’s that adorable bee(?) with the snout and the big eyes that looks like it was designed by Miyazaki? Or that other bee that lives in the ground in the prairie planting? Who emerges from the green almost-inchworms? The airy-legged spiders lurking by every flower are called “harvestmen” but there’s at least a dozen kinds of them around here, and the wee jumping spiders come in all shapes and sizes. I can ID a flower longhorn beetle, a common resident of the yard, but the large black beetles lurking in the leaf mulch still baffle me.

Fire ants, okay, I can spot the mounds–but what are those large, single-minded black ants who are carefully clipping the big leaf veins on the top leaves of my pink turtlehead and downy skullcap and harvesting the resulting sap? (I find them fascinating, even as I am annoyed by their pruning of two good plants.)

I might have a chance of IDing the giant green dragonfly that goes by with a wingspan as big as a goldfinch, but the regular flies defeat me utterly, and I didn’t feel like disrupting the single snail on the black-eyed susans to haul him inside and google him.

And I can tell if it’s a ladybug, but not if it’s a native or a Chinese import. (This one was from my place in Raleigh–there are some spotless varieties in the yard here.) There is simply too much variety to insects–what is it, a fifth of all species on earth are beetles?–and without a camera along every minute, I am overwhelmed by my own ignorance.

They seem to like my yard. That much I know, and can be happy with.

On the other hand–as proved by the fact that I had to stop this post to yank a very large Lone Star tick off my ass–there are elements of our local insect life with which I am entirely too familiar.  (Lone Stars do NOT carry Lyme disease, for which I’m grateful. They do carry some other weird thing that makes your joints hurt, but I apparently haven’t gotten it yet, and it’s supposed to clear right up with antibiotics.)


  • Cheryl says:

    Well, the large black beetles in the leaf mulch are likely carybid beetles (a desirable predator of leaf eaters, slugs, and other nasties, but occasionally munches on strawberries) The large eyed bee may not be a bee at all, but a robber fly, another beast that predates on other insects.

    This is a great resource: http://www.whatsthatbug.com/
    It helped me ID the dobsonfly sitting on my screen door. Its great, but it has some icky bug pictures. I generally try to avoid the centipede photos.

  • Drhoz says:

    the ‘bee’ might also be a bee fly – they’re fuzzy, have huge eyes, and a prominent proboscis

  • UrsulaV says:

    @drhoz Your link on LJ was correct–it’s gotta be a bee fly! Wow! (The fact you got that from my description is amazing…)

  • Andrea J. says:

    Well, the thing is that identifying birds is that with only about 9,000 living species, they’re a heck of a lot less challenging than identifying beetles … with 300,000 described species, most of which are smallish and black.

    The black beetles in your undergrowth are probably either ground beetles (Carabidae), darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae) or scarabs (Scarabaeidae).

    And you’ll probably be glad to know that the ladybird you’ve posted is one of the ‘good’ kinds … although whether Asian ladybirds are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is kinda a matter of perspective — they are invasive, but they’re still aphid predators, and their most annoying habit is really the fact that they love to colonize your winter windowsills in egregious numbers.

    I’ll second the recomendation to What’s That Bug? and BugGuide is also an immensely helpful photo resource.

    (And don’t worry about your inability to identify juvenile grasshoppers. The nymphs often look nothing like the adults, and the only reliable keys are for vicious pest species, not garden hoppers)