In Search of One Good Soldier (Bug)

By Cam Mather

As I was writing “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” last winter I needed to find a photo of a soldier bug. I was writing the section about pests and trying to illustrate how you have to be careful about eliminating bugs from your garden because some are beneficial. This is one of the main differences between traditional and organic agriculture. A traditional approach would be to apply a broad-spectrum pesticide to kill every insect in the garden. The problem with this approach is that insects have short life spans and can develop resistance quickly. Then what do you do if you’ve also killed their natural enemies?

So the goal with organic gardening is to try and create a balance in the garden with good bugs and bad bugs. You don’t want the bad bugs, but believe me, they’ll find you. In my book I shared the story of how one year I noticed some sort of larva hatching on my corn plants and so I squished them as soon as I saw them. Shortly afterwards I got my hands on a good insect identification book and realized that I had been killing ladybug larvae. Ladybugs are one of your best friends in the garden and are the ultimate pest zapper. They love to eat aphids and other plant-sucking insects.  Killing their larvae was not smart!

So I wanted to show how you how you need to be careful when eliminating insects in the garden. The example I wanted to use was the brown stinkbug which is a bad insect, but which looks remarkably like a spined soldier bug. The difference is that the soldier bug has a major proboscis, which is like a big hypodermic needle it uses to impale caterpillars and other pests you don’t want. I wasn’t able to find a photo in my collection but I was able to find several online and got permission to use them. But none of them had the soldier bug in action.

Recently I got what I was after, and I wasn’t even looking for it. I was actually squishing scarabs and I saw this. Ouch! Nature isn’t pretty! Makes me glad I’m not a caterpillar. This caterpillar was making a real mess of my raspberries so I only had so much compassion for it. And as I chased the soldier bug around trying to get it to pose for the photo, it was in some pretty crazy positions and it was not letting go of that caterpillar.

Speaking of climate change, our peony bush didn’t bloom this year and I think it might have been because they were too far along with the early unseasonably warm weather that we had and then when we had the 4 nights of frost, which was perfectly normal, the flowers got nipped. When the peony flowers bloom they are usually covered in scarabs that I have to squish by the truckload. So this year with no peonies they’ve gone after my raspberries. This is quite frustrating because this was shaping up to be a banner year for raspberries. So I’ve been squishing scarabs by the dozens on my raspberries. This is when I spotted the soldier bug.

Scarabs belong to the Scarabaeidae family, which includes 30,000 species of beetles. You probably know their cousins the Japanese beetles or June Bugs whose larvae are the white grubs that will do your lawn in by eating the roots. So the larva will chew up a plant’s roots and the adults will eat every leaf off a plant. In the photo you can see one scarab riding piggyback on the other. Sometimes you’ll find three of them like this. And all the holes eaten in the leaves, yea, that’s their handiwork.

I’m not a big fan of these insects. So why were the Egyptians? When you look at their iconography whether it’s hieroglyphics or jewelry and pottery, they use scarabs a lot. Wouldn’t you think they’d immortalize something a little more positive… like eagles or even ladybugs? Some scarabs are actually dung beetles. You’ve seen them on TV, rolling around dung balls. Come on ancient Egyptians! What were you thinking? I don’t wear jewelry but if I did I would not celebrate the little buggers that are trashing my raspberries.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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