Bugs are bugging me

If you’ve read this blog before, you may recall that last year thieves took the entire tomato crop just after it started ripening. this year I moved the plants farther from the road.

It worked, at least so far. I’m bringing home a half bushel basket full of ripe tomatoes every day or so. That ends up being a lot for the three tomato eaters in the house. Tomatoes, as much as people like them, are hard to give away this time of year. Everyone seems to have his or her own plants, and they are all producing.

I placed the white half-runner beans in the spot near the road where the tomatoes were last year. No theft problems so far. Apparently no thieves like beans well enough to pick them, even if they are conveniently located. The white half-runners, which I trellised this year for the first time, have been very productive. We’re eating our fill, plus giving some away. Yesterday we celebrated the Fourth of July by canning a couple of batches.

The Mexican bean beetles still like their beans, of course.

My favorite way to dispatch the nasties is what I call the Lady Fingers Method — that is, I try to convince my wife and daughter to go out and squish all the bean beetles they can find. But this year both have been occupied elsewhere, and my Gentleman Fingers Method ( practiced by me alone) has not been able to keep pace with the beetles’ prodigious reproduction. (In case you are planning to recommend your favorite insecticide, don’t bother. I banned them after I killed off several generations of bees, resulting in a dead stop in bean production a couple of years ago. Neem and insecticidal soaps don’t seem to bother the bugs nearly as much as the cost and time to apply them do me.)

At first the damage from the bean beetles was slight — the plants were only decimated, I told myself as I picked handfuls of beautiful beans from plants that had only a few lacy, bug-eaten leaves. I continued to pick and squish with good results for awhile. But soon the decimation (see my earlier blog on the “real” meaning of that word) advanced to devastation.

Mexican bean beetles are fairly picky and systematic eaters. First, they prefer bull nettles over even beans, at least in my garden. I tried leaving a few of the briars as sacrificial traps, hoping the bugs would eat them and stay off my beans. But the strategy proved short-sighted. I found it very difficult to squish bean beetles while they are sitting on the prickly bull nettles. And, once they had made skeletons of the bulk of the bull nettle crop, they were only too happy to move over to the beans — in larger numbers, because the eggs laid on the stinging underside of the briar leaves almost all hatched.

Once there, they start with the leaves, so I had a few more pickings of untouched bean pods. Now, however, they have skeletonized a large portion of the leaves and have started chewing on the beans themselves. Oddly, production doesn’t seem to have slowed all that much yet, though we do lose parts of many of the pods to insect damage when we break them for cooking. It takes longer to work through the day’s pickings, too.

I fully expect the beans to stop production if the insects keep eating, of course. But we’ve already far exceeded our crops from previous years, so if we don’t get any more I’ll still be satisfied. And we haven’t even started picking the Kentucky Wonder pole beans, which are doing much better than they ever have, in spite of being the favorite food of Japanese beetles (which came and went pretty rapidly this year), and third favorite among the Mexican bean beetles, who have now extended their gourmet’s tour of my garden to include the Kentucky Wonders.

Insect pests seem to come and go in unpredictable waves, especially if you try to use natural controls. Last year, for instance, Colorado potato beetles were my biggest problem. My daughter, Laura, and I sprayed insecticidal soap and Neem and hand-picked quart jars full every day, and still the potatoes were chewed up badly. This year I didn’t spray at all. I picked off fewer than a hundred over the whole season, and the potatoes grew almost unmolested. I dug about half the plants yesterday and filled a small wheelbarrow with the take. Again, that’s way more than I got from a larger planting last year.

I don’t pretend I know why the population changed so drastically. Maybe our efforts last year reduced the population enough that not many over-wintered. Maybe Neem is a natural birth control for Colorado potato beetles (though obviously not for Mexican bean beetles). Or maybe a potato beetle predator had a population explosion this year. I’m not complaining, whatever the cause.

I just wish I could have similar luck with the little bean suckers.

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