Sewanee, TN – I take offense to insects mating in front of me in the garden. When I agreed to dog-sit for my cousins for the summer, they wrote that two dogs, some tomato plants and a couple of squashes were looking forward to meeting me. The dogs were enthusiastic even after a few days but the garden didn’t seem to notice. I announced my presence by spending an afternoon pulling weeds and syphoning rainwater from the collection tanks to dampen their roots. Because of my previous itchy experience with chiggers, I kept my pants tucked into my socks and wore long sleeves in the Tennessee June sun. My inner naturalist which dominates when my inner social worker is off-duty jumped for joy about discovering new bugs, just not mating ones.
The first insect I noticed was an awkward beetle on the snow peas. Then I noticed more, around 11 or so. They were black but their shells had a copper and jade sheen depending on how their shells caught the sun. They mated on the leaves like fat, penny-sized ovals. I leaned closer to snap a picture. Of course I was invading their private moment. The beetles waved their arms over their little heads like they were trying to get something off their necks. They were neither the brightest nor quickest moving insects in the garden but definitely not modest like the little green grasshopper I watched stalking nearby. He was shy and slowly climbed away from the camera when I approached. Could he actually see me? I wondered if he was some kind of mantis and wished I had the insect identification book which my sister gave me for Christmas some years ago. The local extension office was going to love me this summer, bringing in all the bugs I needed identified. Maybe I’d capture some of the mating beetles. I hardly thought this would disrupt them.
About the only insect I enjoyed seeing mate was the ladybug. Finding their little bright orange eggs like upright footballs along the dill frond made me happy. Nearby and oblivious, aphids balanced on the same frond, chomping the dear plant. But in four to ten days when the ladybug larvae emerged, the aphids wouldn’t know what hit them. Each larva, which looks a little like an alligator head, eats around 400 aphids a day. An adult ladybug can supposedly consume 5,000 aphids in their lifetime. I noted the location of the ladybug eggs and looked forward to my own personal episode of Wild, Wild America in the garden.
Along with the peas, I was charged with the care of 23 tomato plants. With such bounty, they were destined to keep the house in all matter of ‘mater products through the winter. The Green Zebra varieties seemed particularly robust as I yanked crabgrass from around their roots. The Striped Roman tomatoes were supposedly tasty but suffering from what I affectionately dubbed “butt-rot” as they ripened. Each fruit slowly rotted from the bottom up while at the same time ripening from the top down. I researched possible afflictions and found that it might be a calcium deficiency. One natural website recommended spraying the leaves with a solution of kelp dissolved in water. Of all the random things I hauled with me from Denver this summer, I happened to have a bag of kelp powder. In good faith, I dumped a cup in the bucket, mixed in water and doused the Striped Romans. They must have thought the ocean was advancing. I imagined them coming up sputtering and told myself they looked better already.
The squash were particularly in good health although we didn’t know what kind they were exactly. A few looked to be zucchini; others were climbing the deer fence already, speaking to Tennessee’s wonderfully long growing season. I moved them around to encourage their growth. Squash are especially strange to move as suddenly all their leaves seem to point down when you rotate the foliage. Their flowers closed and I told myself that they would figure out where the sun was in a day or two.
Down from the squash, a stand of sunflowers stretched high. My cousin was hoping they would bloom by the time she left but they just kept growing taller, waiting for the perfect temperature to send out their yellow glory. The dogs barked that my cousin was home just as I was tossing armloads of weeds into the woods. The garden was weeded but the mating beetles were still doing their thing on the peas. We cleaned up to go hear live bluegrass on Signal Mountain at the Mountain Opry down in Chattanooga.
On the way down the mountain, I told my cousin’s friend Julie about the garden.
“It looks like something is eating the cauliflower. I can’t figure out what it is.” I told her. “I found little millipede things in the dirt below the plants. I wonder if they are climbing up and eating the leaves at night.”
Julie didn’t know what could be eating the plants.
“Have you seen any Japanese beetles?” she asked. “They can devastate your garden. I don’t like to kill anything but they were bad last summer. They’re not the brightest bugs, kind of slow. I flick them into a cup of soapy water – it’s kind of rewarding.”
“Wait, what do they look like? Kind of square?”
“Yeah, or oval.”
“Copper or jade-colored? Do they move their legs like this?” I moved my arm like I was trying to get something off my neck.
“I don’t know about their legs,” she laughed. Then I pulled out my camera and showed her the pictures of the mating beetles.
“Yep, those. They’ll eat everything.”
“They were mating in the garden all over the peas – I had no idea!” No wonder I took offense. Something old in my genes had told me not to be comfortable with their flamboyant display. First found in New Jersey in 1916, the Japanese beetle is so destructive to more than 300 different plants that the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service has issued quarantines in some infested states.
“You’ll want to take care of them.”
That night, I realized my first mistake was not tucking in my shirt while gardening. I counted 18 chigger and mosquito bites around my waistline and lay in bed scratching. They’d climbed up my shirt and even attacked my belly-button which bled a little in outrageous pain. I still had never seen the mysterious chigger but I no longer doubted their existence. The beetles were another story and I made a note that the empty milk jug would make a perfect trap for drowning them. I looked forward to flicking them, two by mating two, into the jug. I almost dreamed about their little arms scratching their heads in confusion and finally fell asleep.
The next morning, I filled my coffee cup and walked into the garden with the milk jug. I tucked in my shirt and tucked my pants into my socks. I had steeled myself for the war against the beetles but the leaves of the snow pea were empty. I found one beetle that didn’t get the memo and flicked him into the jug. Eerily, I wondered if they had moved on, their deed done for a time, or if I had been too quick to judge their intelligence. It was as if the beetles had heard my thoughts last night. Somehow they were gone.