The Nature Nerd

Focus on: Beneficial bugs

The tricolored bumblebee is an important pollinator. Submitted photo.

The tricolored bumblebee is an important pollinator. Submitted photo.

When seated at the Thanksgiving table, do you ever stop to thank the bugs that made the meal possible? I’m guessing no. However, the role that bugs play make it possible for several items to be on the table. And knowledge about how to manipulate the bugs is vital.

Tomatoes might not be the first vegetable you think of as part of the Thanksgiving meal, but most likely they are on the table in one form or another. During this season, tomatoes probably came from a grocery store and before that a greenhouse.

The greenhouse production of tomatoes is a big business. Growing tomatoes in a greenhouse requires a lot of know-how. Tomatoes require more than seeds, soil and water. To produce fruit, the blossoms of the tomatoes need pollination. It turns out the best way to pollenate the flowers is to use a bug, the bumblebee. Bumblebees are very efficient at pollenating tomatoes. Many commercial greenhouses raise bumblebees, inside, to do the pollination. Hence, knowledge about bumblebees is important.

Pumpkins need pollinators too. Whether used for decoration or for pumpkin pie, pumpkins are a part of our fall season. Most pumpkins are grown outdoors, so most pollination is done by local insects. Pumpkins sometimes are pollinated by honeybees and bumblebees, but another insect is more important—the squash bee.

Squash bees are best for this vital step because they specialize on squash, pumpkins and gourds. It is a matter of timing. Pumpkin flowers are best pollinated during the morning, the time of day squash bees are most active. Though squash bees resemble honeybees, they are smaller and have a different lifestyle. Squash bees nest in burrows in the soil. For pumpkins to be pollenated by squash bees, some areas of undisturbed soil should be left for their nesting.

Of course, bugs sometimes live up to their reputation and become pests. Some want a share of the food too. Many bugs want to munch on the leaves or fruit. Something must be done. In the past, sprays were used. Today, that is old-fashioned.

There are better ways, ways that allow the produce to be marketed as organic. Other bugs come to the rescue! All bugs have enemy bugs, including those that feed on our intended food. These can be raised in greenhouses too. Many of these beneficial bugs are tiny. They are rarely noticed by most of us. They are known as Ichneumon wasps, and they are parasites of some of the worst vegetable eating bugs. There are hundreds of species of these tiny wasps, and fortunately, most are highly specialized to prey on specific kinds of harmful bugs. Understanding of these normally obscure bugs is immensely useful for those people raising vegetables and fruits in greenhouses.

Most of us rarely think of our food originating from beyond the grocery store. It is a long and complicated chain of events that brings food to us, some of which use beneficial insects. More awareness of this can only make us more thankful.

Jerry McCormick lives in Virginia. He is a retired natural resource professional and a self-described nature nerd.

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