Garden Talk: Learn the difference between harmful and helpful insects

By: Jane Rounsaville
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Behind every leaf, underneath every rock and in the ground, there is a battle of good vs. evil raging within a tiny world. Because appearances can sometimes be deceiving, gardeners need to know their allies from their enemies. “In any given backyard, there are over 2 thousand different insects that you could find,” said Richard Gaspari, insect chairman for California Garden Clubs, Inc. “Within an average acre, there is well over like 5 million insects. The majority of those insects are either beneficial, they are harmless, or they do things like take old decaying dead plant material. Luckily for us, there are only a small number of those insects that are harmful to plants or people.” As a retired entomologist who spent 32 years working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Gaspari really knows his bugs. “I started out as an inspector with the Animal and Plant Protection and Quarantine Service,” he said recently. “Basically, our job was to prevent injurious insects from coming into the country. We worked with Customs and Immigration. It was our job to either eradicate, or find some other means to control, so that the pest did not become a major problem. I have done everything from work on the Mexican border, to airports, to seaports and Hawaii inspection programs.” Gaspari’s interest in nature began at an early age. When he was a young man, he developed an interest in environmental issues after reading “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. “When I went to college, I was actually in Wildlife Management,” he said. “There were about 120 people graduating in Wildlife Management my junior year, and only two of them could find jobs. They were game wardens, and I said, ‘I am not going to do that,’ so I had taken a course in entomology, and just loved it. I was guaranteed a job if I wanted to become an entomologist, so I did.” Over the years, Gaspari collected several thousand insects, including a wall of butterflies. He later donated his collection to his alma mater, Utah State University. After retiring from the Department of Agriculture, he started doing PowerPoint presentations at garden club meetings, discussing insect problems and garden diseases. Gaspari spoke at a Meadow Vista Garden Club meeting in February. “We were very impressed with his talk, and really enjoyed having him as a guest,.” club president, Brenda Starbird said. “It was sort of a broad spectrum of information about bugs, and his opinion was that one should avoid pesticides for a whole lot of reasons, and that we should try to preserve bugs that are environmentally important.” Gaspari says that predator insects like ladybugs and lacewings are extremely valuable to have in a garden, because they feed heavily on aphids. He does not talk much about ladybugs or lacewings in his presentations, though, because he feels that most garden club members already know about those insects. “I take it to the next step and talk about insects that people may or may not know of,” he said. “Things like dragonflies. Most people are not aware of it, but for dragonflies, one of their main food items that they feed on is mosquitoes.” He also dispels some common misconceptions about certain bugs, such as praying mantises. “They are not that good of a predator because they are not indiscriminate,” he said. “Anything that comes close to them, they will feed on. That could be a good insect, or that could be a bad insect. They will feed as readily on a lacewing as on a moth or some other insect. He says insects can be found everywhere you look. “The main thing is, normally, if you do not do a whole lot to your garden, the natural insects and predators generally will take care of these problems for you,” he said. “Sometimes, you will get a buildup, like aphids, in there. If you use high-pressure water just to knock them off the plants, a lot of times they cannot get back on, and that will help kill them. Normally if you look real close, you will find, along with the aphids, there is usually a host of predators.” Jane Rounsaville can be reached at