Many insects living amid our flowers are beneficial, and beautiful, too


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Tiny white cilantro flowers sway back and forth in the soft breeze. The airy blooms are filled with little bees and wasps smaller than a fingernail, coating themselves in white pollen as they fly from flower to flower. Most of these insects don't sting, and all are beneficial for the garden. Some are good pollinators, others will battle the bad bugs in the garden in one way or another.

Cilantro was one of many plants that survived the mild winter, finding its way into salads and homemade salsa all spring. Once temperatures warmed up, the plants began to flower. The seeds they produce are known as coriander.

For a half-hour, I sat on the ground in front of the flowers, photographing small shiny green bees. Their colors are stunning, with a fluorescent, metallic glint to them. Like most bees, they pay no attention to me even though my lens is just inches from them. They've got a job to do.

I've been inspired by my radio partner, Jessica Walliser, who wrote the book "Good Bug, Bad Bug" (St. Lynn's Press, $17.95). I spent a summer taking many of the pictures for the book. That job awakened the 12-year-old boy in me, and since then I've become fascinated with the secret world of insects in the garden.

It is amazing to see the colors, shapes and sizes of the bugs. But it's the daily struggles for life that go on right under our noses that really intrigues.

As an organic gardener, I'm trying to attract beneficial insects to the garden by growing all sorts of small flowering plants such as dill, oregano, thyme and alyssum. Other plants such as radishes and carrots are also left to flower to bring in the good bugs.

Mrs. Walliser tells me that more than 90 percent of insects in the garden are either good or benign. It's funny how most people revile insects in general. I can't stand to see some of the television commercials for broad-spectrum insecticides that vilify all bugs. Sure, you'll kill the bad bugs, but also the good ones, and lots of soil life underground. Guess which ones come back quicker? The bad guys, of course, but now they don't have to worry about a predator.

Nature does a great job of creating a balance if we stay out of the mix. You're always going to be more successful working with nature than against it.

After seeing bees enjoying the cilantro flowers, I started slowly walking through the garden to see what else I could find. The most exciting discovery was finding two different types of assassin bug nymphs. They are only a quarter of an inch long, but on close inspection look like the model for the bugs in the movie "Starship Troopers." They have a nasty looking proboscis, which stabs its prey then injects a toxin that dissolves tissue. I photographed an assassin bug early in the day. Later, when I went back to the garden, it had caught a small beetle. What an amazing sight.

In only a few minutes I found luminescent green flies and ants crawling on pretty yellow bamboo leaves, a beetle on my pink climbing rose and a spider crawling over a spent pansy.

The key to photographing them is a combination of the right equipment, patience and practice. A close-up lens, or what's called macro capability, is a must. For cameras with interchangeable lenses, extension tubes are an inexpensive way to get even closer.

Getting lots of depth of field when taking close-ups is an important part of producing a usable image. Depth of field is the area around the subject that will be in focus. The closer the object is to the lens, the shallower the depth of field. Photographers use a high aperture setting to get as much in focus as possible.

It might take 100 frames to get one good picture. In this digital age, it doesn't cost any more to expose lots of pictures, so don't be shy with the shutter button. It took me 419 frames to get just the right image of the assassin nymph with its prey.

Most insects help us garden. Spend an hour or two slowly walking through the garden to see how. Get down low and prepare to discover a whole new world.

garden

Doug Oster: doster@post-gazette.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.


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