In early September, my permaculture colleague Nicole posted a squirmy question on the NERP mailing list, wondering if the handfuls of larvae she was finding just under the surface of the soil in her garden were harmful or helpful. I had also noticed them in our vegie beds and decided to leave them be, assuming they were decomposers, rather than pests.
The answer revealed itself in early November on the first 30-degree day of the season. These are the conditions which inspire our local termites to take flight en masse. But it was the large clusters of flying beetles gathering inside my insect netting which were of greater interest… about 10mm long, elongated with a dark orange thorax, matte black wings and a soft-looking bright orange body underneath. Always moving, often flying.
Typing this description into a search engine pretty quickly revealed that they are Soldier Beetles, also known as Leatherwings, from the family Cantharidae. And they’re definitely an ally to the food grower. Their larvae are decomposers at the soil surface and they eat the eggs and larvae of other, less benign insects. In their beetle form they mostly eat pollen and nectar, pollinating flowers along the way. They also eat aphids and other soft-bodied insects like caterpillars. They are darlings of the IPM world.
So I became acquainted with the soldier beetle. And I experienced that thing where you meet a like-minded person and realise that she already knows your other friends. And then that thing where you start to see her everywhere and make connections. So I noticed her eating aphids on the tips of the cherry tree; I found her in the parsley flowers, the raspberry blossoms, in spider webs. I saw her role in our fruit and vegetable production, natural pest management, soil building, even in my weekend recreation. I took pleasure in rescuing a friend from a bowl of water, helping her on her benevolent way — supporting the living system. My awareness of her seemingly strengthened the web of life.
And it’s this pattern that I really wanted to reflect upon here. It’s a helpful approach if you find yourself butting heads with or questioning the value of one of the members of your garden community. Take the time to find out more and you’ll likely realise that the plant or animal in question is for the most part beneficial, if not vital, to the stability of your ecosystem.
Snails, for example, are mostly beneficial. They break down vegetable matter, help to build soil, provide food for birds, entertainment for kids… and occasionally cross paths with your newly transferred cucumbers. My policy is to move them away from the few places where they can do harm — the veggie patch and the asparagus patch, and flow them to where they can contribute more positively — in the chook run or habitat areas.
And I’m not suggesting that you should totally forgive those possums. What they did to that grape vine on your pergola was out of line. But understanding their role in the system can sooth the pain a little. Thank you for the pruning and the fertiliser pellets.
It’s so much nicer if you can feel like you’re on the same team. Or better still, that there are no teams and everything is connected and everything has a role. Systematically killing all of the snails in your garden is bound to have unpredictable knock-on effects. Insects are inclined attack your weak plants before your strong plants. From an evolutionary or seed-saving perspective this process strengthens the species. The lion is the good shepherd, as they say.
And as for the soldier beetle. What’s not to love?