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The Dry Garden: What's that bug? Expert James Hogue helps identify grubs, beetles and more

March 19, 2010 | 10:09 am
Gulf_Fritillary

Three things happen when you plant a garden. You meet your neighbors, who stop to chat. You meet their kids, who hang out. And you meet the bugs that the kids find. The ability to identify the bugs ensures you heroic status in the eyes of children. Failure to identify them is a crashing experience not to be wished upon one’s worst enemy.

In fact, the sheer pressure of expectation from kids bearing grubs and caterpillars spurred me to return to my favorite bug-ologist for help. Five years ago, James N. Hogue agreed to snoop for spiders with the Home section. This time we asked the Cal State Northridge entomologist to predict what spring bugs kids can expect to hold in their fat little hands.

After deciding that we would start with occupants of branches and work our way down to the soil, the gray bird grasshopper, or Schistocerca nitens topped Hogue’s list. If it isn’t still a larva, then in early spring, it will be a wingless green nymph, Hogue says.

Because many bugs besides the grasshopper go through metamorphosis, one of the most reliable ways to identify them is to have a guide to hand. There is no text better for Southern Californians than “Insects of the Los Angeles Basin,” which was written and illustrated by a man who for 30 years was curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and who was also Hogue’s father, Charles.

Hogue the younger also recommends checking into his favorite online picture bank, BugGuide.net. If you're still wanting more, he will be leading an April 3 workshop on insects at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley. For more IDs of bugs you're likely to see this time of year, keep reading ...


Preying_MantisThis early in the year, it will take a kid’s 20/20 vision to spot infantile praying mantids, or Stagmonantis californica. “They’re itty-bitty things right now,” Hogue says. But kids will be looking for these aquarium favorites.

What do they prey on?

“Anything they can catch.”

Don’t tell your kid that praying mantids can catch hummingbirds.

No self-respecting child will fail to find a brassica-loving stink bug, which in Los Angeles may well be the Murgantia histrionica. If it’s not what is also known as a “harlequin bug” for its orange and black coloring, then it is probably one of a family known as the Pentatomidae family.

Anise_Swallowtail The caterpillars that kids pluck from tender young foliage might become moths or might become butterflies. Among the butterfly caterpillars, if they come from fennel and are green, black and yellow, they are probably for anise swallowtails. If they’re red and from passion vines, it’s a safe bet that they’re gulf fritillaries.

Surprisingly, the larvae of many moths resides in mulch. But if a grub is large and it’s in the compost, it is probably for what will in mid-to-late summer be a drowsily airborne June beetle or a Cotinus mutabilis.

The greatest squeals of delight generally come for another type of flying beetle, the ladybug, some of which are native and hundreds of types of which were introduced into this country because of their celebrated habit of consuming aphids, scale insects and mites. The long six-legged bug with orange stripes across its back doesn’t look like it, but it is the larva of the classic red and black ladybug. A yellow-shelled cousin is for some reason called the “ashy gray” ladybug. The California ladybug, or Coccinella californica, has a pure red back.

When in doubt about what type of bug your child has, if it’s got a shell and it’s snazzy, it’s a good guess that it’s a beetle. “We live in the age of beetles,” Hogue and his co-author, Arthur V. Evans, wrote in the opening of their 2004 book “Introduction to California Beetles.” Of 350,000 species worldwide, 8,000 are in California.

Garden bugs perform untold benefits. They break down leaves into soil. They eat pests. The service that comes first to Hogue’s mind is that they pollinate most of the food that we eat.

But on sunny spring days, it can seem like they are just there to delight children and to make the adults who can identify them feel like giants.

Other bugs that Hogue mentions as likely to catch a child’s eye this time of year include: aphids; earthworms that emerge from their middens after rains; flower flies that hover and whose larvae also eat aphids; honey bees; fast-running carabid beetles, which eat snails and more; European earwigs, which are such good mothers brooding over their eggs that they might give a child’s finger a pinch with their nifty forceps; and the songsters who serenade us to sleep every night, field crickets.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly.

Photos, from top: Gulf fritillary, praying mantids, anise swallowtail. Credits, from top: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times; Associated Press; Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times.

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