Category Archives: Garden Pests and Beneficial Insects

Corky Catches a Bee Swarm – Joshua McNichols

The tee-ball field behind Salmon Bay School was swarming with kids, excited about the final t-ball game of the season. But in the Northwest corner of the field, just beyond the rubber track, a small group of kids stood mesmerized by a swarming mass of honeybees on a red sweatshirt on the ground. Emboldened, the kids crept closer and closer. The adults all looked at each other. “Shouldn’t we call somebody?” they asked.

Luckily, we were able to reach Corky of the Ballard Bee Company. He had just returned from another emergency and was sitting down for a beer when our call arrived. “What is it about trying to drink a beer?” he twittered later. We were glad he showed up though, because the adults were starting to freak out. It’s pretty hard to keep curious toddlers away from a swarming mass of bees on the ground.

We watched, amazed, as Corky picked up the sweatshirt with his bare hands and placed it in a giant tupperware container. He put on some bee gloves and picked through the bees. “These bees are strangely heavy,” he said.
“Oh, there’s a chunk of concrete in there,” explained a parent. “Some kids were throwing stuff at the bees earlier.”
Corky picked up the concrete, and put it in his tupperware. With a piece of cardboard, he scooped up most of the remaining bees and dumped them into the container. The tupperware container had holes drilled in it, so the bees could come and go as they pleased. “If I succeeded in getting the queen in there, the rest of the bees will follow her into the container,” he explained.

Corky said that this kind of swarm was a natural occurrence every spring. The bees had created a few queen cells. One of the new queens had emerged, and had become the new ruler of the hive. The old queen left the hive, followed by a sizeable portion of the bee colony. They swarmed in a tree branch for awhile, until some kids succeeded in knocking them to the ground with their sweatshirt. Now, the bees were sending out scouts to find a new home. They had not yet decided where to go, when Corky arrived. He would give them a new home in one of his beehives. Corky maintains and rents out beehives throughout Ballard.

If you want to learn more about bees, I recommend the fascinating comic book Clan Apis by Jay Hosler. It’s packed with science, but also manages to give the bees unique personalities and a little earth religion. I read this with my 5 year old son, and I swear I cried a little at the end. It was that good. If you’re lucky, it may even be at your library.

Guest Post: Living with Beneficial Insects by Joshua McNichols

Today while I was gabbing my friend Joshua on the phone he said “I’m watching a yellow jacket eat a green caterpillar.” I immediately shouted into the phone “GO get your camera and take pictures for me!” He caught these amazing pictures and wrote a guest post which is timely given Chiot Run’s post today on beneficials in the garden over at

Joshua is a master composter, architect, writer, father of small children, stuffer of sausages, baker of bread, fellow chicken owner and urban gardener. In 2010 I’ve been leading him and his family down the same path that I took in 2009 – meeting food producers, sourcing things locally and ditching the store.

He hosted last fall’s barter fair where the Seattle Urban Farm Coop members gathered to trade canned goods, backyard eggs and honey, homebrew, goat milk soap and baked goods. Together he and his wife own Moment Architecture. While you are on their site be sure to check out the amazing chicken coop and grape trellis he designed and built. If you are local and looking for someone to come build coops, trellises or large planters he is your guy.

I’m working on Joshua to join me here at SustainableEats so hopefully you’ll see many posts from him in the future.

Guest Post: Joshua McNichols
I’ve often read that yellow jackets eat soft-bodied insects, like aphids and caterpillars. But I’ve never actually seen it. Today, that changed. As I walked past the chocolate mint plants surrounding my chicken coop, I spied a yellow jacket feasting on some kind of caterpillar. The caterpillar was still alive as the yellow jacket scooped soft flesh from its back! Disgusting, but fascinating.

Yellow Jacket

A yellow jacket begins her feast on this soft-bodied caterpillar

Predators like yellow jackets play an important role in an organic garden. A yellow-jacket nest near a garden will help keep your garden pest-free. If you have a yellow-jacket nest nearby, consider whether it’s really a nuisance. We have children, so I won’t abide nests where children will step. But I’d welcome yellow jackets where they’re out of my toddler’s reach.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Yellow jacket decapitates caterpillar. 2. Her belly full, she cleans herself before flying away. 3. One of several friends who will come by to help finish off the meal.

To minimize the trouble yellow jackets can cause during a family barbecue, I like to plant flowers throughout my vegetable garden, as yellow jackets like to supplement their protein with sweet nectar from flowers. I also like to leave a few aphid-covered nasturtiums around in less visible locations. This ensures that the yellow-jackets won’t be starved for protein when I’m grilling hamburgers or salmon. I’m still experimenting with methods of distracting the yellow-jackets while my family eats outside.

For example, I place a small slab of salmon, as an offering to the yellow jackets, well away from where we’re eating. A dab of honey might make the insects’ meal even more enticing. But I resist traps that kill or confine and starve the yellow jackets, because I know how much they help they provide in my garden. What non-lethal techniques have you tried for controlling yellow jackets while you’re barbecuing?

Hush, hush, hush, I smell a rate close by…

Wednesday around noon I checked on the garden then left for an hour. When I came back there were rat teeth marks in my biggest eggplant. Cringing, I picked it and then cut off the part that had been gnawed. After all, eggplants are rarer then a pink elephant in Seattle gardens.

An hour later I went back out. There were teeth marks in another eggplant. I repeated step one from above. Then I picked some mint and covered the remaining eggplants with it since I had read rats don’t like the smell of mint. I immediately ran to the shed to get my deer netting and covered the entire eggplant diamond, anchoring the netting into the ground with garden stakes.

By the time I got back a third eggplant had rat gnawings on it. I repeated step one from above. Then I noticed quite a few of the tomatoes had rat gnawings on them too so I hastily picked all the ripe ones.

That night I did some research online. I couldn’t find any information about whether it was safe to eat non-affected areas of food (i.e. after cutting out the gnawed parts.) These were my 3 biggest eggplants. I’ll probably never be able to repeat this success again. And freshly picked eggplant is a cat of a whole different class then even farmer’s market eggplants. I wasn’t about to chuck it in the compost.

And then is that even safe? If it’s not safe to eat, is it safe to compost? What I was able to find about rat-related diseases is that they seem to be spread specifically by rat urine in a wet environment. So swimming in the sewer or other stagnant water seems like a bad idea but probably even if a rat peed in your garden or on your compost pile you would be ok. Certainly cooking foods would be enough to destroy it, especially if you were going to pressure can it which takes things up to 240 degrees (the temperature necessary to destroy bacteria.)

Except I had no pressure canner.

And then just for grins I did some research on the side effects of botulism. Not pretty. Even with lipstick on it. So I freaked out and bought a pressure canner the next day.

I’ve always sort of prided myself on the fact that I didn’t own a pressure canner despite putting up massive amounts of food at certain points in my life. Honestly though, I think I feared the pressure canner. I’ve several times had my espresso machine blow off on me and it’s a little daunting. Not to mention difficult to clean espresso grounds off the ceiling, walls and cupboards.

So now I’m the proud owner of one 23 quart pressure canner. I’m pretty stoked too, reading through all that it can do. As we speak I’m making up my own version of V-8 juice for bloody marys without care for pH. My husband is going salmon fishing in Elliot Bay tomorrow and should he catch anything dag nabbit I can can it. Next year when the asparagus are producing (and they WILL, yes they will) I can can some.

And tomorrow when I’m sick and tired of freezing, drying, jamming, leathering and chutneying the 32 pounds of peaches I picked up today from Rama farms I can can me some. In short, I can can.

And now back to the rat…

Whilst on my internet journey the other night I read that if you stick a piece of Wrigley mint gum down their burrow they’ll move out. So I went to the store and bought quite a few packs. Two days later I’m still pulling off about 10 tomatoes daily with filthy little fang marks on them. So today I finally let me husband go the store and get some poison.

I made him buy some PVC pipe to stick it in so that our dog, stray cats or escaped chickens can’t get at it. He bought one T section with end caps for the two T parts so the rat could crawl deep in the burrow but nothing else could get in.

I hope I haven’t damned my organic garden here but if this keeps up there won’t be a garden left. There you have it. Rat: 34 tomatoes and 3 eggplant, me: karma down a notch.

Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass.

Spit Bugs

This week another pest has proliferated like crazy.  I’m seeing spit bugs all over my hardy fuschias and they are beginning to invade the strawberries. 


Nothing messes with my strawberries. 

Spit bug eggs overwinter in grasses, ornamentals and strawberries and hatch in warm, humid conditions so usually the beginning of June in Seattle but apparently they’re a little ahead this year. 

The nymphs create a spit bubble sack around themselves.  When they emerge they eat your plants.

You *could* use an insecticide.   Or you could engage in a little hand to bug combat.  It’s easy to spot the bubble sacks.  Gently pinch the bubble sack to remove it and you’ll find a soft bodied light green bug inside which you can easily squish between your gloved fingers, or you can drop them into alcohol if you don’t like squishing bugs. 

If you have young kids you can pay them a penny for every spit bug they squish which has the added bonus of entertaining your kids for a good chunk of time.  I’m all for that.

Controlling Pests Organically – Fun with Bugs

We’ve finally had enough days with the weather warmer then 70 degrees (or close to it) that a great many pests are appearing.  While watering the other day I noticed something had munched on my Azalea.  Upon closer inspection I realized a great many things had been munching on it and they were, in fact, in the act of doing it. 

These tiny green caterpillars were making short work of my Azalea bush.  Perfectly camoflauged, they eat their way around the leaf until it’s gone.


I spent about 15 minutes and ended up with countless little tiny morsels for the chicks. 


We’ve given them sow bugs in the past but these were a whole new soft green treat for them.  They attacked them with gusto.  I’m looking forward to turning the chickens loose in the yard soon!

When I got to the hellebores I was floored.  In just one short week not only did we have aphids but we had aphids on a whole new level then ever before.  Somehow they haven’t yet jumped over the peas.  Maybe the hellebores are keeping them put?


Aphids can come in almost any color but they all pretty much look like these.  They harm the plant by sucking the juice from it, making it susceptible to a number of diseases.  You will often see ants where aphids are around.  The ants feed on the honeydew aphids create and the ants will voraciously protect aphids against other bug predators.

Aphids can cause stunted growth and yellow leaf curl on plants and their honeydew lesions often turn to black sooty fungus.  They spread rapidly in our temperate late spring/early summer conditions and you need to catch them early in order to control them.  Each aphid can hatch up to 80 aphids per week, as little as 12 days after hatching. 

You can knock the aphids off the leaves with a strong spray of water but in my experience they simply climb right back onto the plant fairly quickly.  I find it’s easiest to leave them on the leaf then crush them all with my thumb.  I do support the top side of the leaf in my other hand to be sure I don’t harm the plant.  Back in my early gardening days I used insecticidal soap made from the chrysanthemum flower but that can be harmful to humans and animals so it’s no longer a choice for me. 

What I do use on a regular basis are lady bugs. 


You can find them at better gardening centers (mine are from Swanson’s) and on the internet.  Keep them refrigerated and release them slowly at dusk (they don’t fly at night) in small numbers at a time over the course of the summer.  Release them by putting them at the base of plants around your yard.  If you are trying to pinpoint them to a particular leaf you will notice they persist in climbing upwards (usually up your arm).  To get them onto a leaf place your finger under the leaf.  They will immediately change direction, climbing up your finger and onto the leaf.

Ladybugs are an endless source of amusement for kids and a great intro to gardening.  You can find kid’s magnifying glasses just about everywhere.  No garden is complete without one.

One other bug I love to have in the garden is the praying mantis.  You can also get their egg sacks at Swanson’s or on the internet.  They require temperatures above 80 degrees for two weeks in order to hatch which puts them at the tail end of summer for us in Seattle but they are fun to find in the garden.  They eat just about any bug and provide hours of entertainment for kids.