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Wicked Bugs

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Amy Stewart Amy Stewart | 10:00 UK time, Thursday, 13 October 2011

I generally don't consider a bug that eats a plant to be wicked. Plants are, after all, the food supply for many insects; I'm hardly going to blame them for eating their dinner. No, a wicked bug is one that has caused catastrophic, widespread suffering, or inflicted pain and disease and misery on us. Mowing down the lettuce or boring into the melon vines is nothing in comparison to the assassin bug that bit Charles Darwin, the giant centipede that terrorized a Londoner , or the Brazilian wandering spider that bit a pub chef.

Cabbage root fly

Cabbage root fly

And yes, I'm using the term "bug" loosely to refer not just to insects, but to a variety of creepy, crawling, and slithering creatures that infest not just our gardens, but our nightmares as well.

So for the most part, I'm at peace with my bug-ridden garden. But even ordinary garden pests can be terrifying in their own way. Consider the following:




Many species of aphids are capable of "telescoping generations" in which a female gives birth not just to her daughter, but her granddaughter as well. Like Russian dolls, one is nested inside the other. Females can carry on like this for several generations with no male involvement at all. This explains why you never seem to see just one or two aphids: their reproductive advantage lets them take over with remarkable speed. What's worse is that some, such as the oleander aphid Aphis nerii, actually gather poisons from their host plants and pack them around their young to protect them from predators. They may be tiny, but they are fierce and determined.

Ermine Moth Caterpillar

The ermine moth caterpillar Yponomeuta padella, is a horrible creature that covers trees and fences with tent-like webs. We have similar species called tent caterpillars in the U.S. and we have a fine old tradition of climbing up on ladders with flaming torches in our hands to set fire to them. Please don't ever do this. Setting a tree on fire is far more dangerous than simply letting the caterpillars run their course.




Gardeners here in North America regret the day the brown garden snail was imported from France as a food source. (Were we ever really that hungry? Hadn't we invented the hamburger by then?) Fortunately, we have an ally in our war against the snail: the lancetooth snail Haplotrema vancouverense is a predator, so if both are found in the garden, we can step back and let them battle it out. I know that the decollate snail Rumina decollate, native to the Mediterranean, serves the same purpose. We're starting to import them to California as well. What could possibly go wrong?

Grape Phylloxera

Grape Phylloxera might not infest your garden, but it is a plant pest worthy of the term "wicked": this tiny, aphid-like creature hitchhiked to France in the roots of native American grapevines, which were resistant to the pest. The French grapevines had no such resistance, and this miniscule creature wiped out the vineyards and made wine all but impossible to get in the mid-nineteenth century. Terrifying indeed.

Amy Stewart is a California-based garden writer and blogger.


  • Comment number 1.

    As a biologist by learning and as a hobby I love all creatures. Everything is perfectly adapted to its environment and if we put something in its way thats easy lunch then thats our lookout. However if I put my gardenershat on its a different story. Every single one of my cabbages grown from seed were eaten as seedlings this year as you can see from the picture ( so I had to buy some from the garden centre. I was caught out because I thought all the cabbage whites would be finished by end of september, but this warm weather proved me wrong. Still alls well that ends well I've got new ones in well protected by pyrethrum which I love because its organic!!


  • Comment number 2.

    I'm with you Jess - I love to watch bugs scuttling around the place on who knows what urgent business but I hate what they do to my plants sometimes! Caterpillars are a particular nuisance. Glad you managed to retrieve the situation though, and enjoy those cabbages!


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