Toronto Star column – published October 25, 2014
Good Things We Love to Hate
“Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.” ~Bradley Millar
Ever since I opened my ‘insect hotel’ in by backyard this summer I have been made acutely aware of the fact that this is a bad idea, according to some pretty smart and generally well-informed people that I know. My, how wrong they are.
It’s not that I am smarter than them, but I happen to know some of the smartest people on the planet. This makes me one of the better informed among us, especially where rot and decay are concerned.
You see, without rot and decay we would be more than knee-deep in our own garbage. In her landmark book, The Gardeners Manifesto, Lorraine Johnson tells us that if it weren’t for rot and decay, Southern Ontario would be buried in so much leaf refuse that it would equal a depth of the CN Tower [more or less]. We need the autumn leaves to fall to the ground and for the bacteria and mycorrhizae that live there to do their work [NOT their dirty work]. Through the miracle of decomposition your maple leaves become the essence of a great garden in a matter of months. The very earth in which your carrots grew this summer came from the decayed leaves and other organic matter that makes up the best soil in our most valuable farmland.
Speaking of bacteria, where did it get such a bad rap? Remember when some genius introduced us to mouthwash: the scientific answer to bad breath and gingivitis? So we dutifully rinsed our mouths with it for some years before someone else put up their hand and announced that the majority of bacteria in your mouth are good guys. We need them to battle disease and to help break down food before it enters our stomach and digestive system.
Toothpaste companies are villains in the battle for truth where bacteria are concerned. For a generation we were told to brush our teeth with some brand or other in order to prevent tooth decay. Fair enough. My dentist reminds me that decay is the enemy every time I visit and he takes x-rays of my mouth. A spot of decay in my molar about the size of a pin head is enough to generate about $800 in dental income. I am not dishing on dentists or toothpaste producers. I just want to point out that the human tendency to see things in absolute terms is not doing any of us a great service here. We NEED rot and decay to survive, but maybe not in our mouths.
Another good thing that we love to hate are bats. We need bats. We live with bats in the city and the country and most of us are not even aware of their existence because they come out at night and do their work while we saw logs in the comfort of our beds. They consume up to their body weight in mosquitoes and other insects each night. Think about that: how many more cases of West Nile virus might have occurred if it had not been for bats? We don’t thank them, we despise them for some imagined and seldom real reasons that have to do with vampires and rabies. Truth is, fewer cases of rabies have been reported due to bats than have been due to rabid foxes. I know nothing about vampires.
Who isn’t afraid of snakes? This could be the widest held phobia of all phobias. When I describe the bottom story of my insect hotel as the perfect place for snakes to habour over winter, most people recoil in horror. We have this idea that they are poisonous [the Massasauga rattler, which is the only poisonous one in Ontario, is generally found on the Bruce Peninsula, not downtown Toronto or Mississauga]. There have been no reported incidents of poisonous snake bites from wild Massasauga rattlers in Mississauga. Ever.
Snakes eat mice, which invade your basement in winter and chew the bark off of your newly planted apple tree. They love to chow down on slugs, grubs, ants, centipedes, other earth bound insects, and frogs. O.K., not all of these can be classified as ‘bad’ [e.g. frogs] but even snakes aren’t perfect. As far as any self respecting gardener is concerned, they are much more ‘good’ than they are harmful to the biodiversity of your yard and neighbourhood. Encourage snakes at all costs, is my advice.
We recently said goodbye to the wasp population for this year, as they battened down the hatches for winter in response to the temperatures drop. Wasps can be aggressive and when they sting, you know it immediately. Some people are violently allergic to wasp stings. So I am not about to tell you this story, lightly, in their defense.
Wasps are one of the primary pollinators in our spring gardens. The Queen of the wasp colony lays eggs that hatch into larvae that need to be fed by the adult wasps. The adults busy themselves visiting blossoms in an effort to gather up pollen and nectar to take back to the larva as food and nutrition. The larva, in return, produce a sticky, sweet substance that nourishes the adults so that they can go out and forage for another day. You will note that wasps are not aggressive in the spring or early summer, unless you really annoy them.
About mid summer the Queen runs out of steam and stops laying eggs. Like Europeans, she likes to take an August vacation. As a result, the production of larva slows down and the adults are left without their source of sticky, sweet sustenance. That is when they head out to your yard and garden looking for YOUR sweet and sticky stuff. A bunch of rotting apples are a prize for a late season wasp. Disturb a foraging wasp when it is really hungry and you could be asking for trouble with a stinger on the end.
The point? Wasps are not all bad. At least in the spring, when it is most important that plant flowers become fertilized, wasps are making a significant contribution.
Most of us love to see and hear birds chirping their way through our neighbourhoods. We often put out food to attract them and we enjoy their antics year round. Until the grackles come to town. They travel in huge herds, eat all of the bird food, don’t have a nice song, and generally are considered the bullies of the bird world. Well, Jody Allair, that is Doctor J.A. in my books, has a different opinion. He is the chief oncologist at Bird Studies Canada (http://www.bsc-eoc.org/) and he defends the lowly grackle as an important member of our bird world. Dr. Allair says, “Sure a grackle eats more than a house finch, but it’s also a fascinating bird. Males put on an amazing show during courtship. And if you look closely at their black plumage you may appreciate the beauty of their iridescent purple and bronze feathers.” The courtship thing fascinates us, doesn’t it?
Now you know.
What we don’t know is why there are squirrels. Especially red squirrels, the ones with the creamy white bellies. They eat my bird seed, nest in my attic, chew up the furniture at the cottage while we are in the city and they chase away the grey and black squirrels [not that I am defending their cousins]. What earthly good are they? If we have to demonize something, let it be red squirrels.