I had an extra day off work this week and nowhere in particular to go.
As a treat to myself I decided not to go to the gym, not to wash clothes and to forget about the dirty dishes in the sink.
It seemed perfectly reasonable to spend my idle time staring at my plants.
Just a few days prior, my beau had spotted the first hornworm of the season.
Mom was visiting and I guess I was showing off. I grabbed the hornworm carefully between the blades of pruning shears and sashayed around the patio with the green gobbler.
Mom cheered me on and shared the oft-told story of Uncle Jimmy and the hornworms.
Long ago, mom’s grandmother offered a nickle per bug, which sent the grandchildren into a hornworm finding frenzy. Uncle Jimmy demonstrated exceptional zeal, laying his hornworms on the ground and systematically stomping on them: “five cents, 10 cents, 15 cents,” he chanted.
In another version of the story, the hornworms are fed to the chickens after payment.
Farmers are harvesting almonds this week, which is ahead of schedule. It may be my imagination, but it seems like tomato hornworms are ahead of schedule as well.
If you have 8 minutes you can watch a video of the entire life cycle of the critter, from egg to gorgeous sphinx moth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gk2PYeRvmWI
This video was personally reassuring that I am not the only one who spends hours staring at plants.
One reason we don’t spot hornworms earlier is because the eggs are tiny, about 1.5 millimeters. For perspective, the length of a flea is 1.5 mm.
Also, the small, medium and large hornworms are the exact color of the tomato plant upon which they are feasting. The best way to spot them is to find a stem where all of the leaves are eaten, and travel with your eyes toward the center of the plant. Hornworms also give themselves away by dropping dark-green globs of worm poop. Look for the worm several inches above the leaf covered with worm poop.
While continuing to stare at plants, I also found some great praying mantises in the sunflowers.
The biggest bug jackpot was in plain view and sucking the life out of the poor Portulaca.
Portulaca, also known as moss rose, is a great container plant known for surviving abysmal heat. As the petals drop, you can often find a little bundle of black seeds, which are fun to sprinkle in bare soil.
I dug my fingernails into some black spots, only to find something black and sticky.
Fortunately, I did not need to rush off to work this day.
Almost every stem of the succulent plant was covered with tiny black bugs – aphids.
Ants were also standing periodically, keeping care of the aphid herd to collect honedew (the excretion of plant-sucking aphids).
Nature is fascinating.
Similar to early ranchers in the Sacramento Valley, the ants saw this portulaca as a vast prairie, perfectly suited for aphid ranching.
Never mind that a monstrous woman with a squirt bottle filled with soapy water would come along and dash the ants’ pioneering spirit.
If I had a few more days off from work I would take an eight-minute video to show what happens to aphids after being sprayed with soapy water.
After mom’s visit, my sister stopped by. I offered her a basil plant for her kitchen window, but she was afraid the pot might have bugs in the soil.
I had no idea what she was talking about. The aphids, ants, hornworms and praying mantises were currently preoccupied with other greenery.
Yet, when we reached for the basil plant, a particularly fuzzy spider made a quick exit.
Over the next few hours I had fun putzing around the yard, offering my sister plants. Even though there were no more spiders, every once in a while I squealed as if a spider had jumped onto my arm. No matter how old I get, its still fund to tease my older sister.
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