A Harlequin Romance: Coming to a Cabbage Patch Near You

A Harlequin romance is supposed to be predictable.  Pretty girl meets handsome, mysterious man and proceeds to engage in a sappy and steamy love affair.  A harlequin character is supposed to be a zany fool, a buffoon at whom you poke fun.  A harlequin pattern is bold, red and black diamonds.  How could I miss all this?

Of course I did notice the bold, red and black coloration.  It was an interesting insect, new to me, and so I let it alone.  I thought it beautiful.  As one should with new romances, I took it slowly.  Was it a predator of plants or bugs?  I kept meaning to look it up, but days went by.  I approached cautiously, admiring its stark, sleek coat of arms.  One morning I went in search of it for a picture and saw the answer to my question:  it was munching my cabbage!

The harlequin cabbage bug (Murgantia histrionica), not to be confused with the harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus), is a black stinkbug with bright red, orange, or yellow coloration.  It is considered dangerous – to a cabbage plant that is – and it is described as an important pest.  It causes damage by sucking the sap out of plants, but what I saw appeared to be munching, not sucking.  I thought that perhaps the nymphs do the sucking damage.  I promptly removed all the eggs I could find. They are quite beautiful.  I’d not yet seen a nymph.  However, that does not mean I’d broken this romantic life cycle.  The new nymphs are basically the size of the eggs (see excellent photos at this website: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/harlequin_bug.htm) and therefore, easily missed.

A Harlequin cabbage bug adult and a cabbage white butterfly larva.

A harlequin cabbage bug adult and a cabbage white butterfly larva.

I already have holes in most of my cabbage plant leaves thanks to the cabbage white butterfly. I pick off some of the larvae since they are numerous, but otherwise I try to live with the chewed leaves.  They taste the same and most of my cabbage is slated for fermentation.  No one will see the holes once I chop the leaves into small pieces.  But I’ve seen what the gray squash bugs can do to a squash plant, and I don’t want to share my cabbage with the harlequin cabbage bug.  This means daily checking.

I later realized that the harlequin bug I thought was munching on a cabbage leaf must have just been sitting right where a cabbage white larva had feasted and that is why I thought it was munching.  I soon noticed not only holes all over my cabbage, but lots of juicy green frass, otherwise known as caterpillar poop.  I wonder – since I might lose my cabbage – if there is much nitrogen in caterpillar poop.  At least I could get some fertilizer in the soil for the next go around.  All romances need a little give and take.

Beginning cabbage head full of holes and frass, and lots of larvae hiding in the folds.

Beginning cabbage head full of holes and frass, and lots of larvae hiding in the folds.

The harlequin cabbage bug is a hemimetabolous insect.  This means it undergoes incomplete metamorphosis in its development.  It goes from egg to nymph to adult through gradual changes as opposed to having a pupa stage (think butterflies), which is called holometabolism, or complete metamorphosis.  Grasshoppers and dragonflies are examples of other insects with hemimetabolism.

Harlequin cabbage bugs require anywhere from 50 to 80 days to complete one generation of their life cycle.  In warmer climates this means plenty of time for some extra-amorous affairs.  They overwinter as adults, ready for love in the spring.  I had never seen this insect before.  I am in awe of how the adults found my particular cabbage patch.  How far did they travel?  Was it serendipitous that two harlequin bugs met on my lovely cabbage? I did have lovely cabbage a few weeks ago.  I rather think not, since I found many adults and, unwittingly left them to their romantic interludes a bit too long.

So what happened to my daily checking?  Well, there is always much to do in a garden, and then we went away for four days.  Then, of course, there is much to do when one returns.  Today I got to that checking.  It seems some cabbage will indeed be lost, unless I want to spend a lot of time removing caterpillar poop before making my sauerkraut.  I also found more Harlequin adults and more eggs, this time with larva.  This means the dangerous sucking behavior has barely begun.  My poor plants.  The good news is that my chickens like cabbage and broccoli leaves.  Leaves with eggs or larvae are even better, like nuts on your sundae.  And the best news is that not all of my cabbage and broccoli are affected.  Yet.

Harlequin cabbage bug eggs and nymphs.

Harlequin cabbage bug eggs and nymphs.

Bold coloration in nature is often a sign that an organism is toxic.  This adaptation then caused some species to evolve bold coloration even though they are not toxic – a tricky protective mechanism called mimicry.  The cabbage harlequin bug is not toxic and can safely be fed to the chickens.  Of course, non-toxic does not mean tasty, and when I presented the girls with a bowl full of cabbage butterfly larvae and a harlequin bug, all but the bug was devoured.  They didn’t even attempt to taste it.  Seems I was the only fool.  No more cabbage romances for me.

Last Child at the Pond

I met the Last Child at the Pond* yesterday.  I’ll call him LC for short.  He and his father came to help me sample my creek for macroinvertebrates (See: http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/12/17/in-praise-of-small-things/) because LC had never done it before.  Truth be told I think LC already knew the names of at least half of what we found in the net.  I already knew he was smarter than the average nine-year-old, especially about natural processes and wildlife.  But what I saw yesterday was much more than an intelligent child.  I met an explorer.  I met someone with a profound fascination for life and the world around him.

This shouldn’t be so shocking.  He is after all a child.  Aren’t children the embodiment of curious?  We tend to ascribe this curious stage to younger children, particularly three-year-olds.  Somewhere along the path of development it seems many children lose this innate inquisitiveness and need external stimulation for play.  I never once heard LC say anything remotely close to I’m bored.  Nor did his actions or body language suggest he was bored. He would have stayed for hours if not for other happenings in his day.  I’ve worked with fourth graders, who can be very excited about a chance to explore the natural world, but their excitement does not usually transfer to true curiosity, a desire to first know and then understand, and so their excitement quickly turns to boredom.  What’s next?  Now what do we do?  This is shocking.

I believe that we are all natural born scientists.  We see this in those young children, those three year olds that always ask why?  Science and exploration are related.  Wikipedia defines exploration as “the act of searching or traveling around a terrain for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. . .”  Watching LC explore I realized that I am not discovering as much as I could about Halcyon.  I’m not doing it right.

I do walk the property often, hoping to see wildlife in action or find a new plant.  I thought it was all about being in the right place at the right time – something interesting could happen just after I pass a particular spot, or could have already happened right before I passed through.  My senses are not as honed as most of the other species at Halcyon and so I know I miss a lot.  But this method has resulted in some pleasant discoveries over the years: fox and bear scat, various caterpillars and butterflies, box turtles, numerous birds including a flock of turkeys, and most notably a plethora of plant species.

Less often, I try and sit quietly, watching and listening.  I reason that I am more likely to see and hear wildlife if I am still.  The problem with this method is that I often find my mind traveling while my body sits, and suddenly I realize I’m not seeing or hearing anything.

LC’s method is more purposeful and honed.  Instead of ambling along my paths, he is like a magnet pulled toward possible habitat in which he peers in, over, and under.  With this technique more often than not, he finds an animal.  For example, the large rock by the bridge drew him in because of his knowledge of amphibians.  He squatted down and stuck his head under and exclaimed, “A young green frog!”  How many times have I walked right past this rock?

LC can do this because of the compounding effect of natural experiences – in other words because his parents have allowed, encouraged, and shared time in nature since (and probably before) his first question.  I’ve worked with elementary-aged students with fears of venturing outside because they’ve not explored much since uttering those first natural questions.  They’ve been told, “Don’t get muddy” and “Don’t touch that.”  They’ve seen a parent kill a snake or purposefully run over a coyote (I almost cried when I heard that story).  The outdoors is no longer an integral part of their lives, but something to be feared or at least be very cautious about.

I’ve worked with college students whose experiences outdoors are so distant or even non-existent that they show mixtures of fear and boredom.  We don’t all have to spend hours of each day exploring nature, but I believe kids have a right to play outside in nature and deserve a chance to experience nature as a co-inhabitant of the planet, not as an outsider.

My outside experience was heightened with LC’s and his dad’s knowledge yesterday.  Since I was engaged in sampling, my senses were keener than those times when I can’t seem to keep my inner thoughts at bay.  Also, three sets of senses are better than one less-experienced set.   In a short three-hour period we heard a deer snorting in the woods behind us, the raucous cries of crows mobbing a hawk, the quick warble-like chirps of a  white-eyed vireo, and lots of other birds. We counted a couple hundred macroinvertebrates including a white mayfly and another kind of mayfly I’d never seen before, several salamanders, the crows mobbing that red-tailed hawk as it flew over my chickens in the garden, a painted turtle, a green frog, some small fish, some large olive-colored tadpoles, and a lot of spectacular damselflies and dragonflies – I’ve already ordered a book to help me explore them.  We touched all those macroinvertebrates, and a tadpole; we got our hands wet in the cold stream.  We smelled honeysuckle.  We used all our senses except taste, a sense more wisely saved for the kitchen.

A stonefly.  My favorite macroinvertebrate.

A stonefly. My favorite macroinvertebrate.

So I want to thank The Last Child at the Pond for showing me how better to explore.  I understand that the more time I spend, the more I will find, and the more I find, the more I learn, and the easier it will get to find more.  I need to start compounding my experiences.  Children have so much to teach us.

A mayfly.  I've never seen this kind before.

A mayfly. I’ve never seen this kind before.

*The Last Child at the Pond name is inspired by Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006.