Insectopia and Other Apocalyptic Possibilities: Cole Crop Cabbagworm

I have never been a bug lover. As a kid, I ran willy-nilly from dive-bombing bees flailing my arms in an attempt to ward then off from stinging me. I was also known to let out blood curdling screams, while tearfully, and shrilly, demanding that my father come and kill a spider that had found its way into our house. I developed a bit of a phobia about insects and hypothesized that the only thing preventing insects from world domination over humankind was their small size. I really think we dodged a bullet on that one.

Magnifying Loupe - oh, the horrors that await.

Magnifying Loupe – oh, the horrors that await.

So, one of the hardest things for me about gardening is to tolerate insects. During the Master Gardener course, one of the classes was on entomology. It was a hands-on lecture. The lecturer would place a plant under the microscope and project it up on a big screen, while samples of the same plant would be passed around for each us to look at through our magnifying loops. Who knew that there were so many tiny insects crawling around, too small for us to see with the naked eye? Well, thanks to that class, I do. There was a point during the Master Gardener course that I considered purchasing latex gloves so as to avoid actually touching the insects. There was also a point where I think I might have thrown up a little bit in my mouth when I put the loop to my eye, brought a plant sample up close to look at, and realized that there were swarms of nano insects just inches from my face.

Once I realized there were so many teeny insects living on our plants, I took my loop and made the rounds in my yard to determine just what I was up against. *Sigh*

I’ve had to develop a thick skin when it comes to insects in order to effectively garden. I learned that there are beneficial insects (that took a lot of evidence to convince me, but it finally did), along with the pests, and that we want to invite and encourage the beneficials into our outdoor spaces. I no longer freak out when I see bees – instead, I pretend I am Dr. Doolittle and welcome them with open arms (sans flailing). I also made a pact with the spiders – they stay out of my house, and I don’t kill them out in my yard, except black widows (I should note here that my husband will not kill spiders for me; he will, however, catch the spider and place it gently outside. He is obviously a better person than me.)

This meandering preamble of my previous fear of all things insect, brings me to Cole crops and the pests that love them (sounds like a new Bravo TV reality series).

Female White Butterfly

Female White Butterfly

There are a number of pests that love Broccoli and other cabbages. But the most common among them is the cabbageworm. The cabbageworm is the larvae of the small white cabbage butterfly. You’ve seen it. It flitters among your crops looking so angelic and lovely, as it surreptitiously lays its multitude of eggs. The cabbageworms will eat your broccoli. In fact, they can disseminate a crop. It’s important to take care of them, or they will take care of your crop. I had them last year, and again this year. Because of the mild weather here, they’ve done a little more damage. Grrrr.

Cabbageworm damage to my broccoli

Cabbageworm damage on my broccoli

Cabbageworm on my broccoli

Cabbageworm on my broccoli

Although there was a split second that I was tempted to use a flamethrower to kill the suckers, I did not. I remembered my Master Gardener training, and my newly acquired appreciation for the insect circle-of-life, and resisted. Instead, I treated the problem organically.

The 100% organic and least environmentally impactful method of controlling cabbage worms is to: (a) place floating row covers over your crops to (mostly) prevent the white butterfly from laying its eggs on the plants, and (b) handpick the worms off the underside of the leaves and then kill them (yes! just squish those suckers!) or toss them into your curbside compost can.

The other organic way, but minimally impactful to the environment, is to kill the worms using Spinosad. Spinosad is considered an organic pesticide (biological control) and has a very low toxicity. It kills specific pests through contact and ingestion. Spinosad is derived from a naturally occurring soil dwelling bacterium and approved for both organic farming and home use. Spinosad does not significantly impact beneficial insects, and can be sprayed up to 24 hours before harvest of Cole crops; to protect bees, spray in the late evening, night or early morning (note: the timing depends on the crop – so read the label).

What not to use is a broad-range pesticide on your Cole crops. Even though I fully understand why you would want to be done with all of those pests in one, big fell swoop – please don’t. Broad-range pesticides can be very harmful. Why? Because broad-range kills indiscriminately – meaning it kills not only the pests but also beneficial insects such as bees or parasitic wasps. There are insects that we want, and need, to keep alive and thriving in our environs. A broad-range pesticide can upset the “checks-and-balances” of nature – such as wiping out one pest only to have another, more harmful pest explode in numbers because its natural enemy was wiped out.

Remember, the only thing stopping the insects from taking over the world is their size, so let’s make sure we don’t dose them with any gene-mutating chemicals that could create a shift in the power paradigm. I know, it’s just a hypothesis, but . . .