February 1, 2014

When I turn on the lights in the bedroom I notice a film of movement on the glass doors. I look closer and hear the faint tick tick of feet climbing the glass. The doors are often covered in insects on summer nights, and we’ve watched armies of them rise and fall. They climb to the top and drop down again, creating waves of motion in the periphery of vision. Usually they are tiny flies, so tiny that we’ve had to close the glass doors because they can crawl through the fly wire. These are much larger, about a centimetre long, with a bulbous yellow back and a red stripe. I am less amused by this waterfall of bugs when I recognise them as one of the creatures I’ve seen on the kale, one of the many reasons (along with the cluster caterpillars and the pumpkin beetles) that the few kale leaves that the wallabies have missed look like lace.

I’ve never translated those nighttime insects into daytime evidence of destruction before. This time I see nothing but the potential damage that is climbing up and down our door. Although I’m ready for bed and more suitable bedtime reading, I go and dig out the book by Judy McMaugh called What Garden Pest or Disease is That?, a depressing litany of beetles, caterpillars, flies, scale, fungus, rot, spot, blight, canker, rust. I shield my eyes from the more gruesome pictures of bundles of sawflies or infestations of mould as I flick through its pages. You wonder why you bother when there’s a whole double-page dedicated just to things that attack macadamias. Eventually I match tonight’s bugs to the photo of the redshouldered leaf beetle.

It turns out they are native beetles that occur in swarms – yes – most common in late spring or summer – yes. They chew ragged leaves in foliage – yes – and attack a wide range of plants. The author doesn’t mention kale, but I get the idea that it could easily form part of their diet. There’s something about a swarm that brings out an antagonism towards invasion in me. My eyes are drawn to Judy McMaugh’s usual response to insects – spray with carbaryl – but even she admits that this chemical is ‘of relatively low toxicity to humans but highly toxic to bees’. I remember to ask myself why I have a garden, and how that garden sits in the grand scheme of our environment, and my feelings soften. Awww. Red-shouldered beetles get hungry too.