Insects in the Orchard – Friend or Foe?

Posted by Mom on August 14, 2017

After beginning our orchard, we’ve become more aware of the insects that co-exist with us at Harrold Country Home. In terms of our trees’ health and resilience, the insects can be lumped into two general categories: the good or the bad.

First, the good insects, which can be further divided into predators or pollinators. The majority of people find the pollinators easier to like; the beautiful butterflies and moths, the bees busily working away. Pollinators not only endear themselves to us with their brilliant colours and fanciful life cycles, they also serve an invaluable role in our food systems. Simply put, without pollinators, our food options would drop by 75%, at least*. Just imagine a world with no more chocolate, coffee or fruit. Inconceivable!

When we picked up our 36 trees from Wiffletree Farm, we also picked up two Bee Kits. Each kit includes 10 mason bees, 25 leafcutter bees, 25 nesting reeds and a bee house. We set up the bee houses within the orchard when the weather conditions were favourable (average temperature about 10℃). Now, in the middle of summer, our waiting is over and the bees are using the nesting reeds. Although our fruit trees did not blooming this year, the bees are finding plenty of pollen from our flower gardens.

Our native bees, unlike the Old World honey bees that were introduced to North America during European colonization, are the better pollinators. Honey bees prefer nectar, which they take back to the hive to be transformed into honey. Our native bees prefer pollen; and it’s pollen, after all, that needs to travel between blossoms in order to pollinate a flower and produce fruits and seeds. The female bees fly from flower to flower and collect pollen with their fuzzy bodies. The bees then comb the pollen off themselves, stuff it into a chamber along with an egg, and close off the chamber (the larva feeds upon the pollen when it hatches from the egg). Mason bees close off the nest chambers with mud and leafcutter bees with (did you guess?) pieces of leaves.

Unlike the loveable pollinators, predators tend to give people the willies: spiders, wasps, hoverflies and dragonflies. But these maligned insects are priceless. They are responsible for keeping the bad insects under control and preventing them from eating their way through our fruit trees. When we walk through the orchard on a search for the bad, we try not to disturb the spider webs. If we spot a wasp, we seek to identify it and discover which bad insect it preys upon (unlike the bees that leave pollen to feed their larvae, wasps leave a paralyzed caterpillar, insect or spider to feed theirs). When we see hoverflies (flies that mimic bees to avoid predators), we give a “yahoo” because their larvae voraciously eat pests, such as aphids, thrips, scales and caterpillars. When we see dragonflies, we grab our field guide to learn its name so we can know it next time we see it patrolling the orchard.

And now for the bad insects…

For the most part, the bad insects are those that harm our fruit trees. I’m referring to the leaf-munching caterpillars and beetles. With our trees so newly planted, they are not setting any fruit; and fortunately, we are not pestered by the flies and moths that lay their eggs in the developing fruits. The easiest to spot leaf-muncher in the orchard is the Japanese Beetle. These iridescent copper and emerald beetles like to eat the softer parts of the leaves and, if left to themselves, will skeletonize the leaves of a small tree from the top down. In an effort to reduce their numbers, we walk the orchard and scan the trees for beetles. If we spot one, we pluck it and plop it into a bucket filled with soapy water. The soap prevents them from breaking the surface tension and they drown.

We also keep a look out for caterpillars as we walk along. In the spring, a gentle shake of a tree would yield a few caterpillars dangling from silken threads to be collected and tossed to the chickens. Lately, we find the caterpillars hiding in brown, rolled-up leaves. We either unroll the leaves and clean out the caterpillars or pull off the leaves and squish the caterpillars inside.

As our trees mature, the bad insects that visit our orchard will change too. When the trees are bigger, the Japanese Beetles won’t be such a problem. But we can expect the arrival of apple maggot flies and yet-to-be-learned flies that will look to infest our pear, peach, plum or apricot trees. To combat these pests we are looking to install a pond that will provide habitat for dragonflies and encourage more of these beneficial predators to patrol the orchard for invaders. The pond will also provide the necessary water that ducks require. And ducks are fantastic at foraging for grubs, slugs and other arthropods that live under the orchard. I think it’s time to investigate duck-keeping…

* (accessed August 8, 2017).