The good, bad and ugly: St. Lawrence County Cooperative Extension educator talks insects
Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 5:25 pm


Thinking about insect pests, particularly invasive species, it dawned on me the other day—which isn't surprising, considering that to the best of my recollection the sun has come up every day so far in my lifetime—that there's a painless way to evaluate insects for damage potential.

I'm calling it the Insect Pest Three-Name Litmus Test. When you find an unknown insect in your garden, your lawn, your tree or shrub, key it out. What's it called? Specifically, how many names does it have?

It must be one of those inscrutable laws of nature, like how an object at rest will tend to stay at rest. Stuff that you drop tends to fall down, not so often up. Energy can change form but cannot be created or destroyed. And evil, more often than not, uses three names.

Think about notorious villains: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacy, Attila The Hun, Cruella de Vil, Vinnie The Lawyer, Big Bad Wolf. Three names. Lots of people have three names, but don’t get in your face with all of them at once. I see my middle name as a kind of spare, in case my first name wears out or gets copyrighted or something. If 'Paul' becomes the intellectual property of some corporation, I'll dust off my middle name, but until then I won't flaunt it.

In contrast, look at our heroes: Jesus Christ, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, Ralph Nader, Gandhi, Buddha, Martin Luther King Junior. I'm just establishing a pattern here.

And the animal kingdom bears this out as well. A great white shark will eat you, a basking shark won't. Black widow spider, deadly. Wolf spider, benign. European red elderberry, poisonous. Black elderberry, safe. Eastern coral snake, venomous. Milk snake, not.

Now consider the bad actors of the insect world: emerald ash borer, which will eventually destroy all the ash trees—900 million—in NY State. Spotted-wing drosophila, which decimated a lot of downstate berry farms in 2012. Asian longhorn beetle, which has the potential to destroy almost every hardwood species we have. Brown marmorated stinkbugs will be ravaging North Country fruit of all kinds within a few years. Greenery of all kinds, too, come to think of it. Colorado potato beetle, hemlock wooly adelgid, eastern tent caterpillar, striped cucumber beetle, sirex wood wasp, viburnum leaf beetle, western bean cutworm—the list is endless.

But check out the names of beneficial insects: Praying mantis. Ichneumon wasp. Syrphid fly. Lacewing. Honeybee. Ladybug. Dragonfly. Scientific proof—need I say more?

Not only does the Insect Pest Three-Name Litmus Test rhyme, it’s revolutionary in its simplicity. Three names; probably bad. One, two, four names; probably good, or at least benign. I'm shooting for a Nobel in Science for this, and I don't want to hear a dang word from anyone about tomato hornworms, squash bugs or flea beetles.

Questions about insects, good, bad or ugly, can be directed to Cooperative Extension at 379-9192.

Paul Hetzler is a Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.