The pole beans have reached the top of their towers. The roses have gone hardcore hussy, decked out in perfume and pastels.
Where are the Japanese Beetles?
I prowl the yard peeking down the throats of flowers, like some deranged gum-booted doctor checking patients for tonsillitis. Say Ahh.
Gingerly slipping my hand into the razor-lined maw of the rugosa, I finger leaves that by rights should show some sign of incipient skeletonization. I tap and shake the flowers of the twice-blooming gladioli. Twice.
It isn’t that I want to find Japanese Beetles. It’s that the only way I know – as an organic gardener – to control these jewel-toned, love-drunk, six-legged chewing monstrosities is to stay three steps ahead of them. It’s mid-July; I’m going blue in the face holding my breath, waiting for the beetle plague to begin.
I’m beginning to think that it just might be okay to inhale, however…
Could it be that last year’s drought and heat wave suppressed the Japanese beetle larvae population in my ecosystem’s soil? Plausible. But we’ve suffered such conditions in the past, and it had no appreciable effect on beetle damage as far as I can recall.
Could it be that the heavy spring rains drowned the developing larvae beneath the sod? I suppose. But wet springs have never, in the past, stopped beetles from feasting on my flowers.
The most dramatic ecosystemic difference I can think of that might account for Japanese Beetles Missing in Action is the four free range hens I raised in my backyard from July 2011 to October 2012.
The chicken is the closest living relative of the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, and as such is an inquisitive, problem-solving, terrifyingly efficient predator. Those hens watched me knock a couple of Japanese beetles out of a rose once, and by the next day were checking for beetles by leaping into the air and whacking flowers with their beaks. Within a few days, they had knocked every Japanese beetle in the yard to the ground, where they gobbled them up like popcorn. Last summer was the first season in all of my years gardening in the mid-west that no plant in my yard suffered appreciable Japanese beetle damage.
The trick to controlling Japanese beetles organically is to interrupt their feeding before your plants begin to emit distress chemicals and before the beetles begin to emit sex hormones. Both chemical markers draw every beetle in Creation to your yard. I am beginning to suspect that the hens got the jump on the early beetles, and interrupted their feeding and reproductive cycle. They also spent the previous winter and spring feeding on larvae overwintering in the sod. Four chickens, two seasons with no appreciable Japanese beetle damage.
We’re not out of the woods yet. It’s too soon to pat myself on the back for engineering our family experiment with backyard chickens. On the other hand, it is not too soon for me to use the rest of the summer to redesign, repair and rebuild our chicken coop and run so that we will be ready to bring four brand new layers to our yard this coming autumn.
<photo credit: www.arbordoctor.net>