Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Japanese Beetle

You can easily limit the numbers of Japanese Beetles in your yard and garden by minimizing or getting rid of lawn grass and the Asian plants (such as roses) that feed them. Photo: Marlene Condon.

© Marlene A. Condon

Where I grew up, June marked the start of Japanese Beetle season. Even here in the South, I often do not see the first of these insects until then. Their presence always brings me back down Memory Lane.

During my teenage years, I was responsible for bringing in the laundry from the clothesline, which I did not mind doing except for those times when Japanese Beetles were clinging to it!

If these insects were not too numerous, I would try to unpin the clothes and quickly shake the beetles off before folding the clothes into the laundry basket. But sometimes there were just too many beetles, and I was simply not brave enough to deal with them flying all around me and sometimes landing on me! Unfortunately, I struggled with entomophobia (also known as insectophobia)—an extreme fear of insects.

For a person as enamored of nature as I am, you might wonder how I could possibly suffer from such a dread of insects, animals that I could hardly avoid during warm-weather months when I especially spent as much time as possible exploring the natural world around me. Unfortunately, I seem to have been born not only with an intense love of nature, but also with a huge fear of insects.

My very first memory (at about three years of age) revolves around the presence of large red-and-black ants scurrying all around on the city sidewalk near our house. As my older sister pushed a baby carriage with my infant brother inside it, I wanted desperately to join him! I was terrified I would not be able to avoid interactions with the numerous ants, even as I admired their coloration and wondered about their lives.

Fortuitously, when I was in my twenties, I met and fell in love with an entomologist and joined him at Virginia Tech. As a result, I not only learned physics and mathematics to obtain my degree, I also learned a great deal about insects from my personal tutor and the lunchtime entomology lectures (I love learning) that we attended in his department.

With increased knowledge of these life forms came a decreased intensity of my fears.  To this day, I do not particularly want insects on me, but I am more in control and less panicky should this happen.

If this older Marlene were able to go back in time, she would not make her mother angry—especially when rain had soaked the clothes—because she was too frightened to perform her chore! But, while I viewed Japanese Beetles back then as simply a part of the environment that scared me, other people view them as the ultimate pest.

I own a 1952 Yearbook of Agriculture tome on insects. It lists the Japanese Beetle as one of the “important” pests because these insects “are destructive to the leaves, blossoms, and fruits of more than 275 [the figure has risen to 300 nowadays] plants, shrubs, and trees.” The book also mentions that, “The grubs feed in the ground on the roots of various plants and often cause serious damage to turf in lawns, parks, golf courses, pastures, and other turf areas.”

It is stunningly horrific to me that the book’s only recommendation for protecting plants from a beetle attack is to use pesticides, all three of which are quite deadly: DDT, lead arsenate, and powdered derris (4% rotenone, a non-selective pesticide that is lethal to all fish and insect species, and which has been linked to Parkinson’s Disease in farm workers).

I cannot help but wonder if exposure to these poisons—farmers sprayed or dusted them on fruits and vegetables, while gardeners did the same with herbaceous and woody plants—is why so many people are ill these days. Of course, back then, people considered pesticides to be miracle substances.

No one thought about the dangers of blithely putting chemicals on food that they would ingest, or about breathing in these chemicals as they applied them to plants.  It has always surprised me that people think nothing of poisoning their environment, especially just to grow a blemish-free flower, fruit, vegetable, shrub, or tree.

Although the book advised folks to scrub or peel fruits or vegetables before eating them, I do not recall seeing this advice posted in grocery stores for consumers, nor did anyone ever make this suggestion when my parents bought fresh fruits and veggies from our local farm stands.  Heck, we often enjoyed luscious fruits immediately without even washing them!

Yet, considering the numbers of Japanese Beetles I had to deal with on my family’s clothesline, every farmer from near and far must have been employing these very pesticides. Amazingly, few people even today give much thought to this situation, perhaps because people in the business of using pesticides have claimed for years that these substances readily break down and lose their toxicity—which is usually in reference to their effect upon humans and pets (mammals). However, mammals are not the only organisms in the world that matter.

Recently scientists have begun to look at what is happening in the soil following years of extensive application of agrochemicals. They have found that long-term, indiscriminate, and over-application of pesticides “has severe effects on soil ecology that may lead to alterations in or the erosion of beneficial or plant probiotic soil microflora.”  [Anu Kalia & S. K. Gosal, Archives of Agronomy & Soil Science, Vol. 57, Issue 6, Pages 569-596]

In other words, aboveground pesticides can kill off belowground microorganisms that decompose and recycle organic matter so that your plants can absorb essential nutrients. Without them, plants cannot grow well, if at all.

This new study-result came as no surprise to me. Having a degree in physics means I understand that molecules of matter do not just disappear from the environment simply because they are no longer located where you put them or remain in the exact same form.

In fact, years ago I asked a Virginia Tech entomologist about the chemicals that were being applied systemically (injected directly into a plant’s vascular system) to the hemlock trees around Mountain Lake in southwest Virginia. They wanted the pesticide to end up in every bit of tissue so that when the Woolly Adelgids (a type of alien aphid) fed upon the tree needles, the insects would be poisoned and killed.

I wondered if the scientists had considered what would happen to the organisms that would subsequently feed upon fallen hemlock needles to recycle them. I was concerned about the poisoning of those animals, which I knew helped keep the environment functioning properly. Not surprisingly, he answered that he had never thought about this aspect of systemic pesticides, and I dare say few scientists have.

It is unfortunate, but true, that researchers rarely look at the bigger picture beyond the problem they are trying to solve. If they did, they might just discover that the answer to gardening and farming problems lies in learning to live in agreement with nature.

It is a fact that nature-friendly gardens and farms do not require pesticides. A need for them is a red flag that the local environment is out-of-whack, and it’s silly for anyone to think that pesticides will bring it back into proper working order.


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