Dear inchworm: Feel free to eat the Brussels sprouts

Posted
I found an inchworm in the garden as I was working near the Brussels sprout plants. Now if I encounter one on a woods walk, hovering in midair upon the sheerest of silk threads, eyeball to eyeball with me, I instinctively bat it away. But this green as a fresh lime inchworm presented no such internal alarm as it innocently measured along a leaf.

Personally, inchworms are forever established in my childhood canon of memories as benign, peaceful creatures. That's partly due to that Radio Flyer inchworm ride-on toy my neighborhood friend shared with me, and partly due to that classic lullaby of a math song "Inch Worm" about arithmetic measurement, my first exposure being the "Sesame Street" version.

"So inchworms are fine, right?" I thought to myself as I contemplated the one I had placed on my thumb. Bugs found in my garden get put through a strong inspection before being deemed plant-friendly. This little guy was to be no exception.

Thanks to my childhood inchworm exposure, I expertly know that its forward bearing movement occurs by extending the front of its body, then pulling up its back to meet it. Repeated over and over, it successfully moves along. It only has feet in the front and back, thus the need to hoist up its legless middle when moving. I know that when startled an inchworm will stand fully straight and frozen to camouflage itself (like a twig!) and I even know there is a curious form of human exercise known as the inchworm, but that's where my superior knowledge stops.

I enlisted Wikipedia to further my basic understanding.

The entry explained that all inchworms are the larvae stage of moths belonging to the family Geometridae. It's a big `ol family with around 23,000 species, so while all inchworms have similar characteristics, they are not all identical to each other.

Two fun facts:

- Since inchworms are moth larvae, they are technically considered caterpillars.

- The name "Geometridae" derives from the Greek word "earth-measurer"

Next I went over to sciencing.com to get more information on the life cycle of Geometer moths.

Interestingly, female moths in this family are wingless. When the time comes to mate, the females climb trees to find partners and lay their eggs. Eggs hatch in late fall or spring depending on the species. The inchworm emerges and begins to eat, all the while making it's way to the ground where as a pupae it will remain for several weeks or months, again depending on the species and the season. This descent to the ground is where my swatting of encountered inchworms comes into play. It's also the time when fish hungrily wait with open mouths near tree covered riverbanks, for inchworms are delicious fish fodder.

The pupae that survive their time in the ground eventually emerge as adult moths ready to begin the cycle again, inch by inch.

Back to how this concerns my Brussels sprout harvest. Well, all the information I found reassures that a single inchworm does not eat much; rather, it is groups of them that cause damage by treating trees, plants, and gardens as bottomless buffet restaurants. I have yet to find more inchworms in the garden, so I am not too worried; which is good because apparently it is difficult to remove them once they get down to the business of eating. Gardenguides.com suggests planting Queen Anne's lace, sunflowers, and parsley as they attract wasps and wasps eat inchworms. Hmm, while I do have that trifecta of plants in my yard, I don't know that I need to fully unfurl a welcome banner for wasps by adding more.

The site goes on to suggest welcoming more birds to the yard as many of them enjoy munching on inchworms (much more doable), as well as consider using a product called "Tanglefoot" which is wrapped as a sticky band around nearby trees to catch and kill the female moths on their way up, or to consider applying a bacterial pesticide known as Bt to the garden. It is fatal to inchworms, but has no effect on humans, animals, or bees.

As it stands, I have no desire to remove inchworms from my garden. Sure, the one I found probably had a few friends hiding near by and they probably throw a party on my cruciferous plants each night while I sleep, but maybe that's why I plant extra — to gamble with the possibility that not only will I have a fine harvest of Brussels sprouts this year, but that a peaceful inchworm might pass by and remind me of my youth.

Tina Weikert lives in Bondville.

     


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions