Brand Loyal Beetles

The country roads around our farm are a popular weekend destination for automobile enthusiasts who appear to enjoy sharing the scenic beauty of farmland and hills with others.  A few weeks back, a caravan went by the farm and every car in it — at least 50 of them — was a Ford Mustang.
This type of brand identification clearly fills a need that people in modern society have, a way to create community and connection that they may otherwise have difficulty finding.  Businesses are more than happy to help fill this need with merchandise, community forum websites, promotions and other marketing efforts.  Heck, even small farms with CSAs could be seen as taking advantage.
But something happened yesterday that made me wonder if “brand loyalty” isn’t an even more fundamental phenomenon of nature.
We deal with dozens of pests at Terra Firma:  bugs as well as fungi.  A few of them are generalists, i.e., they favor a broad range of plants.  But some are speciailsts — as specific as the folks who live and breath Ford Mustang or Harley Davidson.
Spring is Cucumber Beetle season in the Central Valley.  There are two variations of this little black and green insect.  The Spotted Cucumber Beetle looks very much like a Ladybug that changed its color preferences.  Then there is the Striped Cucumber Beetle.  Even though they have the same “last name”, they are not closely related.
Spotty is the more destructive of the two pests.  The adults feed on the leaves of the majority of the crops we grow, from asparagus to zucchini.  You will notice the small round holes they make in spinach, beet greens, and kale. But they also eat leaves that you never see in your box such as peaches, potatoes and broccoli.  And their larvae eat corn, bean and other seed.  The Spotted Beetles munch their way across our farm for most of twelve months of the year.  We used to get a break from them during the winter, but not anymore.  Even the hard freeze of 2013 didn’t seem to hurt them.
The Striped Cucumber Beetles, though, are all about the cucumbers.  Adults hibernate in the soil through winter until the soil warms up, then they emerge and make a beeline for the nearest plant in the cucumber family.  This includes melons, summer squash, and winter squash, but they prefer cucumbers.  They feed on the young plants and lay eggs right next to them.  The eggs hatch underground and the larvae feed on the roots of the plants, often killing them int the process.  Then they emerge and keep feeding.
The insects — adult and larvae — find the plants by smelling one specific chemical emitted by plants in the cucumber family.  I got to witness their homing technique at work yesterday while I was planting cucumbers and melons.  As I opened the lids of the plastic buckets containing the seed, I was literally swarmed by dozens of immature beetles that probably had just emerged from the soil, desperate for their favorite food.  Like Iphone users waiting in line all night at the Apple store to get the newest release.
We have learned from experience that the best way to grow cucumbers and melons this time of year is grow them in the greenhouse first and then transplant them outside.  This gives them a fighting chance against the Cucumber Beetles.  (Once the soil and air warm later in the season, the beetles aren’t as hungry and the seeds grow faster).  And we grow the long, striped Painted Serpent cukes instead of regular green slicers because they emit fewer of the compounds that attract the beetles, and thus survive better.
But this year, the greenhouse company that grows our transplants made a clerical error and deleted our order.  And they didn’t figure it out until it was too late.  We have planted some cucumbers and melons from seed, but they will be ready later than usual.
It seems to me there must be an evolutionary component at work here, even though super specific species like the Striped Cucumber Beetle must be more susceptible to extinction than generalists like their Spotted “cousins”.  Lucky for them there is plenty of the food they like right here at Terra Firma.
Thanks,
Pablito

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