It took a couple of weeks for the Japanese beetles to discover the blueberries. For those couple of weeks I blissfully picked a daily supply of berries, rejoicing in the amazing abundance of them. After three years of waiting, the bushes were loaded with fruit and every day or so just enough of them ripened just for me.
And then one day I spied a shimmering iridescent bug chomping on one of my berries. How dare he! He has all of Maywood to eat! Stay off my berries! And then I noticed them everywhere. On the wild grapes. On the coneflowers. On random weeds. Ok, they can have the weeds. And maybe even the wild grapes, which do not usually amount to much.
But the berry battle had begun.
What to do about the beetles? I know NOT to buy a Japanese beetle trap. Those bags on stakes just announce to the beetles where the party is. Sadly, the garden wisdom I encountered indicated the futility of trying to eradicate the pests. Effective beetle “management” involves disrupting their life cycle. Using milky spore to attack the larva can take three to five years. Oh my. And there is the dilemma of where to apply it. It is unrealistic to apply milky spore to all of Maywood.
Step one in disrupting the beetle life cycle is to prevent adult beetles from reproducing. This requires menial labor. This involves chemistry. This requires battle equipment. And a little bit of bug psychology.
The age old tried-and-true method for battling Japanese beetles is to individually plop them into a container of soapy water. It is so age old that half a century ago my husband’s grandparents (who bought Maywood in the first place ) used to send him outside to pick off the beetles. Yeah, the beetles have been here that long.
The chemistry involves the soap which breaks the surface tension of the water so that the beetles can not float on top of it. They sink and drown. Rather rapidly. The process is long enough to watch but not so long that it sucks the life out of your day.
That said, Mom and I wasted a few minutes of our lives staring into a plastic bowl of drowning beetles one evening. We would wish those moments back but it was such a special bonding moment.
Mom (staring at drowning beetles): I can’t believe we’re standing here doing this.
Me (head to head with Mom staring at drowning beetles): Yeah.
Right. So, I now carry two containers with me on my daily walk to the blueberries:
- 1. My berry box–a lovely ceramic replica of a cardboard berry box, the kind that has been replaced by lidded plastic boxes that rip the skin off your fingers when you open them. I bought it at Anthropologie for $14 and it makes me happy.
- A plastic tub from Wegman’s olive bar, empty now of olives but filled with water and a squirt of dish soap.
The best time to pick beetles is in the morning because they are slower then. (Kind of like me.). I don’t actually pick them. I sort of push them, holding the water under so they fall into it. However, if one is actively chomping a berry, flicking is a bit more effective. At each bush, I look for beetles first, because picking a berry will shake the beetle into flying away. I don’t want it to go away; I want it to die.
Killing the adult beetle hopefully prevents it from laying eggs at the base of the plant so that larva won’t emerge next spring. And it keeps the invaders from chomping on more berries. Beetles (like college students) tend to go where the popular party is, so diminishing the size of the blueberry party discourages other beetles from showing up. Tossing away the beetle-chomped berries minimizes the smell of party food which is so attractive to us all. Leaving dead beetle carcasses at the base of the plant may also be effective (dead bodies deter most party-goers), but I’d rather not risk a potential bug resuscitation. Most importantly, one must show up regularly to pick off the trouble-makers. Going away for the weekend is an open invitation to trouble.
In the battle for the berries, the one with the most berries wins. And for the moment that happens to be me.