Saturday, July 19, 2008

A beneficial garden predator

When I was puttering around near the potting bench yesterday, I noticed there were quite a few yellow jackets foraging at ground level.

They weren't paying much attention to me, so aside from keeping a mindful eye towards possible nest sites, I didn't think about them much, although it is early to be seeing so many.

But this morning, checking on things, and making mental notes of gardening & harvesting needs, I noticed a group of yellow jackets at the base of a tomato plant. Much to my surprise, they were all over a doomed tomato hornworm (the caterpillar of a sphinx moth), which was either still alive, and twitching post-stings, or was being flung about by their feeding.

If you'd asked me if I had currently had tomato hornworms around, I would've said no -- having not seen any, so this was a surprise.

I hadn't much thought about what yellow jackets eat -- we normally worry about hitting a nest with a shovel or a mower and inciting stings or their late summer preference for sugary picnic foods -- but they're tremendously good predators of caterpillars, beetle larvae, flies, and other potentially troublesome garden insects. So these adults were carrying back bits of the protein-rich caterpillar to provision nest larvae, in addition to their nectar and fruit consumption.

There wasn't much left of the hornworm by the time I returned from my morning walk.

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