A guest blog post from Lori Shapiro, PhD, and Sean Ryan, PhD, of The Party Pupae Project.
While it may sometimes feel like it takes a village to care for your garden, our gardens already contain insect and microbial “villages” that help our plants grow. If you look closely—within the leafy greens, under the fruits, or in the rich soil—you will find a largely unknown community of these insects and microbes. Some of these insects, such as bees and butterflies, are surely already familiar, while others have likely escaped your notice season after season by lying in the shadow of a leaf or under a flower—or burrowing into stems or roots, or even inside the bodies of other insects!
Despite crop plants being humanity’s constant companions and source of nourishment over thousands of years, scientists actually know very little about the different communities of pollinators, herbivores, predators, viruses, and bacteria that associate with the different plants in your garden, or how those communities vary in space and time. This lack of knowledge about which beneficial and harmful insects or microbes occur in which places, with which crop plant, and at what time of the year hampers our ability to harness beneficial organisms to improve agricultural sustainability.
Two ways for you to help
How can you and your garden help us find out more about the global biodiversity associated with the plants in gardens? Take part in a couple of agricultural citizen science projects being started by a group of scientists at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. One project will document the pollinators, herbivores, and pathogens of cucurbits (e.g., squash, zucchini, pumpkin, melons, cucumber, and gourds). The second project will document the herbivores and beneficial insect natural enemies of crucifers (e.g., cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes). If you are growing any fruits or veggies in these groups, we need your help to let us know what insects and microbes you find associated with your plants—the organisms that chew on, pollinate, protect, and infect the plants in your garden.
Cucurbits project: There are perhaps few fruits and vegetables as emblematic of summer and fall than some of our favorite cucurbits crops. What would summer be without juicy watermelons and wheelbarrows full of cucumbers and zucchinis—or fall without pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash? Despite our love for these crops and their long cultivation history, we don’t know which species of insects and microbes occur where. You can help by taking pictures of the insects (pollinators, herbivores, and parasitoids) and microbes (bacterial wilt diseases, viruses, and downy mildew) on your squash, cucumber, melon, and gourd plants, and posting them to our “Great Pumpkin Project” iNaturalist project page. To learn more about the history of our favorite cucurbit crops, visit the Dunn Lab here.
Crucifers project: You have surely wondered, “Who’s been eating my veggies?!” But have you ever wondered, “Who’s protecting my veggies?” Tiny little wasps called parasitoids hunt the herbivores in your garden. We need your help to better understand these often-overlooked garden protectors. Participation is easy: All you need to do is look for pupae on your plants (we have pictures of what to look for on our website), collect them, and wait to see what comes out. Is it a fly, moth, butterfly…or a wasp?! This is also a fun project to do with children. (Don’t worry! These wasps don’t hurt, unless you are an insect.) Then send us what you find. Visit our project page to learn more. You can also photograph what you find in your garden and share them on our site where others can help identify what you find.
Lori Shapiro, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scientist at North Carolina State and Harvard universities, working with citizen scientists to explore microbial ecology and plant-insect interactions in cucurbit ecosystems.
Sean Ryan, Ph.D., is a USDA-NIFA research fellow at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville and North Carolina State University, building research projects that partner with the public to explore the ecology and evolution of agricultural communities.