What gardener hasn’t despaired over an infestation of scale or mealy bugs at some point in their gardening life?
Take my hoya as an example. The vine had wound itself around the planter stand to such an extent that other pot plants sharing the space were suffering. It was staging a coup. Even worse, the hoya flowers were concealed by the knotted and twisted leaves and stems. For all its colonising, the hoya was not at its best. I braced myself, and through gritted teeth took to the problem with my secateurs. As I chopped through the tangle, shock! Horror! The vine was invaded by scale, mealy bugs and ants!
As is my practice, I consulted Mr Google for nature-friendly answers. What I discovered gave me new respect for these so-called pests. I have to clarify at this point that ‘pests’ are like ‘weeds’. A totally subjective definition depending on who’s doing the looking.
Some research uncovered the following: Scale (of the order hemiptera) are incredibly diverse – there are about 8,000 described species. They are mostly parasitic, using plants as hosts, feeding from their vascular systems from which the scale produce honeydew, a sweet, sticky excretion. Well, so I’m told. I passed on imbibing to test the veracity of this.
To me, one of the most fascinating facts is that some scale insects are associated with species of ants that act like tiny sheep dogs, herding and carrying the young scale to more favourable, protected sites to feed. It appears the ants share a symbiotic relationship with the scale whereby they assist feeding and are rewarded by being able to farm the honeydew the scale produce. The ants are crucial to many species of crawlers, who lose the use of their legs if they are female, and stay put for life. Only the males retain their legs and use them in seeking females for mating. Mmm.
But I digress. As fascinating as these little critters are, and despite my new found respect for their collaborative efforts to get on in the world, the problem of my hoya remained. Having chopped the affected parts right back, I salvaged enough for some cuttings which have struck well and are ready to be planted out. Together with extensive roots, one cutting even has flower buds developing.
The question of scale stayed with me. I reflected on the manner of connections, the symbiosis, the collaboration where both the scale and the ants benefited. Although, the plant didn’t fare so well out of the deal as far as I can see. In my attempt to save the hoya (for my own selfish reasons) I have denied the survival of other species. I can also see how these considerations might apply on a human global scale.
Sometimes, one people’s gain is at the expense of another’s suffering.
The Web of Life is a tangled one.
“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.”
― Nadeem Aslam
The feature image of scale and the ant feeding on honeydew was sourced through creative commons for public domain use.
Information on scale insects https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_insect