Cumberland County's Chris Korrow finds insects awe-inspiring, beautiful, and beneficial. He has written, photographed, and scored music for a PBS documentary covering 12 categories of insects, with advice on how to co-exist
"The earth creates abundance, diversity, and health with no effort at all," observes Chris Korrow, a filmmaker, lifelong gardener, and former organic farmer. "In understanding how this process works, we have the ability to do the same thing with our families and society."
Korrow is fascinated with life, particularly an aspect most of us seldom think about—insects. Having taught gardening classes for more than 14 years, Korrow says he was inspired to make a film about insects when he realized how little the majority of gardeners know about these tiny creatures. He believes most backyard horticulturists have a strong desire to better understand insects, if only to help their gardens flourish. Korrow's film, Garden Insects (see sidebar below), aims to demonstrate that there are unexpected wonders crawling and buzzing through every garden.
"This is a perfect area to make a film about insects because the diversity is unbelievable," Korrow says of Cumberland County, where he, wife Christy, their two home-schooled daughters, a menagerie of horses, goats, cats, a few chickens, and an abundance of insects make their home.
"Every year, I see insects I've never seen before. You forget how much is going on out there."
Korrow says we also often forget the beauty of insects in our quest to keep them from partaking of our plants.
"Insects have been awe-inspiring to me (the perfection of a honeycomb)," Korrow says. "They overwhelm me with their overabundance and diversity. They cause me a tremendous amount of work and frustration, and they cause me pain. (In a typical potato digging, I'll get stung by 20-30 sweat bees.) I've killed them, saved them, and even bought them.
"They bring beauty and joy on the wings of butterflies, yet the occasional scorpion can still give me a touch of the willies. They're part of my life, like the flowers in spring, and they've made me a better human being by showing me that they are not insignificant, just small and numerous."
Besides better understanding insects, the environmental activist would also have gardeners grasp another truth.
"If there is one thing I would want gardeners to consider, it is that there is a reason for every creature and every process," he says. "Just having that view on it makes you react differently to insects in your garden. You begin to look for a solution rather than trying to get rid of a problem.
"In a garden, we are dealing with a system, not just growing something. For a garden to be healthy, it has to be in balance and productive. A garden system works from the bottom up. Destructive organisms have to populate the area and build up their numbers before those who prey on them can thrive. If you're not aiding the system, you are always fighting insects."
Korrow says he has a cardinal rule about insects and plants. "If a certain insect is on a certain plant, it either eats the plant or the pests of the plant," he says.
That's why he strongly opposes broad-spectrum pesticides. Korrow says they wipe out everything, killing good and bad alike, and affecting the entire system from microbes in the soil on up.
He encourages gardeners instead to learn the good guys from the bad guys, and to use problem-specific approaches.
The best way to learn in the insect world is simply to watch, he says.
"Spend five minutes every morning in your garden," Korrow encourages. "See the obvious things. Look at the changes that occur from day to day."
Korrow also offered Kentucky Living readers some succinct advice on the insects he photographed for his film. Here's what he had to say:
Bees and wasps: Let them "be"
Bees are one of the most beneficial species on the planet because they pollinate the vast majority of plants. Wasps are good guys, too, although their role in keeping the garden population in balance largely goes unnoticed. For example, wasps help clear the garden of caterpillars.
The only way to deal with bees and wasps is to leave them alone unless you are allergic to them.
Ants: Small but mighty
Distant relatives of bees, ants aren't normally a problem outside. In fact, they are a major force in gardens, acting as tiny bulldozers to loosen and aerate the soil. They also clean the garden of the "dead and dying." There is very little you can do about them anyway, because they have incredible protective systems. They hide well, spread out, and work cooperatively so they are able to rebuild nests in incredibly short periods of time.
Some red ants are the one exception to the general statement that ants are no problem. Some red ants are aggressive and inflict a painful bite. They like to live under mulch or hay. Tilling the soil will typically get rid of them.
Aphids: Tiny pests
These prolific insects can increase from a few to thousands in a very short time. They are found throughout the garden, typically sucking the juices from plants. However, they are rarely a problem in a healthy garden because they have so many predators.
A strong stream of water (not strong enough to damage the plants) can knock many of the aphids off and disrupt them. Otherwise, mild soap sprays sold in garden stores can take care of an aphid problem.
Earthworms: Good for the earth
Although not technically an insect, earthworms are important for soil fertilization and conditioning. Think earth instead of worm.
True Bugs: True trouble
Often mistaken for beetles, true bugs are one of the most difficult insects to deal with. They are mobile and not easy to kill.
Squash bugs are the worst of the true bugs in this area. They leave conspicuous copper-colored eggs on the plants. To rid your garden of them, place a small board under the squash plant. They will go under the board. You can then lift the board and kill them. While you are there, see what else is going on in your garden. Sometimes, you can notice 20 or 30 other things just by taking the time to move one small piece of wood. Also, be sure to pick off the eggs on the plants.
Assassin bugs are one type of true bugs that are good guys. Although assassin and predator aren't usually words you would want to be called, they are compliments in this case. Assassin bugs kill their prey by sticking them with their proboscis and sucking out the fluids. They kill insects that are problems in a garden, so you don't want to kill them.
Beetles: The garden variety doesn't sing
There are more than 300,000 species of beetles, and most are no problem. However, some of the insects from this group cause some of the worst problems. Cucumber beetles—which like cucumbers and melons—will spread a disease. They are attracted by mulch, which gives them a good place to burrow. Keep the soil around cucumbers and melons "clean"—no mulch or debris.
Flea beetles are also a pest of eggplant. Cover the plants as soon as you put them out, with Remay (a light fabric designed to cover plants), until the plants are larger and established.
Spiders: Fear not
Without spiders, gardens would be overrun with insects, so they are best left alone. Although all spiders are venomous, there are only two poisonous spiders typically found in Kentucky that affect people—the brown recluse and the black widow. Brown recluses are rarely seen in gardens. If you do see one, avoid it because bites can take months to heal. Ditto for the black widow, which is even more venomous, and can be aggressive when protecting eggs.
Other than these two, there is nothing to fear from spiders. We should be far more fearful of the possible consequences of driving a car than seeing a spider.
Butterflies: Number one on the hit parade
The most adored of the insects, few people desire to kill butterflies, but caterpillars, which of course turn into butterflies, can be another story.
Caterpillars are the biggest problem on cabbages and broccoli. Korrow recommends a product such as Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly called BT. It affects the digestive system of caterpillars. They then starve to death in a couple days, affecting nothing else. Go to www.organic.org to find out about other products.
Hornworms are large caterpillars that can eat a tremendous amount of tomato foliage, but it is rather ridiculous to spray for them, as there are usually only a few in a patch. They can be difficult to find (they are well-camouflaged), but it still takes less time to find and pick them off than to walk to the shed, mix the spray, spray, and clean up.
Grasshoppers: Diversity reigns
When we think of grasshoppers, we tend to just think of the stereotypical kind, but they are actually a much more diverse group. They are an important source of food for many animals as well.
Grasshoppers and leafhoppers are rarely a problem unless their numbers soar. And if they are a problem, it is only a small problem in the fall. If you plant rows of fall vegetables, grasshoppers can eat their way down row after row. The solution is to cover the plants with Remay.
Praying Mantis: Do they think about us?
This is the top of the insect food chain, with few enemies, and the insect that reacts most like a mammal. As children, Korrow and his brother kept praying mantises in a 10-gallon fishtank. His brother would tap the plant the mantis was sitting on and it would walk up his arm. These intriguing insects are one of the few that don't typically have a great fear of humans.
Flies: Leave the swatter inside
The Rodney Dangerfield of bugs, flies are the most misunderstood of garden insects. In the garden, only a few are a problem, and then it is the young of the species. Most flies eat other pests and are prolific pollinators.
The most common predatory fly in gardens is the hover fly, which takes care of aphids. Best advice on flies in the garden: let them fly on.
GARDEN INSECTS: THE MOVIE
Garden Insects premiered on PBS stations across the nation last year, including Kentucky Educational Television (KET).
This month, KET is airing an encore of the 30-minute film to give those who missed it another chance to see this colorful and engaging film, showing insects going about their everyday lives. It is a perspective few of us have seen before.
Korrow spent five and a half years making the film. He began with a loose script, mostly just a list of insects he wanted to photograph. He then set about trying to capture each of the insects on film. Sometimes that was easier than others. Occasionally, fate stepped in.
"I wanted praying mantises hatching (many hatch at once)," he says, "but I hadn't had any luck in finding an egg case hatching. Then a couple of weeks before Christmas, we had unusually warm weather. I walked outside, and there was a praying mantis egg case ready to hatch. The blessing was that I got the shot. The curse was that the praying mantises would never survive winter. The warm weather had tricked them."
The film profiles 12 categories of insects—ants, aphids, bees, wasps, true bugs, spiders, praying mantises, beetles, moths, butterflies, flies, and grasshoppers. It includes facts about insect habitats and life cycles with close-up photography, and an original percussive musical score created by Korrow.
"I hope the film fosters tremendous respect for the little brethren we call bugs," Korrow says in the film. "More often than not, the beauty and diversity that goes on in our back yards goes completely unnoticed."
Garden Insects airs Sunday, March 30, at 10:30/9:30 p.m. CT on KET1.
To get a copy of the 51-minute version of the film (the PBS version is only 27 minutes), go online to www.gardeninsectvideo.com.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: DIG DEEPER WITH CHRIS KORROW
To learn more from Chris Korrow on how to improve and balance your garden soil (and perhaps even life), click here: balanced soil