Question: In the soil under the eaves of my house and toolshed are little funnels my neighbor says are made by “doodlebugs.” What exactly are doodlebugs, and are they harmful?
Answer: A doodlebug is the larval stage of an insect also known as an antlion. They are not harmful to you, your home or outbuildings or your pets. They are fascinating creatures, however.
The mother antlion usually lays her eggs in sandy or silty soil, often in sheltered areas like under an eave. When one hatches, the larva digs a conical pit and lives almost completely covered at the bottom of it. The pit serves as a trap to capture prey. When an ant or another small insect tumbles into the pit, the doodlebug grabs it with its sickle-like jaws and sucks it dry. The doodlebug can even toss up sand to knock the insect back to the bottom of the pit if it is trying to escape.
If the doodlebug moves to a different spot, it leaves a meandering, doodle-like trail, hence the name. “Antlion” comes from how it preys on ants.
When the doodlebug matures, it spins a cocoon in which it pupates. It emerges as an adult that resembles a damselfly but with short, knobbed antennae.
Children will sometimes take a thin stem, pine needle, thread or straw from a broom and move it around a doodlebug’s pit to see if it will grab it. They then let the doodlebug go and watch it dig itself back into the sand. There are numerous rhymes or charms that are recited by children while they do this. A common one derives from an older ladybug/ladybird beetle rhyme:
Won't you come home? (or Are you at home?)
Your house is on fire,
And your children are gone.
All except one,
And her name is Ann.
She hid under the frying pan.
During the Apollo 16 trip to the moon, astronaut Charles “Charlie” Duke described a feature on the moon as looking “like a sink hole; a big doodlebug hole.” He later explained that he had played a similar rhyming game with doodlebugs as a child. It goes to show that you are never too old, too educated or too far away from home to draw on the lessons of childhood and nature’s school.
If you have a story about doodlebugs to share, relay it to Arty Schronce at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. One of my office plants has a sour milk smell coming out of it. What is wrong? Its leaves are wilting. I water it once or twice a week.
A. An unpleasant sour odor is probably a sign that the plant is too wet. Some pots have attached saucers at the bottom that prevent anyone from seeing water standing there for long periods and that the lower part of the soil in the pot is probably perpetually wet. Under these stagnant conditions, smells like you describe can occur.
Remove the saucer, empty it of any water and let it the soil drain and dry out. Better still; repot the plant in fresh soil. You may find that many of the roots have rotted, and it will be better to start with a new plant.
Wilting is not just a sign of lack of water; it is also a sign that the roots are drowning from too much water. Overwatering is the main cause of death for indoor plants.
Q: I always see the “Do not put fuel in unapproved containers” warning at the gas pump, but have never really known what this meant. What is an approved container?
A: An approved container is one that meets all the safety conditions for holding and storing gasoline. Putting gasoline or other fuels into any available container can be extremely dangerous, causing explosions and fires and injury or death. Approved containers must meet various requirements for stability, leakage, strength and preventing fires and explosions. If you have doubts about a container you want to put gasoline in, don’t use it.
The best containers for handling gasoline are safety cans approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Factory Mutual (FM). Safety cans are available in several sizes and have various mechanisms for opening the valve to pour the liquids. Although the cost is more than some cans being sold, they are much safer and will probably outlast the others. Both UL and FM have requirements that must be met before a safety can is allowed to carry their approval.
Another safety precaution you will see posted at the pump is to always place the container on the ground when filling it. Remove it from the back of your pickup truck. A good way to remember this is that placing the container on the ground will “ground” it to prevent static electricity.
It’s worth repeating: If you have doubts about a container, don’t use it. If you encounter a problem at a gas station, please contact the Fuel & Measures Division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture at 1-800-282-5852 or email@example.com.
Q: I saw an orchid at a garden center labeled as a “ground orchid.” Does this mean I can plant it outdoors? All my orchids are houseplants and are not winter hardy.
A: A ground (or terrestrial) orchid is one that grows in soil, but that does not necessarily mean it can be planted outdoors. The nun’s orchid (Phaius tankervilleae) and spathoglottis orchids are well-known ground orchids grown as houseplants.
Most cultivated orchids are epiphytes. These are the ones you see growing in coarse bark with large, spongy roots crawling over the pot or basket that they are in. You may see some of these orchids mounted on slabs of bark. In nature, epiphytic orchids grow on trees instead of in the ground. Epiphytes are not parasitic. They perch upon other plants but get their moisture and nutrients from air, rain and debris.
A beautiful ground orchid that is easy to grow, readily available and winter hardy in Georgia is the bletilla orchid (Bletilla striata), also known as the Chinese ground orchid. It is sold in nurseries and garden centers, especially those specializing in perennials, and is available from mail-order catalogs. Although fully hardy outdoors throughout Georgia, its flowers are as beautiful as many of the pampered greenhouse orchids from the tropics.
Q: What is the difference between an insect and a bug? Is there a difference?
A: The words “insect” and “bug” are often used interchangeably, with bug usually being the more informal and less scientific term. Bug has a broader usage in that we may also refer to germs, computer glitches and various other things as bugs. When dealing with insects, however, entomologists, taxonomists, biologists and other scientists specifically use “bug” to refer only to insects belonging to the order Hemiptera. Insects in this order are sometimes called “true bugs” and share two main traits: straw-like mouthparts for piercing or sucking and a specialized top pair of wings called hemielytra. Members include cicadas, aphids, stink bugs, mealy bugs, leafhoppers, assassin bugs, box elder bugs and bed bugs.
People refer to many insects as bugs that are not actually classified as members of Hemiptera. Two examples are ladybugs and June bugs. These are types of beetles, and in technical and scientific writing they will be referred to as such.
The main thing to remember is that in some instances insect and bug may be used interchangeably, but there are occasions when bug is more specific. Try not to let the difference bug you too much.
Q: What causes Irish potatoes to turn green? Can it be prevented? Are they safe to eat? Why does this never happen to sweet potatoes?
A: Although we think of Irish potatoes as “root crops,” the Irish potato tubers themselves are actually specialized stems, and, when exposed to light, may begin to turn green. When potato tubers turn green there is usually an increase in the compound solanine in the green area. Tubers with a high concentration of solanine will taste bitter and can be harmful if eaten in large quantities. To be safe, it is best not to eat the green part of the potatoes. You do not need to discard green potatoes. Just peel away the green. To prevent greening, store Irish potatoes in the dark.
Sweet potatoes are not related to Irish potatoes. Sweet potatoes are tuberous roots and will not turn green when exposed to light.
Q: I have an old garden book that recommends chemicals my garden center has never heard of. Is there a place where I can order some of these?
A: Old reference books can provide lots of valuable information, but when dealing with pesticides and other chemicals, rely on the most recent recommendations from reliable sources such as the Cooperative Extension Service. It could be that the chemicals you have read about have been replaced by more effective, more precise or less toxic substances.
Q: Is it unusual for a sweet potato to bloom? I have grown them for years but have never seen a bloom until now. It looks like a morning-glory.
A: Home gardeners may be surprised when attractive purple blooms appear on sweet potato vines, but it is not unheard of, especially late in the growing season. The blooms look like morning-glories for good reason; the two are closely related.
Q: Will using cedar chips as bedding in the doghouse protect my dog from fleas?
A: Volatile oils in fresh cedar chips are toxic to fleas and may repel them, but the effect lasts a very short time. If you have had flea problems in the past, do not rely on cedar shavings as your only defense. Practice good sanitation and grooming. Consult your veterinarian or visit a pet store for over-the-counter options if your dog becomes infested with fleas.
Q: I had a delicious watermelon that had small black seeds. Can I save them and plant them next year?
A: If the watermelon is a hybrid, the seeds you save and plant will not produce melons the same as the one you ate. The offspring will have one or more traits from each parent but not necessarily the ones that made it delicious. Even if it is a non-hybrid, the melons that come from the seeds you plant could be a mongrel mix if the farmer planted different varieties close together. We would not advise investing the time, effort and resources if you do not know what the end product will be. If you really want to grow watermelons, we recommend getting a variety from a reliable source so that you know what to expect. If you enjoy experimenting, you can plant whatever you want.
If you decide to save the seeds, here is what you should do. Select fully mature seeds, rinse them and place them on paper towels to air-dry for a few days. After they are fully dry, store them in an airtight container in your refrigerator or freezer until you sow them next spring.
Q: I came back from vacation to find caterpillars with black, yellowish green and white stripes and dark yellow spots eating my parsley. What are they? When I touched one it sent out orange horns that left a disagreeable vinegar-like smell.
A: They are caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly. The coloration can vary with some caterpillars exhibiting more of one color than another. Younger black swallowtail caterpillars are mostly black with a white saddle.
Along with the description you provided, the fact that these caterpillars are eating parsley is a good clue to their identity. Black swallowtails lay their eggs on parsley, dill, fennel, carrots and other members of the carrot family. The caterpillars (sometimes called “parsleyworms”) hatch and eat the leaves. If the caterpillars are decimating your crop, pick them off. If you want the butterflies, let them eat. Home gardeners will sometimes plant enough for both themselves and the butterflies.
Caterpillars of all swallowtails have a forked, horn-like organ behind the head known as an osmeterium. When threatened, a black swallowtail caterpillar will evert its osmeterium, the appearance and smell of which may repel some predators. It is harmless to humans and the smell washes off with soap and water if you get it on your hands.
Black swallowtails are beautiful, relatively common and easy to attract by planting members of the carrot family to serve as larval host plants. Adult black swallowtails feed at a wide variety of flowers including zinnia, tithonia, sunflower, native asters, native butterflyweed and other milkweeds, purple coneflower, thistle, red clover, Joe-pye weed and phlox.
-- Arty Schronce
If you have questions about services or products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, write Arty Schronce (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit the department’s website at www.agr.georgia.gov.