I’ve been working long hours lately, so had planned a quiet Friday night in to recover myself. Instead, I have been on a murderous rampage.

Rest in peace, little bastards

Rest in peace, little bastards

When we moved here, back in February, the owner had left their beer-traps in the garden for us. That should have been a sign.

I gave it a go for a bit of fun, though father-of-frugilegus has always been cynical about their effectiveness. The first morning I checked the traps I counted 50 corpses before I concluded the total was ‘a lot’. That should have been a sign.

Despite that body-count, every seedling I planted in the beds disappeared overnight, the only indication it had ever existed a memorial trail of slime. I took that as a sign.

I ordered nematodes after that, and I have to say they were pretty effective. After a week, some seedlings survived. They certainly didn’t thrive, but the old nibbled stalk was actually visible here and there.

I kept up the slug-traps, trying old orange juice that had been lost in the back of the fridge instead of beer, and shook a few bodies into the compost bin once a week. I sprinkled some coffee grounds around seedlings every now and then. Though nematodes are only effective for about six weeks, I thought I must have taken out the hordes, and could control the rest with various fermented juices.

So, I planted out borage and strong cucumber plants. I positioned a climbing frame for the cucumbers to play on and, that night, dreamt of their fruit. The next morning, I went to welcome them to their first new day, and found just a few slimy stalks. That should have been a sign.

Friends or foes ... or utter bastards?

Friends or foes ... or utter bastards?

Still,  I was distracted by compost. The bin in the garden is not a good one, and when we moved in was full of organic matter that showed no interest in decomposing. I had given it a stir, added lots of brown matter and the contents of a bokashi bucket, then later a few worms, in the hope of getting it going. Things were looking good. An ecosystem developed: woodlice, wriggly things, beetles and the odd snail. I smiled on it benevolently, thinking that a wriggling bin is a healthy, decomposing bin.

Just as a weed is only a plant in the wrong place, I decided a snail is only an evil murderous bastard when it is in the wrong place.

Pah!

A compost bin is no more than a base from which vast hordes are unleashed under cover of darkness. It provides a mollusc with snacks during the day, but one mustn’t eat too much in the bin – one must save oneself for the night raids on pots of beans, tender cucumber shoots, and if one’s feeling adventurous, following the trails of shelled-scouts and slimy outriders into the herb bed.

Tonight it rained. Though the young basil I put out might find it a bit of a shock, on the whole it was welcome because the water butt is empty and the lawn is sulking (the lawn is a whole other story). I wandered out with the torch, thinking vaguely that I could check whether it was snails nibbling at the runner bean bucket.

But, upon finding a full-scale attack underway I was overtaken by bloodlust. Arming myself with a plastic bag on my hand, I grabbed and dropped, grabbed and dropped, each victim clunking into my bucket of water. Haha!

For the pernicious fault of gluttony, as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

For the pernicious fault of gluttony, as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

I can’t kill beetles, but it seems I can kill molluscs.

Though apparently not that easily. Putting snails in cold water doesn’t work. They squirm about and take turns to crawl on each other and then crawl out. It seems I should have used very hot water. An hour ago, I’d have said I wouldn’t have the stomach for it, but seeing as I’ve spent much of my Friday night sprinkling salt on antennae as they break the surface like little periscopes I don’t know if that is true any longer. I’ve never fancied salting slugs before, and it was expensive salt too, but none of that bothered me for a second when I found a speckled slug making a break for freedom. Later, overtaken by guilt, I poured in a can of beer too. So some died horrifically, but hopefully others died happy.

Tomorrow, more nematodes. And a new zero-tolerance policy. They had their chance with the compost bin and they’ve blown it.

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And Rosemary Beetle was his name. (If you’re keen on the Latin, it’s Chrysolina americana). And this means a new addition to the swarms of pests trying to thwart my plans of container-garden-self-sufficiency.

Remember, they look pretty, but they're evil.

Remember, they look pretty, but they're evil.

I was giving He-who-lives-with-me a tour of my domain when he remarked on the colourful bugs. I looked at them and had a funny feeling of foreboding – that I’d seen them before and that they were not good news. They are very beautiful – they look like exquisitely embossed metalwork beads hung through the rosemary leaves – but they are also nasty little critters who want to eat my beautiful herbs.

Unsurprisingly, Rosemary seems to be their favoured host but they’ll also chew on lavender, sage and thyme: some of my most precious things. So it was time to capture the beasts.

If you want to eat your herbs at some point in the next two years or more (uh, yes) then you don’t want to be spraying nasty chemicals on them. Instead it seems the only solution is to collect them by hand and exterminate them with said hand, or heel-of-boot. I shook them onto a big bit of plastic and then tipped them into a tub.

Apparently, there should only be adult beetles around right now, and they’ll spend the next month or two just sitting around eating, so I hope that with due diligence I can catch all the buggers before they start breeding. A thorough inspection today turned up ten: nine on the rosemary and one on the sage.  Apparently the thyme and lavender were not on today’s menu. A late evening sweep-through turned up one more on the rosemary, who was added to the rest of the day’s spoils.

“The sense of death is most in apprehension; And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great  As when a giant dies.”

“The sense of death is most in apprehension; And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great As when a giant dies.”

Now here’s my problem – and the current subject of my philosophising –  I cannot bring myself to squash them. All I need to do is tip them out on the patio and stamp on them. I could even put my fingers in my ears and close my eyes if I really wanted, but I still can’t do it.

This is illogical for so many reasons:

  • As far as I know they are of no use apart from their attractive appearance, and are not an integral part of our ecosystems. They’re fairly recent visitors to these shores, arriving from Southern Europe in 1994 apparently, on a mission to frustrate British gardeners’ hopes and dreams. I’ve decided their aesthetic attraction makes them even more sinister – flaunting their shiny shells so we sit back admiringly while they breed their evil armies.
  • Mother-of-frugilegus spends many a merry hour on her homestead squishing all manner of pests between her fingertips, her favourites being lily-beetle, rosemary-beetle and vine-weevils. I think this is a good thing that she is doing and I admire her fortitude/murderous relish. Mother knows best, so why can’t I follow her example? – especially when I could use my foot if I can’t stomach the fingers.
  • But this is silly too. Just because my foot is slightly further away from my brain than my fingers it is not somehow more detached from me. I can’t pretend I have less responsibility for my foot than my fingers. Which brings me onto my next point…
  • I’ve squashed hundreds of aphids between my bare fingers in the last few days (and probably forgotten to wash my hands before lunch).  Why should beetles be different? They’re a bit bigger which might make it more like killing a real living sentient thing, but that argument doesn’t bother me when I’m eating a chicken – or a fish, with all its metallic prettiness. And the beetles are even more free-range and organic than the dearly-departed chicken.
  • I’m prepared to catch a fish for food, and I like to think I’d be able to wring the chicken’s neck so I could eat it for my tea – that’s quite an important part of my not-quite-codified ethics of meat-eating. But it can’t be that beetle-murder is unacceptable because I wouldn’t be eating the beetles after killing them. That’s not relevant – they’re a pest and it’s them or my herbs.
  • At this stage, I should note that my eleven captives are sitting in the airless tub I put them in earlier today (with just a sprig of rosemary for comfort). I’m secretly hoping they’ll have run out of air by morning – even though I’d be no less responsible for their death if that happened – and perhaps suffocation is even more unpleasant than being trampled underfoot?

Which leaves me feeling tremendously illogical. The only thing I can think of is that my imaginings of the crunch a beetle would make is overriding all rational thought. But that doesn’t help….

PS. If you’ve found some of these little critters, let the RHS research project know.

PPS. The title of this post is the start of a beautiful children’s poem by AA Milne, which is fun to read out loud and always makes me smile.