Thursday, June 8, 2023

Guest Post: "Friend or Foe?"

by Caity Judd

Caity Judd is one of those people who I put in the category of “best friends I haven’t met in person yet.” She is curious, adventurous, and a tireless advocate for all things unsung and underappreciated, including fellow humans. The following is a post she made to a Facebook group that we both subscribe to. It is so eloquent and passionate that I asked if I could publish it here as a guest post. I am grateful that she agreed. I will have a brief postscript at the end….

Sphinx moth caterpillars, like this Manduca rustica, consume a LOT of foliage; but they turn into lovely moths which pollinate flowers that bloom at night.

”I want to take a minute to talk about how we think about our exoskeleton-wearing neighbors. People really like to label things and put things in boxes. I get it. I love labeling things and putting things in boxes. That’s part of why I like the ID/taxonomy part of entomology and arachnology so much. But sometimes the boxes we try to put things in are so black and white that they end up missing any nuance about very complicated situations.

‘Friend or foe?’ is one such example. There are very few examples of any kind of animal (including humans) that are all-beneficial or only problematic. Even if we only look at animals who have been dubbed ‘invasive’ in an area, if you look at how that animal exists within its home range ecology, things get complicated again. So, maybe it’s fair to say that spotted lanternflies or emerald ash borers are “foe” outside of their native range. But the vast majority of animals can’t be wrapped up neatly into those labels, even within a certain range.

Did you know that the particular species of ladybugs, mantises, and honey bees that most US gardeners seem to believe are “friends” aren’t from here? They all have negative impacts on local ecologies when introduced to places they don’t come from. Are they ‘friend’ just because they are useful to us? They’re really not even as useful as people seem to largely believe; adult ladybugs and mantises often don’t stick around long enough to serve their utility for the person who introduced them. The idea that honey bees are solely responsible for pollinating food crops is hogwash. Instead, these animals displace their native counterparts, throwing off the balance even further.

’Friend’ and ‘foe’ are labels that artificially limit your understanding of the interactions of plants and animals in a geographic area. There’s nothing wrong with fondly calling something you happen to like ‘friend’; that’s different than trying to smush everything into a one-or-the other category. Instead of asking ‘friend or foe,’ perhaps we should attempt better, more complete understanding, by asking ‘how does this animal interact with the environment around it?’

If you try that route, you may learn that aphids, while they do drink your plants’ juices, are also hosts for tiny little parasitoid wasps who rely on aphids to continue their own life cycles, and act as a natural control for their numbers. You may learn that while we all love ourselves a house centipede, they’re not actually native in the U.S. You may learn that termites play an immensely important role in breaking down wood fiber, and feed all sorts of insectivorous animals. You might learn that dragonfly naiads and mayfly nymphs are good indicators of unpolluted water. You might learn about ants’ incredible seed-dispersing capabilities. The natural world, even the one in your backyard, has so much richness and complexity to be discovered, if only we don’t put limits on our curiosity in the first place.”


As I mentioned previously, Caity is a fierce protector of persecuted human demographics as well, and I think it is important to note that we too frequently extend this “friend or enemy” mindset to fellow Homo sapiens. We are told that immigrants and refugees are “pests” in a manner of speaking because “they take our jobs.” Nonsense. We do not own resources of any kind, we share them. The more we frame our lives that way, the more peacefully we can coexist and solve the larger problems of the day, like climate change and species extinctions.

Thanks again, Caity, for a wonderful summary of how we can approach the natural world in our yards, gardens, and on our doorstep.


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