(Appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 29, 2007)
I'm a gentle person. Really, I am.
If a wasp enters the house, I make every effort to catch and release it. I coexist with ants that occasionally parade through the house, and I accept the fact that palmetto bugs will sometimes find their way inside on a warm summer evening. I'm fond of lizards, snakes and spiders and don't even own a can of Raid.
But there's one insect that upsets my sensibilities, inciting my wrath like no other bug -- the lubber grasshopper.
If you don't know what lubbers are, you're lucky and you probably don't garden.
Lubbers live outside where they can find and eat the plants they love, which -- what a coincidence -- are the same plants I love.
Rain lilies, amaryllis, cannas, day lilies, gladioluses and just about any other blooms that sprout from bulbs are the preferred foods for these leaf-eating monsters.
In late February, tiny black grasshoppers emerge from eggs thoughtfully laid near a food source by adult females the previous summer.
The young bugs are kind of cute. They have soft inch-long black bodies with yellow stripes down their backs. They emerge en masse from their underground incubation with insatiable appetites. Newly hatched lubbers instinctively know to chow down on succulent stems, eating nonstop until evening, when an inner voice tells them to gather in clusters on those very same stalks for sleep.
I wouldn't be so tempted to squash them at this stage -- especially at night when bunches can be smooshed at once -- if I didn't know, from previous experience, how fast they grow and how many flowers it'll take to satisfy their voracious craving for garden blooms.
The immature bugs look nothing like their adult counterparts.
While the babies may be on the cutesy side, mature lubbers are anything but beautiful. From 6 to 8 inches long, the adult grasshopper has a large head, huge eyes, big mouth, two antennae and a hard, shell-like body that includes a pair of small wings usually folded against its side. At first glance, it looks like some sort of toy-sized prehistoric dinosaur -- lubbasaurus, perhaps, the mighty devourer of all things green.
A lubber's body is a tawny yellow highlighted by red and black stripes. The insect has an eerie ability to anticipate a gardener's approach and alter its position accordingly. Coupled with the hissing sound adults make when threatened, and the scary body language they use as a defense mechanism, lubbers can be quite intimidating.
Fortunately, they don't bite or sting, but their oversized mouths can chew through flora at an alarming rate. I've lost an entire bed of about-to-bloom rain lilies to one hungry grasshopper in a single afternoon.
To prevent such ravenous feedings, I usually resort to behavior that I admit is neither gentle nor kind. That person who goes out of her way to assure a wayward bee's freedom shamelessly squishes, smashes, snips, steps on and sometimes drowns lubber grasshoppers in vats of sudsy water.
What can I say? Lubbers bring out the beast in me.
For the past 15 years, I've waged war against these marauding insects. And every year my diligent effort to eradicate them fails. Because I'm unwilling to douse my yard with poisonous chemicals, I'm left with no choice but to attack them individually. Experience has proved that handpicking lubbers is a lesson in futility.
Maybe that's why this year, for the first time ever, I've decided to adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy.
When I see a lubber in the yard, I divert my attention, forcing myself to focus on something else. I could never kill every lubber -- there are far too many -- so what's the point in getting all upset and destroying a few?
Does this new attitude mean I won't step on a lubber if it hops in my way? No, I still will. But I won't go out of my way to smite a batch of them. Not this year.
I've also decided to propagate more of the plants that lubbers dislike -- marigolds, cosmos and sunflowers -- and fewer of the plants they love. My new attitude might not completely improve the state of my garden, but it has already improved my own mental landscape.
There's so much senseless killing going on in the world these days, I don't want to add to the carnage. My victims may just be bugs, but if I learn to leave them alone, ignoring the things they do that I don't like, maybe I can apply the same lessons to people.
It's the gentle thing to do.