Attract Beneficial Insects to Counter Garden Pest Problems

Attract beneficial insects to your yard to help counter garden pest problems and pest-proof your yard.

| May/June 2013

  • Braconid wasp (Hymenoptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Ground beetle (Coleoptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Hover fly (Diptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Lacewing (Neuroptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Grown ladybug beetles can eat 50 aphids in a single day; their young, however, can devour thousands of aphids, mealy bugs, spiders, mites and other garden pests.
    Photo By iStock
  • Ladybug beetle (Coleoptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Predatory bug (Hemiptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Solider beetle (Coleoptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Spider (Araneae)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • The more than 3,000 species of North American spiders dine upon diverse insects including mites, aphids and squash bugs.
    Photo By iStock
  • Tachinid fly (Diptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Trichogramma mini-wasp (Hymenoptera)
    Illustration By Keith Ward

In the garden, bugs have a bad reputation: We call them pests, curse them when we find our crops eaten and sometimes even consider poisoning them with chemical pesticides. Yet, more than 97 percent of insects and spiders in home gardens and landscapes are actually beneficial, says Leonard Perry, extension professor at the University of Vermont. “That is, they either do no harm, provide food for desirable species such as birds, or prey upon insects that are destructive to our crops,” Perry says.

When it comes to maintaining the health of our gardens without turning to hazardous chemicals, good bugs may be among our best allies. Knowing how to identify the most common beneficial insects, and how to help and not harm them in your garden, will help you minimize pest problems and the use of pesticides.

Understanding Good Bugs

There is a hidden world in and around our gardens that we can begin to understand if we employ patience, observation and a bit of hard science. In fact, the plant and insect life in our gardens is so deeply intertwined, scientists now know that some plants emit a chemical alarm signal when pest insects begin feeding on them, alerting nearby beneficial insects to respond. If your garden is fully stocked with beneficial bugs, they can become your pesticide-free pest patrol.

If we think about our gardens as whole ecosystems, rather than a collection of individual plant species, it can help us learn what causes insects to come to our garden in the first place, what incites them to stay and which ones we hope will do so. The first step is to learn about the life cycle of insects, and how this affects the natural balance.

Too often, gardeners wait until they have a problem, then try to combat the imbalance by ordering beneficial insects from a mail-order supply. This is unlikely to help solve the problem. Typically the new insects will eat then leave after a day or two. If we hope to maintain a supply of natural pest-killers, our goal is to attract and nurture beneficial insects long enough that they stay and lay eggs, hatching new generations of pest protection.

Another reason to keep beneficial bugs around to lay eggs is that adult insects eat far less than just-hatched hungry larvae. Take, for instance, Coccinellids, more commonly known as ladybug beetles, one of the best-known beneficial insects with more than 450 species native to North America alone. A single adult ladybug beetle (a term entomologists prefer, as these are not true bugs) will eat 50 aphids in a single day and lay hundreds of eggs. The young hatch, however, will devour thousands of aphids, mealy bugs, scales, spider mites, thrips, whiteflies and other slow-moving insects. Cultivating ladybug beetles in several lifecycle stages will be the most beneficial.

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