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The problem is the solution: Attracting beneficial bugs to your garden

by Timber Press on January 6, 2014

in Design, Gardening

Dragonflies like this window skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) rest with their wings open, while damselflies fold their wings together. Both are predators that feed on various insects, including mosquitoes, moths, and flies. Image: Jessica Walliser

Dragonflies like this window skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) rest with their wings open, while damselflies fold their wings together. Both are predators that feed on various insects, including mosquitoes, moths, and flies.

Jessica Walliser, author of Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, used to spray pesticides. Once she was educated about the harmful effects of this practice, however, she began looking for an organic solution.

And that’s where the bugs come in.

Bugs can be pests. They can also be predators that feed on the pests. To make a connection between the two, gardeners need to know which plants attract the predators, where to place them, and how to care for them. We asked Jessica to share some insight into how this works and how gardeners can begin attracting beneficial bugs.

Each and every plant within the ecosystem of a garden is dependent on numerous insects to survive. Here a honeybee serves to pollinate a Shasta daisy, while a predaceous lacewing larva helps protect it from pest insects.

Each and every plant within the ecosystem of a garden is dependent on numerous insects to survive. Here a honeybee serves to pollinate a Shasta daisy, while a predaceous lacewing larva helps protect it from pest insects.

What makes an insect beneficial?
Most gardeners are surprised to learn that of the million or so identified insect species on this planet, a mere 1% are considered harmful—the rest are either benign or beneficial. Benign insects are quite good at going about their business without impacting humans or our gardens, and beneficial insects are actually doing some type of good for the landscape. For gardeners, beneficial insects are commonly categorized into two basic groups: pollinators and predators. Most of us already know the power of pollinators, and their worth is undeniable. But it’s the insects playing the role of predator that often get forgotten. Predatory and parasitic insects benefit our gardens by directly consuming pest insects or using them to house and feed their developing young. These beneficial insects play an enormous role in managing the population of many different garden pests. Having plenty of beneficial insects around brings a natural balance to the landscape. It staves off pest outbreaks and enables the garden to function without the use of pesticides.

What are some of the ways gardeners can encourage beneficial insects to take up residence?
Providing year-round habitat is key to encouraging a healthy population of beneficials, and because many of these insects also need nectar and pollen to survive and reproduce, having appropriate floral resources in your garden is a must. But not just any flower will do. You need to introduce a diversity of the right kinds of insect-supporting flowering plants. And, of course, you’ll need to have pest insects present. For without them, the beneficials will not have access to much-needed protein or hosts for their developing young. Plain and simple: without a good meal and a place to call home, they won’t stick around. The goal is to create a beautiful landscape capable of supporting the perfect balance of all kinds of insects.

But won’t I have to turn my garden into a weedy jungle to make that happen?
Absolutely not! Yes, insectary gardens are places of diversity, but they are by no means weedy jungles! They can be as managed, or unmanaged, however you see fit. As with most things gardening, aesthetics can be tailored to the gardeners individual preferences and needs.

Insect-friendly gardens like this one are beautiful places filled with a diversity of plants taht are capable of supporting insects of all kinds. They help foster a healthy balance between troublesome pests and the good bugs that help to control them.

Insect-friendly gardens like this one are beautiful places filled with a diversity of plants that are capable of supporting insects of all kinds. They help foster a healthy balance between troublesome pests and the good bugs that help to control them. Image: Saxon Holt

What kinds of insects can I hope to attract?
The poster child of beneficial insects is probably the ladybug, but can you identify a ladybug larva? And did you know that larvae consume more pests than adults? Are you aware that there are over 480 different ladybug species in North America and most of them don’t actually wear a red and black, polka-dotted uniform? Ladybugs can be grey, black, yellow, cream, pink, brown, burgundy, or orange. And they aren’t necessarily polka-dotted; they can be striped, banded, or mottled, too. Their physical diversity is astounding, and the same can be said for other beneficial insect species, including the enormous variety of parasitic wasps, fireflies, syrphid flies, tiger beetles, lacewings, praying mantis, assassin bugs, tachinid flies, damsel bugs, and thousands of other species of predatory and parasitic insects that will take up residence in your garden. Learning to identify these “good guys” and recognizing the signs of their work is a critical step in understanding how to create a harmonious, trouble-free garden.

When aphids erupted on my tulip poplar a few years ago, I watched carefully. Within two weeks, I had discovered numerous species of ladybugs preying on the aphids. And a few days after that my pest problem was gone.

When aphids erupted on my tulip poplar a few years ago, I watched carefully. Within two weeks, I had discovered numerous species of ladybugs preying on the aphids. And a few days after that my pest problem was gone.

Can’t I just buy beneficial insects on the internet and release them into my garden?
Sure, but unless you live under a dome, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to stick around. Releasing insectary-reared or wild-collected beneficials into your garden is a leap of faith. They’ll  disperse (how far they go is dependent on the species itself, the weather conditions, and many other factors) and go wherever they can find the resources they need to survive. If you really want more beneficial insects, and the resulting reduction in pest troubles that comes with them, you’re much better off building a beautiful garden that can support and sustain a wide assortment of indigenous beneficial insect species.

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Author-Jessica-Walliser-by-Kristy-Krouse-02Jessica Walliser cohosts The Organic Gardeners on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her ‘Good Bug, Bad Bug’ feature appears monthly in Organic Gardening magazine, and her column The Good Earth appears weekly in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Jessica is also heard on Essential Public Radio’s environmental news program.

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Jessica reminds us that insects and other creepy-crawlies are valuable garden companions:

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Click on image below for a look inside Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden:

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This refreshing book delves into the fascinating relationships between insects and plants and will help you make your own insect-friendly garden.—Holly Shimizu, Executive Director, United States Botanic Garden

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Glenn January 22, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Terrific post! Thank you so much for this information. I can’t wait to pick the book up and get busy creating an insectary garden at the nursery.

2 Brian Ridder January 23, 2014 at 10:48 am

Thanks for the comment, Glenn. Let us know how you like the book and how the garden turns out!

3 Digital U November 3, 2018 at 5:04 am

Electronic mail Advertising – email and eCommerce?

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