Before you reach for pesticide to eliminate the bugs you see in your yard, consider whether they’re actually your “friends”, rather than foes. Not all insects are bad. In fact, many are actually beneficial and an important part of a healthy, thriving environment.
When we see signs of damage in the garden, such as holes in leaves, bare patches in the lawn, or yellowing, drooping plants, it’s tempting to try to “fix the problem” by eradicating the pests.
But did you know that out of nearly a million known insect species, only about 1% to 3% are ever considered pests? Plus, if you create an environment on your property that supports “good bugs,” many of the problematic insects will be taken care of naturally.
In this article, we answer all of your questions about beneficial insects in your garden, including what they do, the different types, how to attract them, their many benefits, and what not to do if you want to get these incredible insects to come over to your house.
WHEN INSECTS ARE GOOD, THEY’RE VERY GOOD
How do beneficial insects help us?
There are some insects you don’t want in your garden, but there are some you definitely do want. Beneficial insects are those insects whose natural behavior improves the health of your garden and your trees.
Two of the most important things beneficial insects do are:
- Pollinate flowers
- Eat or kill destructive garden pests, such as Japanese beetles, spotted lanternfly, and aphids
You don’t have to be an entomologist to understand the value of insects. They’re everywhere, and they do a lot of useful jobs we don’t even think about. Sure, there are some insects nobody would miss (hey, mosquitoes) but there are other insects we can’t do without, even if we don’t know they’re there.
ABOUT POLLINATING BENEFICIAL INSECTS
What do pollinating insects do?
Pollinating insects are far more numerous than just the honeybee we typically think of. Many species of insects contribute to the pollination of food crops, from beans and tomatoes to apples, raspberries, and watermelon. Without that pollination, we’d have little to eat.
Which pollinating insects do we commonly see in New Jersey?
Among the beneficial, pollinating insects we often see are:
- Native and solitary bees, as well as honeybees
- Moths, which are often overlooked pollinators
- Butterflies, especially monarch butterflies
And none of these beneficials are interested in pestering you; they’re looking for pollen and nectar!
Where can I learn more about pollinators?
If you’re interested in learning more about the incredible lives of beneficial pollinators, you can learn a lot by watching The Pollinators. This fascinating documentary explains the importance of, and our reliance on, pollinating insects. You can also learn more on the film’s Facebook page.
How can I attract pollinators to my property?
In order to invite these beneficial, pollinating insects over, and keep them around, you have to provide a few amenities for them.
A shallow container filled with water and with stones or pebbles just below the surface is the safe way to let bees and other insects quench their thirst. These insects aren’t built for deeper water and can quickly drown trying to drink from pet dishes or ponds.
Nesting and resting places are easy to provide; you can make an insect hotel, or just leave a corner of your garden a little wild.
NOTE: Not all beneficial insects are ground-dwelling, and ants frequently kill and eat insects and larvae they find on the ground. This makes elevated nesting areas especially valuable
Flowering plants are the key. A garden with a mix of flowering plants (including trees!) that bloom from spring until fall will naturally attract pollinators while increasing your own enjoyment of your yard or garden. Because not all flowers are attractive to pollinators, or their flower shape excludes pollinators from getting inside, take a moment to learn about our native flowers. Rutgers University has a pollinator garden and a list of native plants that attract pollinators. Because these plants are native to our area, they’ve evolved to attract native pollinating insects and their flowers’ nectar and pollen are easily reached by these beneficial bugs.
You don’t need a botanical garden-sized yard, just a regular progression of flowering plants during warm-weather months. These can be annual herbs, native wildflowers, flowering fruits and vegetables, or our native milkweeds, the easy-to-grow superstar flowers that provide food for hummingbirds, bees, and monarch butterflies.
Monarchs, our most iconic butterfly, are dangerously close to disappearing. For more details, see New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) information about monarchs. Planting milkweed is an easy and effective way to contribute to the health of these valuable insects.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can create habitat for pollinators, check out these resources provided by NJ’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
ABOUT PREDATORY BENEFICIAL INSECTS
What are beneficial predators?
There are also beneficial insects that we value because they eat other insects, particularly insects that cause significant damage to landscape plants and trees. These are called beneficial predators, and they like to eat or parasitize the insects that we consider pests, such as aphids, mites, and the invasive spotted lanternfly.
Types of beneficial predators you might like to invite over include:
Ladybugs (or lady beetles) are often the first “bug” we learn about as children, and their charm goes far beyond their spotted wing coverings. Not a true bug, but a beetle, ladybugs are aphid-eating machines. They can clear dozens of aphids and scale insects from your plants each day. We are familiar with the adult phase of this insect, and probably never notice the tiny eggs that they lay on our garden plants. This strategy ensures that when the ladybug larvae hatch, they immediately set to work eating the pest insects that are within reach.
They’re wasps, but these tiny wasps shouldn’t be confused with the big stinging wasps we all prefer to avoid. They may be as little as 1/16th of an inch long, but these wasps are experts at taking over the eggs and larvae of insect pests such as tomato hornworms, tent caterpillars, and aphids, and using them as living—and expendable—incubators for the wasp’s own tiny eggs. You will probably never see these tiny wasps at their gruesome work, but you’ll benefit from it. And as few parasitic wasp species are able to sting, there’s no threat to you or your family.
Also called common lacewings, these deceptively delicate-looking insects provide benefits in two ways. Adult insects overwinter underground and emerge in spring to lay eggs and pollinate plants while eating nectar and pollen. Their larvae then hatch and immediately begin eating large quantities of unwanted insects. After cocooning for a few weeks they emerge as adults, and start the cycle again. Like many insects, lacewings do a lot of their activities in the evening and at night. So if you don’t see them at work in your garden, that doesn’t mean they’re slacking off!
The best thing about praying mantids (or mantises) is that they are voracious predators of the larvae of the invasive Spotted Lanternfly. This alone is reason to love them!
But while there are several species of praying mantises marketed as beneficial garden predators, there’s only one native species, Stagmomantis carolina, the Carolina mantis. This species is the state insect of South Carolina and is the only species that should be used for natural garden pest control.
Because the imported European and Asian species of praying mantises aren’t reliable predators of the garden pests we want to eradicate. Plus, the Asian species, which is twice the size of our native species, is known to prey on the wildlife we want and need, such as hummingbirds. New Jersey’s Audubon chapter has information on the dangerous side of these non-native predatory mantids.
Hoverflies are tremendous beneficial predators to attract into your landscape; their larvae are voracious aphid-eating machines. Besides their favorite snack (aphids!), they provide excellent control of scale, thrips, tiny mites, and small caterpillars, like the cabbageworms that devour your broccoli and cruciferous vegetables.
At first glance, they resemble a cross between a fly and a small yellow jacket. While they may occasionally land on people, don’t worry because they don’t sting or bite. They’re just attracted to your salty sweat, a small offering for their hard work.
How can I attract beneficial predatory insects to my property?
Beneficial predators will appreciate the same garden amenities as pollinating insects and aren’t interested in pestering you unless you pester them first.
Should I buy predatory insects and release them on my property?
It depends. Beneficial insects released on your property will only stay there if they have access to a reliable food source, as well as nesting and resting areas. As a result, they’re not a dependable preventive measure; they’ll likely have left in search of better hunting grounds before insect pest populations reach harmful levels on your property.
On the other hand, beneficial predators are effective in bringing down the population of harmful pests that are already in your landscape. With ample prey to feed on, they’re more likely to stay around until the pest population is brought under control. That’s one of the reasons we offer beneficial insect release as part of our IPM program.
Are there any things I should NOT do if I want to attract beneficial insects?
Just as there are ways to make your garden attractive to pollinators and beneficial predators, there are things you may be doing that will keep them away or harm them.
Easy things to avoid doing include:
- Spraying with traditional pesticides. These kill indiscriminately, and will wipe out beneficial insect populations. Because native plants and insects can be out-competed by introduced or invasive species, you’ll want to use integrated pest management (IPM) or other less-toxic methods to keep unwanted insect populations low.
- Using some herbicides. As with traditional pesticides, these sprays kill indiscriminately and also remove the kind of unwanted or non-showy plants that we consider weeds but that insects need as a food source.
- Tilling, cultivating, or clearing all soil surfaces. Leaving areas untilled preserves both the soil and the resting places for solitary insects and insects that burrow or make nests in wood or plant debris.
- Covering all soil areas with mulch. Ground-nesting and overwintering insects, which include most native bees, need to burrow into the soil to rest, pupate, or wait out cold weather, and mulch blocks their way. You can mulch plenty of your planting areas; just leave a bit for the insects.
Your garden doesn’t have to be wild or overgrown to attract beneficial insects, but over-manicured and sterile gardens don’t offer the benefits that more naturalistic gardens do.
Are there any other benefits to beneficials?
Instead of spraying toxic pesticides to kill lawn, garden, and tree pests, you can encourage beneficial insects to do the job for you. These bugs can be more effective than pesticides at preventing or reducing pest damage.
Here are the biggest benefits you’ll see from promoting natural populations of insects that prey on harmful pests:
- Your lawn, trees, and plants will be healthier without the addition of pesticides
- You’ll save money by using fewer costly pesticides
- You’ll save time by not having to constantly spray your yard to prevent damage
- Pesticide resistance is increasing among many types of insect pests, so anything you can do to control them without resorting to chemicals will help to protect the environment and keep pesticides viable longer as a treatment option
NEED SOME HELP?
We now offer beneficial insects as part of our integrated pest management (IPM) services to naturally bring down the population of harmful insect pests on your property. Used in conjunction with our 100% organic treatments, these “good bugs” can help keep your New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania property beautiful, healthy, and full of life.
Give us a call at 908-309-6611 to find out more!
GET THE LATEST NEWS
Subscribe to the Organic Plant Care Newsletter and get timely and helpful tips and updates monthly.