Attracting Beneficial Garden Insects
You've got two options when it comes to natural pest control: beneficial insects (the little foot soldiers who will do the work for you) and plants that repel (or kill) insects naturally. Both will help you avoid dangerous pesticides and create a bio-diverse and thriving environment.
Beneficial insects are the good bugs who eat (or otherwise destroy) the bad ones. You attract them by creating food sources and habitats with the right flowers and herbs in your garden. They'll, in turn, fight your garden battles for you.
Other plants that repel tend to do so with an aroma that we usually love and the bad bugs can't tolerate. Some will also poison harmful insects, or even eat them. Apart from protecting your garden, these plants often have other benefits for your health too. (Because Nature's dope like that.)
That said, it's important to remember that seeing a few "bad" bugs is not a bad thing.
In fact, a balance of beneficial and harmful insects is important to the balance in your garden. If you don't have enough harmful bugs, your "beneficials" won't hang around long, and if they leave, your bad bugs will come swarming. So don't sweat when you see a little insect damage; it's all part of working with Nature.
So you could almost say that all bugs are beneficial, since even the "bad guys" feed the beneficial garden insects and birds, and even help to decompose plant material for you. (Except aphids. I'll never call them beneficial. Grr.)
Click here to learn more about Organic Gardening Pest Control and read below for a list of the commonly known beneficial garden insects, what they prey on, and what will attract them into your yard.
No onto the bugs...
Assassin bugs may be the creepiest looking insects in the garden (with the creepiest names), but their speedy front legs, aggression, and appetite also make them a favorite. They eat just about anything and have even been known to attack non-insect creatures.
Some common meals for the assassin bug include:
- Beetles - Japanese grubs, Mexican bean , potato and more
- Just about anything it can...
Because these little guys can't be purchased, you'll need to rely on attracting these beneficial insects. They tend to favor smaller flowers that are easier to reach into, so stick with things like: Queen Anne's Lace, daisy varieties, oleander (careful: this one is poisonous if ingested by kids or pets), fennel, alfalfa, camphorweed, goldenrod, dill, etc. Properly mulching also helps to keep these garden insects in the garden.
Beneficial nematodes are a microscopic, worm-like organism that will go to work on almost all pests (no pic of this one!). Often referred to as a biological insecticide, they will target your "bad" ugs but can also (although don't often) go after your other beneficial garden insects, as well.
They commonly eat:
- Beetles, such as pine, cucumber, bess, bark, scarab, etc.
- Borers, such as wood, corn, onion, iris, etc.
- Insect larvae, such as codling moth, flea, fungus gnat, Japanese beetle, etc
- Maggots of many varieties
Attracting beneficial nematodes can be tough. You may need to start out by purchasing your first round to introduce them to your garden and them encourage their multiplication with the use of plenty of compost, mulch, and biodiversity. Planting tagetes or a cover crop may also attract these beneficial garden insects.
Big-eyed bugs make fantastic beneficial garden insects. Similar looking to the Minute Pirate Bug, they live longer than most other beneficials, and lay eggs most of their lives, averaging two or more every single day. They are also more tolerate to imbalanced conditions, search soil and plant surfaces for prey and have voracious appetites. They will also eat nectar and honeydew when their prey is scarce.
A large part of their diet consists of:
- Aphids and their eggs
- Cabbage loppers
- Lacewings and their eggs
- Mites and their eggs
Attract big-eyed bugs into your yard and garden with the following plants: caraway, cosmos, fennel, alfalfa, spearmint, goldenrod, and marigold.
Damsel bugs are similar to mantis in both the way they eat and their non-discriminatory appetite. They will eat any insect smaller than them (even other beneficial garden insects), and if they can't find anything else they will even cannibalize each other.
Common prey of the damsel bug includes:
- Caterpillar and caterpillar eggs
- Small larvae of various insects
- Spider mites
Damsel bugs are attracted by the following: caraway, cosmos, fennel, spearmint, goldenrod and marigold. They will overwinter in groundcovers, such as alfalfa; supplying this will help them come back year after year.
Only the lacewing larvae are predatory on other insects in the garden. The adults actually survive on pollen and nectar. They will also turn cannibalistic is no food source is around. Creating habitat for them (below) will help the adults set up house in your yard and have lots of hungry babies.
Lacewing larvae generally eat the following:
- Cottony cushion scale
- Insect eggs
- Spider mites
Lacewing habitat can be created with the following: Angelica, carraway, coriander, cosmos (white sensation), dandelion, dill, fennel, Four-wing saltbush, Golden marguerite, Prairie sunflower, Purple poppy mallow, Queen Anne's lace, tansy, and yarrow (fern-leaf).
Ladybugs are probably the favorite among beneficial garden insects, and at least the most well-known. However, they may not be the best. They are slow to reproduce and will only lay large numbers of eggs when there is enough prey to support them. Even in larvae stage they eat a tremendous amount of pests, but are more vulnerable to their predators, the ants.
Ladybugs commonly eat:
- Pest eggs
Attracting and creating habitat for ladybugs can be done with many plants and varieties: Basket of Gold, buckwheat, butterfly weed, carpet bugleweed, cinquefoil (Apline and Sulfur), coriander, dandelion, dill, fennel, four-winged saltbush, Golden marguerite, hairy vetch, marigold, Prairie sunflower, Queen Anne's lace, Rocky Mt. penstemon, tansy, and yarrow (common and fern-leaf).
Fly parasites are actually small parasitic wasps. They do not bother adults, children, or animals but instead target flies and lay their eggs inside the pest (once hatched the fly parasite larvae consumes the insect), which might make them the creepiest beneficial garden insects of all time.
It's diet is more limited than others, but it's very effective if you have farm animals or manure:
- Yes, that's it.
Plants that attract and creat habitat for fly parasites include: buckwheat, Golden marguerite, lemon balm, parlsey, pennyroyal, Phacelia, Tansy, and thyme (crimson).
Both adult and larval stages of this insect are beneficial. The larvae can actually resemble the mealybug, their prey, another reason to avoid non-descriminatory pesticides when dealing with damaging insects in the garden.
The prey of the mealybug destroyer includes:
- Mealybugs (no duh) in all stages of life
- Soft scales
The following plants make good habitat for mealybug destroyers: fennel, dill, angelica, tansy, goldenrod, coreopsis, sunflower, and yarrow.
Minute Pirate Bug
Minute pirate bugs are predatory beneficial garden insects and will eat pollen and plant juices when prey is not available.
Both adults and nymphs will feed on the following:
- Aphids, including corn leaf and potato
- Corn borers
- Corn earworm eggs
- Insect eggs
- Potato leafhopper nymphs
- Spider mites
The following plants are great for attracting these beneficial insects: alfalfa, caraway, cosmos (white sensation), fennel, marigold (lemon gem), Peter Pan goldenrod and spearmint.
Praying mantis has a longer life cycle than most other beneficial garden insects, which is great for your garden. However, because they don't deposit their eggs until they are 5-6 months, it can be very difficult to keep them around, as few will live that long due to normal conditions or predators.
It is non-discriminatory in its diet, eating most insects, including other beneficial insects in the garden and even its own kind. Just some of its diet may consist of:
- Even small invertabrates such as small frogs, lizards, mice and hummingbirds!
Attracting such beneficial garden insects as the praying mantis can be difficult, but you may have luck with the following: cosmos, raspberry, flowering shrubs, hazel shrubs and pine. I would also suggest plenty of organic matter (compost) and mulch to support their needs.
These ominous little beetles are actually related to fireflies (but are unable to produce light). Both the larvae and adults are predatory, although the larvae tend to not live often on plants.
They usually prey on:
- Beetle larvae
- Cucumber beetles
- Grasshopper eggs
- Insect eggs
- Spider mites
Because adults will supplement their diet with pollen, these help to attract soldier beetles: goldenrod, hydrangea, milkweed, and wildlettuce.
Most people tend to think of spiders as "bad" insects in the garden, but in fact, most are beneficial in eating insects and rarely bite humans. The two to be wary of are the brown recluse and black widow spider. Some spiders will only eat insects trapped in their web, but others, such as jumping spiders and wolf spiders, will hunt prey in the garden as well.
Spiders commonly eat:
- Stick bugs
- And much more...
It's pretty rare that you'll need to do much to attract spiders. As long as the environment isn't sterile and pesticides aren't being used you'll soon find them in your garden. Beware of wood piles and othr dark hiding places which can harbor black widows.
Wasps (Trichogramma Wasps)
Poor wasps. They get a bad wrap and most people try to annihilate them unnecessarily. There may be times to do that, but for the most part, it's no bueno. Wasps are part of our ecosystem and do some pretty wicked and crazy work to keep insects under control. Like laying their egs inside. Or even wearing them like a weird skin-suit. Vicious little things. But for the most part, they will leave humans alone if left alone. After all, they can't wear us like the can wear a ladybug. (Yes, they can go after your good bugs too. In fact, the "good guys" rarely discriminate.) Specifically, trichogramma wasps are the most beneficial and are completely harmless, being tiny (about 1 millimeter) and stingless.
Common prey of parasitic wasps:
- Alfalfa caterpillar
- Borers, such as corn, peach, and squash
- Cabbage looper
- Coddling moth
- Corn earworm
- Tomato hornworm
- Wax moth
Attracting beneficial wasps can be done with the following: alyssum (white), caraway, cinquefoil (sulfur and apline), dill, edging lobelia, golden marguerite, lavendar globe lily, lemon balm, masterwort, orange, parsley, pennyroyal, purple poppy mallow, and yarrow (fern-leaf and common).
Other Beneficial Garden Creatures
It's not only beneficial insects in the garden that you can attract. Other animals are equally important to creating a balanced and healthy eco-system.
Animals such as lizards, toads and frogs, backyard birds will all help to keep insects in the garden in check and add to the health of your soil.
Creating habitat for these creatures will help control roly polys, flies, roaches, and most of the same "bad" insects mentioned above.
To attract or create habitat for these small animals, be sure to include a reliable water source, birdhouses, rock piles for amphibians and reptiles, and a chemical-free environment.
Plants That Repel (or otherwise work for you)
Last but not least are the plants themselves that help repel insects...or will even eat them. You've heard of a Venus Fly Trap, I assume? What about a Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes)? This little guy traps his prey in his cup-like leaves and then slowly dissolves it. For really.
Also consider plants such as peppermint or spearmint. These emit a strong aroma and help to repel insects (they are also great for your health). Likewise alliums (onions, chives, garlic) do the same; their strong aroma repels insects, but they work double-duty in providing you with some yummy veggies too.
And if you really want to delve into creating a bomb eco-system that pretty much sustains and maintains itself, check out the book, Gaia's Garden (seriously, buy that book). It's one of the best books no one seems to know about.