Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Beneficial Insects

Whoever started the rumor that bugs in the garden are bad was dead wrong. When fruits and vegetables are under moderate insect attack they respond in ways that benefit the gardener. Plants produce more flavonoids, anti-oxidants, and other nutritional compounds when they are getting munched and crunched. It is this response, in part, that makes organically grown food more nutritious. Another tactic plants use, given adequate soil moisture and nutrition, is to try to out-grow the insect damage. More productive plants make for a more productive garden. The key is to encourage predator insects to maintain a balance.

In nature balance is fluid and responsive. When populations of prey species proliferate, their predators increase in population also. In the forest, predator and prey may be lion and deer, while in the garden they may be aphid and soldier beetle. The principals remain the same. Gardeners often don’t have the patience to wait for the prey species to proliferate and they may not know the difference between “bad” insects and those that are considered beneficial.

This brings us back to that rumor. You know, the one about bugs being bad. It was probably started by some pesticide company or other that thought it might be fun to make a profit on feeding your grandchildren chemical residues. And if those residues aren’t bad enough, the truth is, those pesticides are more devastating to the predator insects than they are to the prey. They are more damaging to the bugs that protect your garden’s balance than they are to the bugs that attack your vegetables and fruit. Since they do such a good job of wiping out the predators, as the pests recover they reproduce out of control. And a gardener, a grandma or grandpa, can become addicted to spraying poison on their family’s food.

Bugs are good. Remember this. The prey, pest, so called “bad bugs” increase the nutritional value of your food. However, they need to be kept in check. The beneficial insects, the so-called “good bugs” are the predators of the garden. And they are fascinating to watch. With a balance of “good” and “bad” bugs the garden becomes a model for the web of life; it becomes a dynamic fascinating place with a life all of its own. It becomes a safe nurturing place for children to eat, play, and begin to learn how the natural world works all around them.

“O.K,” you say, “I have tried to use lady bugs to get rid of aphids, but they never stick around. This just doesn’t work.” The reason it doesn’t work, is because the folks you bought the lady bugs from neglect to tell you that the lady bugs don’t just eat aphids. Oh no. They also eat pollen and nectar from certain kinds of plants. But the companies who sell you the Ladies know that if you plant these most secret plants you will never buy another ladybug again. You won’t have to. The Ladies will flock to your garden all on their own. I know, because all the ladybugs you have ever bought and released are in my garden right now.

Ladybugs are not the gardener’s only friend. There are the lacewings, money-bugs, ground and soldier beetles, amour and assassin bugs, preying mantis, and more. There are all kinds of small flies and wasps that have a life style and life cycle that would put science fiction and horror movies to shame. And they all like flowers. Perhaps not the exact flowers you are in the habit of growing, but flowers just the same.

In the early mornings after the sun has dried the dew from your flowers but while it is still cool, watch to see tiny flying bugs. Those little swarming creatures are the flies and wasps that parasitize aphids, maggots, and other bugs we love to hate. A closer look at the flowers might revel ladybugs, assassin bugs, solider beetles and others munching away on pollen. This high-energy food gives them the fuel they need to seek out and destroy your garden pests. These insects deserve to have the plants they love preserved and cultivated just for them.

In early spring the flowers of the miniature Asian mustards are the first to bloom (in my garden) and they are visited by clouds of these beneficial insects. Next, the standard mustards, kale’s, and radishes start to bloom, and the beneficials shift their attention to the taller flowers. These are followed by the Giant mustards, and then by garland chrysanthemum (which if planted in the late fall and kept pinched back through winter will bloom in the spring). In late spring and early summer parsnips begin flowering, followed in summer by evening primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, chicory, wild lettuce, and sunflowers. Autumn asters, chrysanthemum, and late summer planted cilantro carry the bloom and the beneficials into the fall.

While letting these vegetables, herbs, flowers, and weeds run rampant with bolting flowers may not make the tidiest garden you have ever seen, it is bound to be the most fascinating. Learn to identify beneficials, observe the life in your garden, and you can begin expanding on your own list of beneficial insect / flower relationships. You can find lots more information on the Internet by searching on individual insect names or general information by searching on beneficial insects. If the Internet is not your thing you can ask your bookstore or librarian for suggestions to learn more.

Here is some more information on a few of the beneficial insects that you are likely to see in Northern CA:

Soldier Beetles: These long slender beetles have black wing covers and red heads. They look pretty fierce, and if you are an aphid or other small soft bodied insect, you had better watch out. They are usually observed singly foraging for pollen or insects in the garden. But on occasional warm spring nights they can converge by the thousands for an orgy of aphid eating and other X-rated pursuits. (This happened in my yard just the other night . . .) After they have satisfied their various hungers they scatter to lay their eggs in humus rich soil. Soldier beetle larva are seldom seen. They live in the soil and consume young snails and slugs before they have emerged from the humus. Soldier beetles are definitely gardener’s friends. They can be attracted with the flowers listed above. In addition they are said to especially like milkweed, wild lettuce, hydrangea, and goldenrod. (All soon to be appearing in my yard.)

Lady Bugs, or Lady Bird Beetles: While they are commonly known for eating aphids, whitefly, and other small soft bodied insects to keep them in your yard you will need a constant source of nectar and pollen. All the flowers listed above will work just fine. If you have plenty of aphids the ladybugs may even stick around and lay eggs. Lady bug larva look like tiny colorful alligators. All they eat are aphids, scale, and whitefly, so they are especially beneficial. They also form interesting orange chrysalises which children find fascinating.

Wasps, Hornets, & Meat Bees: These guys are predators near the top of the insect food chain. When left alone in the garden they will cut full sized cabbage-worms into manageable pieces and fly them back to their nests. While every gardener may not want these hard workers hunting in their cabbages, the large wasps are not restricted to small or soft insects. They will happily carry off harlequin bugs, stinkbugs, and cabbage beetles with little more than an invitation. Wasps can actually become quite tame if you speak to them softly and move slowly when they are near by. They even seem to be able to recognize who belongs in a particular garden and they will sometimes become aggressive towards intruders. Wasps are also fond of pollen and nectar, especially from varieties of mint and fennel. This is something to keep in mind whether you hope to attract of repel these beneficial insects.

Miniature Bees, Flies, and Wasps: The clouds of tiny pollinators attracted by the flowers mentioned above come with $50.00 unpronounceable names like Ichneumon, Bombyliidae, Tachinid, and Syrphidae. Even if we could pronounce their names the tiny creatures move so fast it would be hard to figure out which name belonged to which creature. Rest assured that when they are not busy pollinating your flowers they are up to dastardly yet helpful deeds. Some of these tiny creatures are outright hunters. They seek out their insect prey in the small folds and openings of your garden foliage. More of them are parasites. They lay their eggs on (or in) living insect pests. Their larva feed on the living insect from the inside out. They mature about the time their host has expired, emerge hungry for nectar and pollen, and then find a mate and start the process all over again.

Sources: Visit your local nursery for seeds or plants. If they don’t have exactly what you are looking for check out Bountiful Gardens: or request a catalog by calling (707) 459-6410. If you are on a budget, don’t forget that gardeners often share. It never hurts to ask.

More benificials next time . . .

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, 5-18-06, posted here with permission.


Anonymous said...

Dearest Harvest:
Chi Miigwetch (Big Thank you) for an entertaining and informative article on Insects. I didn't know how to invite them to my table. I am looking forward to trying some of your insight to keep them in a well balanced diet. Now I hope that my fruit trees will not get munched by aphids. Willy

Rahma said...

Dear Harvest: I was so excited to see your posting on Beneficial Insects. I began researching this when I first started gardening on our property about 10 years ago and my plants were being devoured by 'Bad Bugs'. Being committed to an organic way of life, I started researching and gradually adding these plants you mention in my garden areas.
It is not a Quick Fix, changing the out-of-balance that created the problem in the first place. And we seem to be addicted to the Quick Fix. I know I still have to fight that sense of panic when I see lovely flowers/leaves all chewed up. But over the years I have seen the balance right itself so many times, that I know it works!
I am planning on a Blog on this myself and would like to link your site to mine, or put it in a Favorites list, but I haven't figure out how to do that yet.

New to blogging and loving it.
Visit me at:

Harvest said...

Hi Willy & Rahma!

Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. You are certainly welcome to post a link. If you use the google blogger it is easy to post links, look up near the top of your post box and you will see an icon that looks like a link from a chain. You can copy and paste a link with that tool. If you need more tips let me know.

It only took me one season to really up the number of beneficials in my yard. I just had to get my flower progression fine tuned, and I had to learn to ignore the aphids. Now I can't be out in the yard without seeing lots of beneficials. I have a number of different kinds of preditory beetles, lady bugs, swarms of the little flying things, and lots of solidier beetles. It is great fun!!!


Ashraf Al Shafaki said...

Amazing post! That's what I call a really beneficial piece of online content.

I used to try and remove aphids and 'harmful' worms off from top of the leaves of my plants. I guess now I aught to try a different strategy and try using companion planting to encourage beneficial plants.

I remember several months ago, I decided to leave the basil plants alone as I observed them getting attacked by some pest. I just wanted to observe how they would struggle out of this. I wanted to keep things natural. Indeed, the basil managed to recover on its own and has now fully recovered and flourished becoming my most praised basil plant by now!