These beneficial insects can help your garden thrive

Garden pests are part of life for gardeners. There is no escape – many creatures want to feed on your hard-earned harvest. They will happily munch on it if given the chance. That is why many gardeners have come to love beetles. Not all bugs, of course, but a subgroup called beneficial insects.

You already know about the beneficial insects that pollinate flowers and food plants, like bees and butterflies. Other beneficial insects help gardeners by consuming pests that infest our flowers and vegetable gardens.

Read on to find out which insects will take care of the pests, how to attract beneficial insects, and how to redefine the way you think about garden pests.

The risks with pesticides

Some gardeners may think that dousing their gardens with pesticides is the answer to gnawing insects. However, the use of chemical pesticides has serious disadvantages. Pesticides have negative impacts on human health and can linger in the environment, damaging soil health, polluting waterways and endangering wildlife.

In addition, by using chemical pesticides, gardeners are destroying some of their best weapons against pests – beneficial insects.

Useful insects to the rescue

Many gardeners know the uneasy feeling of discovering their beloved plants destroyed by uninvited guests. Snails, aphids and other garden pests have little regard for the hard work we put into our gardens. But what nature destroys, nature can replenish. Sometimes when we step aside, nature gives us just what we need – in this case, busy beneficial insects that keep garden pests at bay.

Meet insect eaters

One way beneficial insects help out in the garden is by chasing down the bugs we don’t want. Insectivores can consume thousands of harmful pests.

ladybug

Most of us think of ladybugs as red with black spots, but there are hundreds of ladybug species. Also known as ladybugs, almost all ladybugs are voracious eaters of aphids as well as spider mites and scale insects.

You can find them on the underside of the leaves and they work for you. Even their larvae eat aphids. Ladybugs feed on nectar and pollen as well as garden pests, which also makes them good pollinators. Make sure you have hearty flowering plants to keep them happy.

Praying Mantis

Praying mantises are one of the larger insects you will see in your garden. Depending on the species, adults can grow to be 2 to 12 inches long, although you’ll generally find them in the 2 to 5 inch range in North America. They may look like they are praying, but they spend their time hunting a variety of insects and animals. Some species are large enough to eat mice. Others eat bugs like aphids and spiders.

Praying mantises are not picky eaters. They’ll eat any grasshoppers that eat your plants, but they’ll also eat helpful insects — including other mantids. They even eat hummingbirds. As long as you don’t introduce an oversized species, you should be able to reap its rewards without losing what you value.

Hunting mantids prefer to hide in tall grasses, shrubs and dense foliage. A healthy garden with plenty of hiding places should attract enough to help you.

hoverflies

Not all flies are pests. Some, like the hoverfly, pollinate plants and prey on pests to our advantage. Hoverflies resemble a dainty wasp, but closer inspection reveals no sting. Hoverfly larvae feed on thrips, aphids, mealybugs and caterpillars.

Attract hoverflies by offering a variety of flowering plants in your garden.

dragonflies

Dragonflies won’t save your cucumbers, but their diet can make sitting in your yard that much more enjoyable. Dragonflies eat other flying insects – gnats, flies and mosquitoes. You can pack away hundreds of mosquitoes in a day. You’ll occasionally take down a butterfly, but since mosquitoes can carry disease, that’s probably a good compromise.

Dragonflies spend part of their lives in water, but they travel quite a distance when they leave it. If you have a pond or wetlands nearby, you should see plenty. If not, adding a small pond can attract them.

Parasitic wasp cocoons on a tomato hawkmoth.

Meet the parasitoid

Parasitoids are creatures that nest inside another animal and kill it from the inside out. The most common parasitoid you are likely to see is the parasitic or braconid wasp.

Stumbling upon one of these babies (literally larvae) on your tomato plant is equal parts unnerving and intriguing. In a rather amazing feat, the adult wasp lays its eggs Inside a tomato swarmer. Some time later, the larvae eat their way out, leaving a heavy worm carcass with dozens of sinister-looking white cocoons lining the outside.

You may jump out of your skin if you see one, but these weird little guys will save your tomato plant. Ichneumon wasps also lay their eggs in larvae that feed on the roots of your plants. If you find parasitic wasp cocoons, leave them alone. When they hatch, these beneficial insects lay their own eggs, keeping garden pests at bay.

You don’t have to kill all pests

Gardeners used to turn to heavy artillery against the first sign of pests, but that’s changing. The impact of human behavior on the environment is becoming clearer every day. People are looking for ways to live in harmony with nature, not fight it or conquer it.

This can only mean that we change our perspective on what we consider pests. The fact is that if you have a garden, you are going to have bugs. But beneficial insects – including those mentioned above and a variety of pollinators – can be our allies if we learn how to manage them. Even those we consider pests can be tolerated in a well tended garden. If you have an otherwise healthy garden, they should not result in a total infestation.

Featured image: Adult hoverfly, Adobe Stock

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