Melinda Myers: Managing Garden Pests Considering Pollinators

Every gardening season is full of beautiful and tasty surprises, as well as some challenges. One challenge gardeners face each year is controlling insect pests while protecting pollinators. Fortunately, only a very small percentage of insects in our landscapes are harmful. The rest help pollinate plants, feed on or parasitize bad insects, or decompose plant debris.

Properly identifying the crop-damaging culprit is the first step in overcoming problems. Often the most visible insect is not the one causing the damage. You can find a lot of helpful information and pictures on the Internet. Look for sites hosted by your local university, counseling service, or botanical garden. They often give timely tips on pests in your area.

After identification, you must decide whether an inspection is required. Some insect damage is only cosmetic, meaning it doesn’t affect the health and longevity of the plant, it just looks bad. In these cases, we are not concerned with the health of our plants. Consider tolerating the damage and masking it with nearby plants or garden art.

In other cases, the damage is done and the insect is no longer there. Revenge sprays can make you feel better, but they won’t fix the problem. Make a note on next year’s calendar to monitor and control the pest if you think control is really needed. Spotting pest problems early makes manual removal easier and may be all that is required.

When we see the damage to our plants, control often does not help. Many galls, unusual growths on plants, are caused by insect damage. When we see the gall, the insect is either living safely in the gall or it has escaped to complete another phase of its life. At this point the control will not work and in most cases the issue is cosmetic and no control is required.

Work with nature to deal with pest problems. By tolerating some damage, you provide the food that attracts nature’s pest controllers to the garden. Watch out for aphid-eating ladybugs and green lacewings, which eat hundreds of these pests every day. Invite songbirds into your landscape with seed and berry-producing plants and a clean, fresh water source. Ninety-six percent of land birds feed their young insects. And then there are those non-stinging, parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside other insects. When the eggs hatch, the young feed on the host. Avoid pesticides and provide water and shelter to attract and support insectivorous toads and frogs.

Get help from the youth in your life. Try the pluck, drop, and stomp method. Teach young gardeners to identify problem insects, pick them off plants by hand, drop them on the ground, and stomp them. What a great way to teach kids about nature and help them burn off some of their excess energy.

Handpicking insects like Japanese beetles or patting them in a can of soapy water is a great way to control small populations of pests. A gardener friend uses a small handheld vacuum to catch Japanese bugs. Make sure you empty the contents of the insect-filled vacuum into a can of soapy water before storing.

If you decide you need to help nature fight garden pests, look for more eco-friendly options. Barriers made of floating row covers – fabrics that let air, light and water through – can keep cabbage worms, onion maggots, Japanese beetles and some other insects from laying their eggs on their favorite plants. When planting, cover the plants with the fabric, anchoring the edges and leaving enough slack for the plants to grow. No construction is required.

Covering squash plants when planting until they begin flowering can help reduce the risk of squash bugs and squash beetles. Covering cucumbers when planting for up to ten days after flowering begins will help reduce the risk of cucumber beetles infecting these plants with the bacteria that cause wilting. The row covers also prevent birds from eating the seeds and seedlings.

Cover late plantings of susceptible plants as needed this season. Then make a note on next year’s calendar to use this method of controlling these types of pests for your first planting next year.

Enlist the help of the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to protect plants from certain pests. Different strains of these bacteria control different insects. Bt kurstaki only kills true caterpillars. Application to members of the cabbage family will not harm other butterflies as these plants only attract the cabbage worm moths. Bt galleriae controls Japanese and other beetles.

Use a strong jet of water to remove mites and aphids. These pests suck plant saps and excrete a clear sticky substance called honeydew. Overfeeding can cause distorted growth, mottle, yellowing, and browning of the leaves.

If more control is needed, seek help from one of the organic contact insecticides like Summit Year-Round Spray Oil, a light horticultural oil. These products kill the insects they come in contact with but leave no residue on the plants that could harm beneficial insects that later visit the plants.

When using any product, even natural and organic ones, read and follow label directions. This ensures the best control and the least negative impact on beneficial insects and the environment.

Make a few notes about the pests you encounter, the management strategies used, and the results. This will help with future problems. With a minimal investment of time and a little creativity, you can keep your garden looking its best all season long.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books including the recent Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses DVD instant video series How to Grow Anything and the national TV and radio program Melinda’s Garden Moment. Myers is a columnist and editor for Birds & Blooms Magazine and her website is

An environmentally friendly way to manage small populations of Japanese beetles is to pat them in a can of soapy water.
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