While bugs, beetles and other creepy-crawlies are not welcome indoors, stay your hand when you spot them outside! The realization that not all bugs are bad is relatively new. In the past, gardening books and magazines touted remedies to rid your garden of insect pests, and garden-supply shelves were chock-a-block with sprays, dusts and granules intended to poison them. Nowadays we gardeners are learning to tolerate activity around and some damage to our plants in exchange for not upsetting the balance of nature. Here is an overview of this fresh and important way of gardening.
Bees are the most important pollinators on earth. If they did not move pollen as they visit flowers—including in flowerbeds, window boxes, vegetable gardens, fruit trees and berry bushes—the food supply as we know it would collapse. No apples. No broccoli. No sunflowers. No pumpkins. You get the idea. Statistics on bee-population decline vary but are alarming. US National Agriculture Statistics, for example, report a 60% reduction since 1947. To aid them…
Grow plants whose flowers bees favor in order to feed and sustain them. Bees generally prefer simple “single” open-form blossoms found on many native wildflowers and garden mainstays such as daisies, cosmos and coreopsis. Yellow, blue and purple flowers appear to be their favorites. Fluffy, full-petaled (double) roses, hollyhocks, hydrangeas and marigolds are far less appealing.
Never hit, spray or otherwise tamper with a bee hive or a swarm. If it’s in an inconvenient spot or it worries you, call a beekeeper to come move the bees.
Avoid using pesticides. Though not the intended targets, bees are harmed or killed by many garden chemicals. Examine the fine print on the labels—the EPA requires cautions about potential harm to pollinators.
Also, do not buy seeds or plants that have been treated with neonicotinoids, which are “embedded pesticides.” These have been shown to be a major culprit in bee deaths.
Make them a home. Home gardens—unlike many agricultural or park settings, which often are subject to chemical sprays—can be safe and healthy havens for bees. Native bees (which tend to be smaller than the familiar but non-native honey bees and chubby bumble bees) do not congregate in hives but can be accommodated by “native bee houses” mounted on walls, tree trunks or other spots. Some are quite cute, and it will help grow the bee population. Fear not: These types of bees very rarely sting! You can buy bee houses from garden suppliers or online. Prices range from about $10 to $35.
There are a lot of other insects busy in your garden…all good reasons to tolerate a little damage in order to respect nature’s natural cycles and enjoy extra beauty.
Caterpillars. Before you think about killing leaf-eating caterpillars, remember that they ultimately become moths and butterflies, which are valuable pollinators. A classic example is the “parsley worm” caterpillar, which turns into a swallowtail butterfly.
Shimmering hover flies, named for their ability to move in all directions like tiny helicopters, are voracious aphid eaters while in their larval stage, when they look like tiny slugs. Vegetable gardeners should welcome their assistance in ridding leafy greens, cucumbers, squash, potatoes and more of pesky, plant-sucking pests. Adult hover flies enjoy nectar and help pollinate many flowers.
Braconid wasps. If you spot a destructive tomato hornworm covered with what looks like little grains of white rice, those are the eggs of braconid wasps. Don’t interfere! These very tiny wasps will kill that hornworm and may even gain a foothold in your garden to keep defending your tomato plants, although hornworms turn into sphinx moths, which are good pollinators.
Lacewings. A beautiful little bug with light green wings, aptly called a lacewing, relishes mealybugs, aphids and other soft-bodied garden pests that may plague both flowerbeds and vegetable patches. In fact, it’s possible to buy lacewings and release them into your garden, where they will settle in and become a valued part of your backyard ecosystem—a far nicer solution than deploying sprays.
Of the many types of beetles in our yards, quite a few are valuable. Some play a role in soil health by aiding in decomposition via what they consume, digest and excrete. Certain beetles do this work in compost piles…others work on the bodies of dead rodents or birds in your yard.
Some beetles also eat other bugs. You may never notice night-hunting predaceous ground beetles, which go after caterpillars, grubs, grasshoppers and even snails and slugs, but they are common in most yards. Nurture them by leaving places for them to shelter in the daytime, such as out-of-the-way piles of leaf litter, logs or a pile of stones.
Most people do appreciate lady beetles, also known as ladybugs, which consume a lot of common garden pests, including scale insects and aphids. While it’s possible to buy and release ladybugs into your garden, this is rarely successful. Better: Attract a ladybug population to your yard by planting anything with a flat-topped multi-flowered head—they love these for the easy access to plentiful pollen. Dill, fennel, yarrow, sweet alyssum, angelica, carrot flowers and Queen Anne’s lace are among their favorites.