Just as no great summer picnic is complete without the proverbial ants, neither is a healthy garden complete without some good bugs. However, not just any old bugs will do. These bugs have a special mission to accomplish in their brief life span.
"Good bugs? Why would I want ANY kinds of bugs — good, bad, or ugly? All they ever do is eat my beautiful plants and flowers!" you cry out in loud protest.
"The answer to your question is really quite simple. You just need to understand the delicate balance of Mother Nature," I reply calmly. "You see, every garden needs some GOOD bugs in it, as they will feed on the BAD bugs. Otherwise, the BAD bugs will take over, and they are the ones that are really responsible for eating your plants and flowers. This is simply Nature's way."
And now — it's time for my early morning stroll in my garden.
It's finally that wonderful time of year I've been waiting for! My garden is growing right before my very eyes. A gorgeous array of perennials and annuals having leaves of green, silver, gray, burnished reds, and a host of hues in between are now gracing my garden. Flowers are blooming prettily on their healthy new stems, nodding their heads and smiling fragrant greetings as I stroll past them. What a pleasant vision on a bright and sunny spring morning! It feels great just to be alive, to breathe in the fresh morning air, to see the beauty of my gardening handiwork. All of it blessed by Mother Nature, of course.
Just a moment! What are those tiny little green things crawling all over the leaves and buds of my favorite Peace Rose? On closer inspection, I note that these same little green guys have taken up residency on my early blooming Red Blaze Climbing Rose!
Oh no! Not again! Aphids! Why did God create aphids anyway? What purpose do they serve in the grand scheme of things? None at all that I've ever been aware of, except to perhaps try my patience level. Well, whatever the reason, one thing is certain; they simply CAN'T keep dining on MY roses!
Maybe I should have applied that Super-Duper Kill-em-Dead systemic fertilizer and pesticide bug spray after all. That really did knock all of those nasty aphids for a loop last year.
But what about my butterflies and hummers? There has to be a better way than using those deadly substances that will bring harm, even death to my exquisite garden visitors. I already have all of my favorite butterfly and hummingbird flowers planted, just waiting for them to arrive. In fact, some are already blooming, such as my lavender and white penstemons, the dazzling pink and scarlet dianthus, and fragrant navy blue heliotrope.
It's time to do some serious research before I panic, so bear with me as we learn together.
Thank goodness, there is a better way!
Much attention is being placed on our environment these days, and with very good reason. One very important way that ecologists determine the condition of our environment is by doing more research about nature's ecosystem. The word "ecosystem" is described in Webster's New World Dictionary (Second College Edition, Warner Books, Inc. 1984) as ". . . a community of animals and plants and the environment with which it is interrelated."
As gardeners, what does this tell us? Many things!
Have you ever considered the fact that your own backyard is an ecosystem in and of itself? You have plants, you have insects and/or animals, and you have the environment — the three essential building blocks of the ecosystem. This means that you, the gardener, are the self-designated steward of your very own ecosystem. It matters not how large or small your backyard or garden is. What does matter is that you keep it healthy and in balance, just as Nature intended it should be.
Introducing Beneficial Insects to Your Backyard Garden
The use of beneficial insects to control noxious garden pests is becoming more and more popular, especially for gardeners interested in butterfly and hummingbird gardening. It is a known fact that all types of pesticides used to eradicate unwanted or noxious insects will also kill butterflies and their caterpillars. Always remember, no caterpillars — no butterflies! Pesticides can also sicken or kill hummingbirds if they happen to imbibe nectar from any flowers treated with these poisonous substances.
Some of the most common garden pests that gardeners encounter include aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, white, flies, thrips, slugs and snails, scales, leaf rollers, squash bugs, pillbugs, and yes — sowbugs! In my garden, aphids seem to be the worst offenders simply because they adore my roses. However, if you're not a rose gardener, you may face an entirely different and possibly a worse pest problem than aphids.
Some Beneficial Insects That Help Control Noxious Pests
Every gardener has heard of the darling little ladybug, which is renown as a voracious eater of many garden pests. Ladybugs and their larvae feed upon aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, scales, whiteflies, and many other smaller insects. They prefer aphids as their primary delicacy, but also eat the eggs of other insects, which is a real boon to gardeners. After an adult female's eggs hatch, their larvae alone will readily consume literally hundreds of aphids.
Lacewings serve as beneficial predators either as eggs, larvae, or adults. Their larvae will eat large numbers and many varieties of aphids, and also devour mealybugs, whiteflies, thrips, leafhoppers, red spidermites, and a variety of other soft-bodied noxious insects.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
These two beneficial insects are also a great aid to gardeners, as they catch and eat flies, termites, beetles, mosquitoes, and other noxious flying pests. Research indicates that dragonflies can zoom through the air at about 60 miles per hour while catching and eating their lunch along the way! Damselflies are not as large as dragonflies, neither can they fly as fast. However, they are also superb beneficial insects to have in your garden, as they also feed on many garden pests.
There are several species of mites that feed on spider mites and sometimes will feed on thrips. These predator mites will not damage your plants as do the spider mites.
A very small parasitic wasp (Aphytis melinus) is another beneficial insect that will help keep your garden healthy. This little wasp attacks and destroys red scale as well as other types of scale on plants. As with any type of wasp, bee, or yellow jacket, please exercise care to avoid getting stung!
There are many other beneficial insects that can be introduced to your garden to help control common garden pests. These mentioned here are only a few of the most bothersome to gardeners, and will give you a starting point.
If you need help identifying or controlling any of your garden insects, either beneficial or nonbeneficial, there are many excellent resources available. One very outstanding organization known as CSREES, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, is a dynamic new international research and education network. The services of CSREES expands the research and higher educational functions of the former Cooperative State Research Service. This agency offers a weatlh of information to not only gardeners but also the entire agricultural community.
A few tips to attract beneficial insects to your backyard
The needs of beneficial insects are not difficult to meet if you have a real desire to lure them to your garden. Many, if not all, probably already exist in your garden. Here is a short checklist that outlines their needs.
Beneficial insects will be happy with early blooming plants that contain nectar and pollen they can feed on. Some early bloomers they are attracted to include pansies, alyssum, Queen Anne's Lace, and fennel. Later in the season there are many others such as coneflowers, cosmos, goldenrods, or lavender that they will enjoy.
Water is essential for all insects and is easy to provide. Any type of container that will hold water can be placed in an inconspicuous place in your garden. It can be kept filled with water as you sprinkle your flowers, or you can also just let rain and dew collect in it. Just be sure there is always some water in it.
Shelter and a place to rear young
Try leaving some leaves or other debris under some of your larger shrubs as a place of shelter for beneficial insects. Or, place a dead log or some rocks and brush in one corner of your garden to provide a place of protection for them during cold or inclement weather. Like your butterflies, beneficial insects are cold-blooded and don't like cold, windy weather. They like a nice cozy place to hide until the sun comes out again. These sheltered places will also serve as a great place for them to raise their youngsters!
Select only organic or other natural insect control substances in addition to your beneficial insects if your garden should develop a serious infestation of harmful pests. If you really MUST resort to pesticides, try to select those that are the least toxic and use them sparingly. Otherwise, you will surely risk killing your beneficial insects — AND your butterflies and hummers as well!
Gardeners wishing to attract both butterflies and hummingbirds must learn and also accept the fact that the presence of insects and bugs in their gardens doesn't necessarily mean disaster. The concept known as "pest management" versus "pest control" recognizes that many things we see as problems are really natural to all gardens.
As educated gardeners, we can decide what intervention, if any, will help restore a normal balance to our gardens by allowing Mother Nature to use her own built-in system of checks and balances. We will also be helping to restore and enhance our own environment as we give Mother Nature a chance to once again do her thing without the aid of harmful chemicals.
Best of all, the butterfly and hummingbird population will definitely increase as fewer chemicals are used in gardens to eradicate noxious pests. Introducing beneficial insects can be very rewarding as well as challenging to butterfly and hummingbird gardeners. Why not let these "good bugs" do some of your gardening tasks for you?
After all, it is Nature's way!
Please don't hesitate to begin a new discussion below, or join in an ongoing one about the joys of your butterfly gardening efforts. Sharing with readers everywhere is a great way for those of us who love butterflies and hummingbirds to keep learning more and more! Until next time, keep those "flying flowers" flying and those hummers humming.
This article was originally published at Suite 101 in the gardening section.
About the Author Naomi Mathews also writes a column on Butterfly and Hummingbird Gardening for Suite 101.com.