Although humans fear and revere them, abhor and adore them, there are no inherently "bad" or "good" insects. They are all simply trying to make a living and create offspring according to their natural programming. But from a gardener's perspective, some insects are worth keeping around and others are just, well . . . pests. Most garden insects, in fact, do more good than harm. Just who are these benign bugs and what do they do for us? Read on.
Animals can roam about and seek mates with whom to reproduce, but imagine the challenge for a plant, rooted firmly to the ground, to achieve the same end. Pollinators, which include insects (such as bees, butterflies, beetles, and flies) and other animals (such as hummingbirds and bats), unwittingly move pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another as they search for sweet, nourishing nectar and fat- and protein-rich pollen. The flower thus becomes fertilized and capable of producing seeds. In this unique partnership, everybody wins. So, what's it to us? Well, one out of every three bites of food we eat is made possible by a pollinator, and 80 percent of all flowering plants rely on pollinators for survival. Without them, our gardens and lives would be less fruitful!
The amazing diversity of flowers results from their unique adaptations -- from the designs on their petals to the timing of their blooms -- to lure a range of pollinators. (Wind-pollinated flowers are less conspicuous.) Pollinators, in turn, have evolved equally ingenious adaptations in terms of hairiness, mouthparts, shape, flight patterns, and so on -- that enable them to efficiently obtain food for themselves and their young.
Invite your students to home in on and examine garden pollinators. What plants does a pollinator visit? Which pollinators visit a particular plant? Which insect features seem "designed" for finding nectar or moving pollen? Which flower features seem perfectly suited to attract pollinators?
Certain garden insects, such as dung beetles and sow bugs, in cahoots with fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms, make life on Earth liveable. They dine on once-living materials, breaking them into simpler molecules that can be used again as nutrients for plants (our sustenance). By building compost piles, schoolyard gardeners create conditions that help decomposers thrive.
The True Buzz on Bees
Bees, which are integral to the health of schoolyard gardens and habitats, are often-misunderstood creatures. Why, they pollinate more flowers than any other creatures on Earth as they collect nectar and pollen to nourish themselves and their young. (Pollen grains readily stick to their hairy bodies.) Their nests aerate the soil, and their dung, like that of earthworms, enriches it. Of the nearly 4,000 species of bees in the U.S., relatively few are "social," like honeybees, who may occasionally sting humans to protect hives. The vast majority of native bees (digger bees, mason bees, and sweat bees, for instance) are solitary, with no hives to defend, so are very unlikely to sting.