Invite Good Guys into the Garden

By Susan Littlefield

This ferocious looking creature, the larva or immature stage of a ladybug, is busy hunting down aphids to eat.

Looking for help controlling pests in the garden? There is an army of tiny helpers eager to lend a hand. They are the beneficial insects, ones that behave in ways that are helpful to us gardeners. These ″good bugs″ help out by hunting and eating or parasitizing insects that are harmful to our crops, or by pollinating the fruiting plants we grow. Healthy populations of beneficials help us to have a thriving garden and abundant yields without resorting to chemical pesticides that can be harmful to ourselves and the environment. All the good guys ask for is some food, water and shelter. Here are some ways you can encourage beneficial insects and have a more successful and more beautiful garden as a result.

Plant lots of flowers to attract beneficials.
What a great excuse to fill the garden with beautiful blossoms! Flowers provide pollen and nectar for the different life stages of these insects. Include a wide variety, making sure to include ones that bloom early, midseason, and late to provide a season-long banquet. Flowers with umbrella-shaped clusters of small flowers, such as dill, caraway, cilantro, and yarrow are particularly appealing. Daisy-like flowers such as golden marguerite, sunflower, goldenrod, and aster are also attractive to many beneficials.

Minimize the use of pesticides, even organic ones.
Even pesticides considered acceptable for organic gardens can harm the good guys along with the bad, so try to keep any pesticide use to a minimum. If you do use one, spray in the evening after the pollinators have stopped flying. Try to choose ones with a narrow spectrum of control, like the microbial insecticide Bt, which only affects caterpillar pests that are feeding on the sprayed plants. It's also important to have a few pests around for the beneficials to feed on. If there is nothing left to eat, the beneficials will move on to greener pastures!

Provide a source of water.
A shallow pool of water with some stones or piles of gravel on which insects can perch will help beneficials quench their thirst. Some insects, especially butterflies and some pollinator bees, prefer a mud puddle. Let a hose or faucet drip just a bit to form a damp, muddy sipping spot.

Give them some shelter.
If you can, let a corner of your yard go ″wild.″ A wooded area or hedgerow 10 to 20 feet north of the garden is ideal, but even a small undisturbed area will give many beneficials a place to shelter and reproduce.

Learn what the good guys look like.
This is important because we gardeners have a tendency to view any bug we find as a ″bad″ bug if we don't recognize it. Most of us can probably identify a ladybug as a ″good guy,″ but we may not realize when we find a larger, black and orange or yellow creature looking like a miniature alligator that it is actually a ladybug larva, bent on gobbling up aphids. And we might not know that the forest of tiny green eggs carried atop hair-thin stalks on a leaf in the garden will hatch out into fat, bristly lacewing larva with large, tusk-like jaws, also devourers of aphids, looking nothing like the delicate, gossamer-winged green adults. The Good Guys: Natural Enemies of Insects from the Illinois Natural History Survey's Prairie Research Institute has a great selection of photos and information on many beneficials.

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