Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
July, 2004
Regional Report

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This lovely flower of the mustard plant is a magnet for beneficial wasps.

Good Bugs vs. Bad Bugs

There is a garden down the street from me that is the picture of perfection. Until you look more deeply. Everything is in perfect rows, with carefully tilled soil between the rows and not a single weed. Ever. And, a walk through the garden is strange in that there don't seem to be any bugs anywhere around.

I have plenty of insects in my garden, but I've learned to recognize many of them as beneficial and predatory insects that help keep populations of harmful insects at low levels. The garden is full of ladybugs and lacewings, heaps of fat toads, and the other day my daughter found a praying mantis on a winter squash plant. They are voracious insectivores, and I invited him (or her) to stay as long as he liked.

A practice I've used for years is to let plants in the mustard family go to flower. I grow mustard greens every year, and I let some of them bolt to produce the profusion of small yellow flowers. Flowers from the mustard family are magnets for beneficial wasps. Other members of this family are arugula, radishes, broccoli and even sweet alyssum.

It's so important to a balanced garden to correctly identify insects. I know many gardeners who assume that any bug is a bad bug, and immediately begin spraying. Using pesticides needlessly pollutes the environment and also kills many beneficial insects in the process. By recognizing and encouraging beneficial insects to reside in your garden, you will have a healthier garden that actually takes less work.

Get to Know the Good Guys
It takes a little work to learn to identify the good guys, but once you do recognize them you'll get a smile every time you see one in your garden, knowing it's helping you take care of your plants. In a naturally balanced garden, the goal is to determine the pest levels that are tolerable and then control or minimize problems, not eradicate them. Trying to get rid of every least bug seldom works without using fairly strong chemicals.

The best thing you can do if you don't recognize a bug is to catch it in a small jar where you can observe it carefully and make your identification. Then either get on the Internet, get to the library, or take the bug to the county extension office for help.

Here are a few examples of some of the good guys:
Aphid midges are delicate little "mosquito copies" with long legs. The larvae are bright orange, about an eighth of an inch long, and prey on about 60 species of aphids.

Assassin bugs are quite distinct with long narrow heads and curving beaks, these may have elaborately flared crests on their back ends. Some are brightly colored, and the adults and nymphs feed on flies and large caterpillars, especially tomato hornworm.

Big-eyed bugs look similar to boxelder bugs except they are gray or brown instead of red, and have huge eyes. They eat all types of caterpillars, spider mites, aphids, leafhoppers, mealybugs and flea beetles.

Ground beetles are the long-legged beetles in blue-black or dark brown with a shiny coat that we see darting under rocks and brush during the day. They prey on slugs, cutworms and cabbage root maggots in the soil. Some types also go after Colorado potato beetle larvae, gypsy moth and tent caterpillars.

Lacewings are ethereal pale green or brown flying insects with the large delicate wings. Although the adults don't eat, the nymphs, resembling little alligators, are voracious feeders on aphids, thrips, mealybugs, small caterpillars and mites.

Rove beetles look similar to earwigs, so don't be so quick to squash. They have short stubby wings and a long abdomen that can resemble the pincers of the earwig. They fold their abdomen up over itself when disturbed. They love aphids, springtails, nematodes, fly eggs and maggots.

Last but not least, ladybugs are familiar to all of us and are well known for their taste for aphids. However, their larvae may not be as familiar. These also look like short alligators, black with red stripes, and they have huge mouths for feasting.

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