Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2004
Regional Report

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Healthy plants will withstand the munching of this monarch butterfly caterpillar.

Know Your Insects

Every now and then, John Q. Public brings in squashed orange "bugs" into the Extension office where I work for identification. "They're all over my cilantro," he says. "How do I get rid of them?" It sends a sad little shudder up my spine, because the victims are ladybeetle larvae and are doing no harm to the cilantro. Although perhaps not as pretty or as readily identified as the adult ladybeetle, the larvae are voracious and efficient aphid consumers.

It isn't a good idea to stalk about your garden with a can of insecticide at hand to zap all insects that you see. Experts estimate that only a small percentage, perhaps less than five percent, of all insect species have the capability to become real pests. Most insects that visit our gardens are beneficial, pollinating flowers so that tomatoes set fruit, or acting as predators or parasites on true pests.

Mother Nature seeks balance. You can help this balancing act by eliminating or reducing pesticide spraying, as most pesticides are indiscriminate. If aphids start appearing on tender new shoots, and you don't spray pesticides, it is a good bet that various beneficials will soon move in to make a meal of them. Wait a few days to see if ladybeetle adults and larvae, green lacewing larvae, parasitic wasps and syrphid fly larvae don't take care of pest control tactics for you. Note that if your fruiting plants, such as peppers, squash, and melons, aren't setting fruit, lack of pollinators may be an issue. Do you spray often or on a regular schedule? Consider eliminating pesticide use and see if that makes a difference.

Learn to identify all the life stages of beneficial insects so you don't mistakenly destroy them. For example, the ladybeetle adult lays eggs in orange clusters. They hatch as orange and dark bluish black or bluish gray larvae with a tapered shape that is often described as a mini-alligator. The pupae are black and orange with a round shape.

Another important factor influencing natural pest control is change in weather conditions. Many insects are temperature-dependent. Whiteflies reproduce rapidly during warm weather but die off when cold temperatures arrive; aphids prefer cooler temperatures and disappear when it heats up. Sometimes just waiting for the weather to change is all that's needed.

Finally, the best thing you can do for pest control is to grow healthy plants. Pests seek out distressed plants for attack. And even if healthy plants do harbor some pests, they are better able to fend them off. That black-, white-, and yellow-striped caterpillar that is consuming milkweed foliage at a fast pace will eventually turn into a monarch butterfly. A healthy plant can withstand some damage. Choose plants that are well-suited for your growing conditions and maintain them properly. Make sure plants aren't stressed for water or nutrients, and keep weed populations under control. Then sit back and enjoy the butterflies!

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