Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
June, 2010
Regional Report

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If you spot ladybird beetles in the garden, let them do their thing. They can devour hundreds of soft-bodied insect pests.

Encourage Beneficial Insects to Your Garden

As the garden season progresses, it is inevitable that pests will soon visit. My honeysuckle vine is already being invaded by aphids. They cluster in masses on the new flower buds and start to exude sticky honeydew on the leaves below. But not to worry, the ladybird beetles are finding their way to the pests to have a feast.

This is the time to learn more about the beneficial insects that arrive in the garden and encourage their presence to keep the bad bugs at bay. Instead of reaching for the bug killer, let nature have her way to maintain a healthy ecosystem in your garden.

Some of the most frequent visitors to the garden include parasitic wasps from more than a dozen insect families. Among the tiniest of wasps, they are highly specific in their habits, attacking only one kind of insect species. Some prey on aphids, others develop only in scale insects, while my favorite parasitizes caterpillars.

Like the creatures from the movie "Alien," female parasitic wasps insert eggs into the body of these insect hosts. The eggs hatch within the host, and the developing wasp grubs usually kill the host insect within a week to 10 days. There can be several generations of wasps produced during the growing season.

Though they are best known as ladybugs, ladybird beetles are among the most widely recognized beneficial insects. Visit some of your local garden outlets and you will find convergent lady beetles for sale in packets of 500 or more. These are the classic reddish-orange beetles with bright black spots. Ladybird beetles are voracious eaters and will consume large quantities of soft-bodied insects including aphids, small caterpillars and scales.

Some gardeners bring insect samples to me, explaining how they killed the "ugly creatures" on their plants. After examining what they destroyed, I discover they eliminated the larval or young stages of the ladybird beetles.

The immature or larval stage of the ladybird beetle looks very different from the adult. One-quarter to one-half inch long, the black and orange larvae resemble miniature Gila monsters. You'll want these tiny larvae around because they will eat hundreds of aphids per day.

The moral to this scenario: Don't reach for the bug killer until you've identified the creature in your garden. Pesticides kill lots more than you think and will upset the natural balance in your garden.

How to Entice Friendly Critters to Your Garden
1. Lay off the use of pesticides at the first sign of a bug in your garden. Many pesticides kill beneficial insects as well as the pests.
2. Provide a source of water in the garden. This can be a small birdbath, shallow pond, or small dish filled with gravel and water.
3. Have a spot for shelter from wind and rain. A row of tall perennials, shrubbery, or ornamental grasses provides a buffer zone for insect predators to hide and later come out to hunt down the "bad guys."
4. Grow plants that are a source of nectar and pollen for our beneficial insects. These will attract them to the garden and give them something to eat while they wait for the insect prey to arrive or hatch from eggs. The flowers of some common herbs, such as dill, fennel, lemon balm, and spearmint, are plants that beneficial insects will visit. Many wildflowers, daisies, cosmos, yarrow, and legumes are also favored by beneficial insects.

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