Have you ever had to hand-pollinate a flowering plant? What about combat garden pests?
If you’re like me, you have felt like Mel Gibson in Braveheart a time or two as you battle with what seems like an entire army of pests. Well, it’s time to call in the back-ups…beneficial insects!
Not only will they pollinate our flowers, they will fight alongside us in the battle.
Why You Want to Attract Beneficials to Your Garden
The most common answer is for pollination. The transfer of pollen from one flower to another fertilizes the plant so it can produce food.
Some of the main pollinators include:
While there are other methods of pollination such as wind, the estimate is that 87.5% of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals.
Predators of Garden Pests
In addition to pollinating our flowering edibles, I like to attract beneficials because so many are predators of garden pests. That’s right – since garden pests are my enemies, I bring in their enemies. Mmmwwwahahahahahha! Many beneficials in both the larva and adult stage devour numerous garden pests, making our jobs as gardeners much easier when protecting our plants.
While some beneficials eat garden pests, others use them as a host. Laying their eggs in or on the garden pest. For example, some adult braconid wasp lay eggs on a host, and the larvae consume the host before emerging and moving into the next phase in their life cycle.
In all seriousness though, the goal is not to have NO bugs. Having garden pests is a way of attracting beneficial insects to your garden because they are a food source. You want balance – not elimination. If you got rid of ALL of your pests, you wouldn’t have any of the beneficials.
Learn How to Identify the Beneficials (the Good Guys)
First things first, in order to assess whether or not you have any beneficials, or whether or not they are increasing in number, you need to be able to identify them. Make sure you know what they look like throughout their entire life cycle – not just as adults.
When I first saw the bug in the picture above, I thought it looked like a garden pest. After doing some research, I discovered that it is a ladybug larva which hatches hungry, ready to devour aphids and other soft-bodied pests.
If you aren’t an expert on beneficials, no problem! Sign up to join a Facebook group that allows you to post pictures and ask questions. Antman’s Hill is a great group to join to help you identify insects! Another option is to invest in a book that can be out in the garden with you whenever it’s needed. Personally, I love The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way, because I’m a visual learner and there are lots of pictures to help with the identification process.
Either way, make sure you know how to properly identify both the good and bad bugs as you observe your garden so you don’t accidentally eliminate some of the good guys.
How to Attract Beneficial Insects to Your Garden
Provide Food: Pollen and Nectar
Just like us, bugs need food, and they won’t survive where there isn’t any present. Flowers with pollen, nectar and/or seeds provide food.
When choosing flowers for pollinators, here are a few key considerations:
- diversity is key
- native plants are best at attracting native beneficial insects
- plant flowers in large sections
Plant a Wide Range of Flowering Plants
Diversity is key meaning you want a wide range of flowering plants. One of the most important aspects to consider is to provide blooms from early spring until late fall so there is a continuous food source for pollinators that emerge at various times. In addition to varying bloom times, select a variety of colors and sizes.
Since many pollinators are just starting to wake up in spring, you want to have food ready for them. Start by selecting flowering plants that bloom in early spring. One way to ensure you have blooms in early spring is to let some of your fall plants go to seed, or flower.
Below is an example of our cilantro plants going to seed. The small clusters of flowers are attractive to many pollinators, due to their small mouth parts, and are often what brings the first bees of the season to my garden.
In addition to offering a wide variety, be sure to include plant species that are native to your environment. Native plants will be more likely to resist weeds, disease and pests since they are better adapted to your environment. Additionally, they will more likely attract native species of beneficials to your growing space.
Plant in Large Sections
When planting flowers for beneficials, plant in large sections. There are a few reasons to use this method. In terms of flying pollinators, think of it as constructing a landing pad for a plane – it’s easier to see from the sky if there is a large chunk of a single species of flower as opposed to small dots of that species spread out in small sections. Additionally, flowers do well when grouped together just as your vegetables do well planted with their other family members who have similar needs (water and light requirements, soil preference, etc.).
If you already have flowers spread around your garden, don’t worry. I have done this for years and have always attracted plenty of pollinators. Just plan to group them together when you can.
If you need help selecting flowering plants, ask your local garden store about native plants that have both pollen and nectar and varying bloom times. You can also search for host plants (e.g. butterfly host plants) for your area.
Provide a Water Source
All living organisms, including beneficial insects, need water to survive. Provide a space with water, such as a small saucer, fountain or bird bath.
If mosquitoes are an issue in your area (I feel ya – there are months in North Texas where it’s best to just stay inside at night), make sure the water is moving, and change it every few days.
Provide Shelter for Pollinators
If you have land and the option of leaving part of it undisturbed is appealing to you, this may be your best option for attracting native pollinators because wildflowers and weeds will naturally grow, providing both habitat and shelter.
Observe your space and take note of where pollinators hang out so you can try to determine where their nests are located. Are there any areas they hang out that seem unusual? Perhaps they have a nest underground, along your house, or on a fence. If so, try to leave these spaces undisturbed, when possible, while maintaining your growing space.
While having part of your yard dedicated to growing wild may sound enchanting to some, I know it may not for others. Additionally, you may have an HOA or city ordinance that doesn’t allow it. If this is the case, plan to have a section of your garden dedicated to flowering plants that you don’t disturb while you maintain your garden space.
Provide Shelter for Other Beneficial Insects
Other beneficials can find shelter in mulch, leaf litter and leafy plants. The soil is like the skin of your garden so you don’t want to it leave it bare regardless – this is just another reason why it’s good to mulch. As you observe your garden, take note of where insects hang out and be mindful of them as you move about your growing space.
Keep It Natural
If you want to keep beneficial insects around – bottom line – don’t use the “-cides”. This includes insecticide, herbicide, fungicide and pesticide. The suffix -cide indicates a person or substance that kills, and these substances often kill or harm the beneficial insects along with the pests.
Last summer, I had a major infestation of squash bugs. It seems like overnight there was an entire army of them. I totally understand the overwhelm and desire to get rid of them. A hard spray of water or handpicking the bugs off plants are my top two recommendations for when you need to take action. Remember, though, the goal isn’t total elimination. The bad bugs attract the good bugs, so you need some of them. And don’t forget, nature has an amazing way of keeping balance when there aren’t interventions.
Start by learning to identify the most common beneficial insects in your area throughout their life cycle. Then, provide food, water and shelter to meet their needs and attract them to your growing space. Above all, keep it as natural as possible, allowing nature to work for you!