Beneficial insects can be more than a happy accident in your yard. By taking active steps to create an insect-friendly habitat, you can encourage beneficials to take up residence in your landscape. When you cultivate a garden that supports and sustains beneficial insects, you’re partnering with nature in your pest control efforts. It’s green gardening at its best. Take these easy steps to roll out the welcome mat for beneficial insects.
1. Keep ‘Em Fed
Like any living creature, beneficial insects need food. Grow plenty of flowering plants to offer sources of nectar and pollen. Nectar provides amino acids and sugar that insects need to survive; pollen serves the protein that fuels insects’ busy lives.
To maximize the food you’re providing to beneficials, follow these steps:
- Mix it up. Plant a variety of flower shapes, colors, and fragrances to attract the most insects. Terrific flower shapes to include are:
- Plan for continuous bloom. Choose plants that flower in different seasons—including early spring. Sweet alyssum, pansy, viola, and dianthus fit the bill, as does everyone’s favorite lawn weeds—dandelion and creeping Charlie. Plant autumn bloomers, such as garden mums, goldenrod, and aster, to fuel fall insects.
- Include herbs. Many beneficials can’t resist herbs in bloom. Bee balm, dill, oregano, rosemary, and thyme offer plentiful flowers.
- Let vegetables flower. Allow a plant or two of broccoli, lettuce, and beet to bloom, and beneficials will swarm them.
- Plant in drifts. It’s easiest for an insect to spot a food source when it’s massed in the landscape. A clump also means a beneficial insect expends less energy as it moves from one plant to another—and it’s less visible to predators as it searches for food.
- Add flowers to vegetable gardens. Tuck flowering plants among your food-producing crops, in the ground or in pots. If space permits, create a blooming border to surround one or more sides of your vegetable garden.
2. Offer Water
Provide a reliable source of clean water. Saucers, birdbaths, fountains, and in-ground water features all work. Give insects easiest access to water with shallow sources and sloping sides. Consider incorporating shallow saucers or rocks with indentations into your planting areas to hold water for insects.
3. Stage Shelter
Beneficial insects need places to hide and reproduce. Design a landscape planted in layers—trees, shrubs, perennials, and lawn—to provide the most shelter possibilities for beneficial insects.
Things like leaf litter, hedgerows, perennial beds, and compost piles all provide wonderful insect habitat. On the other hand, many native bees and other beneficials nest in the ground and need areas of bare soil (no mulch).
4. Limit Pesticide Use
Choose non-chemical methods of insect control, such as hand-picking pests, pruning out infestations, or using row covers.
Don’t hang bug zapper lights for pest control! Research shows that these lights frequently kill more beneficial insects than problem ones.
If you must spray pesticides, follow these tips to limit harming beneficial insects:
- Choose and use the least toxic insecticide that will provide control.
- Avoid spraying when plants are flowering, since the blossoms attract beneficials.
- Spray during calm conditions. Wind disperses chemicals to other crops and can even intercept beneficial insects in flight.
- Apply pesticides during times of day when insects are least active: very early morning, late evening/dusk, after dark.
5. Walk the Garden
Every day, walk through your garden and inspect the plants. Keep an eye out for insects, along with other plant problems, such as stress or disease. When you catch problems early, they’re easier to eradicate.
6. Know Your Bugs
Researchers estimate that 97 percent of all insects in a garden aren’t causing damage. It’s important to know which insects are pests, which are beneficials, and which are just living their bug lives, doing no harm.
When you can identify an insect as a beneficial, you’ll know that a pest control solution is already at work—and there’s need for limited action on your part. Learn about common beneficial insects.