If you’re a gardener, you put a lot of time and effort into caring for your plants—up with the morning sun, weeding, watering, weeding, tending, and harvesting.
It’s not an easy job—and aside from the work you put in, you spend a considerable amount of money to produce the beautiful fruit, flowers, and vegetables we all love.
When it comes to garden pests, it’s no doubt you’ve had your efforts thwarted from one or more insects. But not all insects are bad for your garden, and you want to be certain which ones are going to be your helpers and which are going to kill your efforts.
As a gardener, your chances of success are increased by understanding and identifying which bugs are friends and which are foes. To help you identify those that are good to keep around, we’ve compiled a list of the beneficial insects that will help reduce the populations of destructive pests in your garden—and sooth your frustration during the growing season.
Check out this list and you might have a new perception about some of the insects you see—what you might have been tempted to get rid of may turn out to be your best friend.
Damsel bugs are garden friends that feed on those pesky aphids that can be such a problem for gardeners. These beneficial insects also feed on small caterpillars, leafhoppers, thrips, and other pests. To bring more damsel bugs into your garden, you can collect them from alfalfa fields using a sweep net and release them in your garden.
Braconid Wasps get rid of caterpillars, moths, beetle larvae, and aphids by injecting their eggs into their hosts. The host dies when the larvae complete their development. One way to attract these wasps is to grow nectar plants with small flowers, like dill, parsley, wild carrot, and yarrow.
Yes, it’s true that yellow jackets can be fearful, especially if you are allergic to them. But these insects do have a redeeming quality in that they are prey on pests. They use flies, caterpillars, and other larvae to feed their young. If your safety and your pets’ safety is not threatened, leave the gray paper nests of yellow jackets alone to help control your pest population.
Both adults and larvae of lady beetles eat pests such as aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites. Lady beetles are sold to gardeners and are most effective confined to a greenhouse. The larvae are the most beneficial and huge predators of soft-bodied problem insects, especially aphids. To provide the most benefit for your garden, familiarize yourself with the appearance of the ladybug larvae, so you don’t try to kill these alligator-looking spiny creatures.
Ground beetles are help to control one of California’s biggest pest problems by eating their eggs: snails. They also prey on cabbage root maggots, cutworms, slug eggs, and other pests like armyworms and tent caterpillars. Ground beetles hide under stones or boards, so don’t expect to see them much, but their numbers are large under undisturbed groundcovers and under stone pathways and mulched beds. Ground beetles are nocturnal in nature, so don’t expect to see them often in your garden, unless you are digging around in the mulch.
Rove Beetles are predators of root maggots that spend part of their life cycle in the soil. They have short top wings and long bodies, like an earwig without pincers. Rove beetles have the habit of raising the end of their bodies like a scorpion when disturbed or frightened. For beetles that eat insect larvae, slugs, and snails, your garden will thrive with the addition of hister beetles, tiger, beetles, and fireflies.
If you have problems with tent caterpillars or armyworms, tachinid flies can naturally suppress outbreaks of these pests. They also lay their eggs on cutworms, caterpillars, corn borers, stinkbugs, and other pests. Tachinid flies are similar in shape and size to houseflies, and often go unnoticed, but their predatory habits on garden pests make a good friend in the garden, indeed.
Syrphid Flies, which look like bees or yellow jackets and are also known as flower or hover flies, lay eggs in aphid colonies and the larvae in turn feed on the aphids. What’s important with Syrphid flies is to become familiar with the appearance of their larvae and know the difference between these slug-like maggots and actual slugs. The Syrphid fly larvae are beneficial; slugs are not.
Available for purchase from commercial insertaries, Aphid midges are helpful insects to have around your home greenhouse. The larvae of these very small orange maggots have a huge appetite for aphids. Aphids are one of the #1 pests for California gardeners, so trying out aphid midges to help save your plants can be a great investment in your garden.
Although not technically insects (like spiders, mites belong to a larger classification that includes insects called arthopods), predatory mites are beneficial to your garden by controlling populations of plant-destroying mites such as spider mites, rust mites, and cyclamen mites. They also prey on thrips and other small pests by eating insect eggs and fungus gnat larvae. They are found in trees, shrubs, and surface mulch, as well as in soil.
Another arthropod like mites, spiders are some of the best friends to have in your garden. The different types of webs and silk tunnels that spiders spin are perfect for catching insect prey that is destroying your plants. Spiders might make you uneasy, but it’s a relief to know they are watching out for your garden, too.
As with any worthwhile undertaking, gardening has its challenges, like pests who eat your plants, as well as its rewards, like biting into a vine-ripened juicy tomato at the peak of growing season. With the help of some of these beneficial insects, you have a greater chance of overcoming the challenges while reaping a bigger harvest of nature’s finest fruits, flowers, vegetables, and herbs.