As much of a green thumb as you think you do (or don’t) have, no gardener should be fooled into thinking they’re solely responsible for the productivity of their crops. A host of beneficial insects are at work to help increase the yield and ensure the health of your tomatoes, squash and broccoli plants, providing gardens anything from pollination services to pest control. While you might be quite familiar with the work of pollinators, like bees and butterflies, below are some helpful bugs that take on a different role, specializing in getting rid of pests that cause damage. By taking steps to secure the habitats and food sources of these predatory insects, you can say bye-bye to harmful pest-control chemicals for good.
1. Damsel Bugs
(Nabidae family, 40+ species)
These slender, tan insects are a mere 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. They have stilt-like legs and a narrow head. Nymphs are smaller than adults and without wings. Damsel bugs have enlarged front legs that are used for capturing insect prey.
Damsel bugs are generalist predators who will eat pretty much whatever they can catch, including insect eggs, aphids, small caterpillars, corn earworms, cabbageworms, leafhoppers, larval sawflies, mites, asparagus beetles, potato and bean beetles, and many other pest insects.
Damsel bugs are not attracted to any one plant in particular, but like many beneficial insects, they prefer garden and farm habitats that host a broad diversity of plants. Most damsel bugs overwinter as adults, taking shelter in low plants, grasses, and groundcovers. Maintain a mixture of many layers of flowering and non-flowering plants to encourage this insect.
2. Syrphid, Hover or Flower Flies
(Syrphidae family, around 900 species)
A very diverse group of flies, the syrphid family hosts a lot of physical diversity. Adults are often brightly colored with stripes or other markings. Many species mimic bees in their coloration. Adults can be anywhere between 1/6 and 1 inch long. Larvae are small, legless, slug-like maggots that are often found crawling around colonies of pest insects.
Adult syrphid flies eat pollen and nectar, while the larvae are busy chowing down on various soft-bodied insects, including aphids, thrips, leafhoppers, scales and caterpillars. Each maggot can consume several hundred insects during its larval stage.
Because adult syrphid flies consume pollen and nectar, it’s important to provide them with as many flowering plants as possible, from early season until first frost. They are particularly fond of members of the aster family (Asteraceae) and the carrot family (Apiaceae).Having a diversity of flowering plants in and around fields and gardens supports a great number of these very beneficial insects.
(many families, thousands of species)
Lacewings are among the most beautiful insects in the garden. With large, clear, lace-like wings, slender bodies and arching antennae, adult lacewings are breathtaking. Most species are nocturnal, and three main families exist: the green lacewings, the brown lacewings and the dustywings. Adults can measure between 1/4 and 1 inch long, depending on the species. Larvae are tiny, alligator-like creatures, a mere 1/6 to 1/4 inch long, with a large pair of curved jaws and a long tapered abdomen.
Most lacewings consume nectar and pollen as adults, though some species of brown lacewing adults are also predators. Larvae are generalist or specialist predators that eat such garden nasties as small caterpillars, aphids, mealybugs, beetles, lacebugs, whiteflies, and assorted insect larvae.
Like all beneficial insects, lacewings are extremely susceptible to pesticides, so be sure to eliminate them from your gardening routine. They are most attracted to diverse garden habitats, rich in the nectar they need as adults. Include plenty of small-flowering plants in the landscape.
(Coccinellidae family, 480+ species)
You may think that all ladybugs are red with black spots, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The diversity in the ladybug world is incredible! Some are yellow, brown, cream, orange, black, grey or pink. They can have lots of spots, spots that meld together, bands, stripes, mottling or no markings at all. However, all species are dome-shaped with hard wing covers, very short antennae and six legs. Larvae look much link miniature alligators with six legs and a long, tapered abdomen.
Both mature and immature ladybugs are predators, though both will also consume nectar and pollen. In fact, all adult ladybugs need the carbohydrates in nectar before reproduction can occur. Both adults and larvae are often found eating aphids, scale, mites, mealybugs, caterpillars, insect eggs and pupae, whitelflies, mites, psyllids and many others.
Ladybugs do not have specialized mouthparts for accessing nectar from deep, tubular flowers, like bees or butterflies do. Because of this, they need to source nectar from shallow, exposed flowers. Members of the Apiaceae family are ideal candidates, including dill, fennel, angelica, parsley, cilantro and wild parsnip.
5. Parasitic Wasps (40 different families, with thousands of species)
With a tremendous diversity of physical appearances, parasitic wasps are a complex group of insects. They can be as small as a gnat or as long as a dragonfly. In general, most are not capable of stinging humans, and all use other insects as hosts for their developing young. Adult wasps insert eggs into host insects and the resulting larvae spend their entire life within the host insect.
While adult wasps are exclusive consumers of pollen and nectar, they use hundreds of different insects as hosts for their developing young, including aphids, beetles, flies, scales, true bugs and caterpillars of every sort. They attack almost every group of insects in every part of the world. Common examples include the cotesia wasp that is often found pupating on the back of tomato and tobacco hornworms, aphidius wasps that use aphids to house and feed their young, leaving swollen, brown “aphid mummies” behind, and Trichogramma wasps that target only insect eggs.
Because parasitic wasps can be as small as a gnat or longer than your pinky finger, it’s extremely critical to have a broad selection of flowers from which they can source nectar and pollen. In general, they prefer feeding from tiny flowers in the Asteraceae and Apiaceae families, with the carrot family being much preferred.