It’s been several years since Jessica Walliser’s work, Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, first came out. Since then—and after conducting hundreds of gardening talks—the author and horticulturalist has revised and updated her original book.
The new Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden is slated for release February 1, 2022. It provides more detail and nuance about the interconnected roles insects play in our garden ecosystems. And it covers what we can do to better understand and support these insects, too.
Walliser spoke with several accomplished entomologists for the new edition. “There’s so much research being done and that has been done on native plants and their ability to support pollinators,” she says. “But there hasn’t been a ton of research done on how native plants might better support predatory beneficial insects.”
Native plants provide much-needed pollen and nectar for native bees and butterflies. Many also serve as host plants for the larval (caterpillar) stage of moths and butterflies.
But, when it comes to beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs, soldier beetles and praying mantids? “A lot of these predatory insects at one stage of their lifecycle need to eat pollen and nectar,” Walliser notes. “They’re not just exclusively eating other bugs. They also need the carbohydrates in pollen and nectar.
“So, I thought, ‘Is the nectar of native plants more fit, so to speak, for them to eat, or does it really matter? And are there other ways that these native plants can help support beneficial predatory insects?’”
To find answers, Walliser consulted Dr. Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology And Wildlife Ecology. “There’s an interview now included that’s several pages long where he talks about those connections,” she says. “I really felt that—even after all the research that I had done on this book—they were connections that I had missed on the first go-round.”
In (& Out) of Synch
Walliser also connected with Dr. Daniel Herms. “He started The Ohio State University Phenology Network, which is where they look at the synchronization of events in the plant world, how they connect with the insect world, and how that is getting thrown off,” she explains.
Many specific plant-and-insect pairings have evolved over time, but recent changes in climate have contributed to some plant-and-insect mismatches. For example, warmer temperatures may cause certain plants to develop earlier—before some insects that normally feed on them have hatched.
Such missed connections can wreak havoc on insect populations and disrupt the natural food web.
“That interview [with Herms] presents some really good hard evidence about how the temperatures have advanced and how the development of plants have advanced by several days over the last few years,” Walliser continues. “All of those things can be very impactful to people and might convince them to make some changes.”
“I don’t garden for myself anymore, and I think there are millions of other gardeners who either have already made that transition themselves or are in the process of making the change,” Walliser says. “If millions of us start viewing our yards as important ecosystems for so many creatures other than us, our ability to make a positive impact is tremendous.”
Case in point? To strengthen their local ecosystems, many gardeners are now abandoning traditional fall cleanup. (Beneficial bugs like lacewings and ladybugs hunker down amongst the spent stems and fallen leaves in order to make it through winter.)
“It’s okay to leave everything standing,” Walliser says. “You should leave everything standing for the winter.”
Gardeners are also thinking differently about each of the insects they encounter in their landscapes. “The vast majority of insects that you come across in your garden are having a positive impact on it,” she says. “They’re not all malignant creatures out to do you in…. [Over] the last 10 years, gardeners have really embraced that.
“Instead of seeing a bug, freaking out, and spraying it no matter what, they’re taking the time to do the research.”
Sometimes that’s as simple as pulling up a chair and observing the goings-on in the garden. “Don’t just look at the big, beautiful flowers, but instead look what’s crawling up the stems of those flowers or on the leaves,” Walliser says. “Rather than squish that colony of aphids, pay attention to it. See who’s coming to eat them, who’s laying eggs in them, and who’s helping you to control them….
“That really brings a greater understanding to the whole ecosystem approach of gardening.”