Not all bugs are bad. Some are even beneficial, especially as more and more gardeners go organic or limit the use of pesticides in their gardens or landscapes. Some desirable results of beneficial insects, like the lady bugs, include pest control, improved habitat balance and the enhancement of the natural vitality of a garden or landscape.
Beneficial insects help by providing biological control of other insects or by providing a service, such as pollination, that is helpful to plant growth or propagation. Examples of beneficial insects include lady bugs, assassin bugs and lacewings.
Managing non-beneficial or pest insects by employing the use of their natural enemies is one of the oldest means of pest control. While most beneficial insects are harmless to people and plants, they are still natural predators or parasites that can kill or disable various pest insects. Common pest insects include aphids, spider mites, caterpillars, thrips, flies, mosquitoes and fire ants.
Advantages to this method of pest control using beneficial insects include:
- Requires a minimum of effort by the gardener.
- Helps prevent development of pesticide resistance in target insects.
- Does not contribute to environmental pollution.
- Aids in maintaining a more natural balance in our ecosystem.
- Beneficial insects can often keep pace with pest populations.
Know your enemies and your friends. Beneficial insects are almost certainly already in your yard or garden. Before using any pest control strategy, it is vital to identify accurately what is really causing the problem and what will really remedy it. Know the physical and behavioral characteristics of insect species. Inspecting your plant about every two weeks will go a long way in preventing and controlling enemy invasions. Frequent inspections will reveal pests when they are still small or immature and not quite so numerous. An inspection may reveal that beneficial insects are all the control that plants need.
Encouraging beneficial insects by providing them with optimal living and propagating conditions is a useful pest control strategy. Like any living thing, insects need shelter. Suitable shelter can be provided by leaving some leaf litter in landscape beds and/or periodically replenishing mulch in landscape beds to give ground-dwelling allies a place to hide. Ground cover plants can provide not only a home but pollen, nectar and prey for some types of predators and parasitoids. In general, the greater the diversity of plants in a landscape, the more likely that diverse types of beneficial insects will establish “residency.” Also, use non-chemical controls when possible, including pruning, hand-picking, covering plants with net, etc.
Upon saying all this, it should be noted that there are many valid reasons for the use of chemical controls: excessive plant damage, time constraints and economic impact are among the many factors to consider. Because of potential environmental and personal consequences, the appropriate, safe use of pesticides cannot be over-emphasized enough. Use the least toxic chemical that will achieve the goal, such as horticultural oils and insecticidal soap. Broad spectrum insecticides will impact beneficial insects as well as pests.
Bottom line, before picking up that can of bug spray, know if the insect is friend or foe. Relying on beneficial insects is not just “letting nature take its course.” Like any other gardening tool, it requires education, effort, patience and awareness.
For more information about this topic contact the AgriLife Extension office, Clay County at (940) 538-5042.