Attracting beneficial insects to the garden

Apr. 09, 2013 @ 04:23 PM

Bugs, insects, pests — whether they are creepy-crawlies and air-borne, our garden is full of them. But not all insects are pests! Some bugs are quite beneficial to our garden because these good guys don’t feed on our plants but rather feed on the pests that do damage in our landscape. In fact, researchers estimate that 97% of all insects in the garden are not causing any harm. We can use as much help as we can get to naturally control the pests that chew holes in leaves or suck the juice out of our vegetable and ornamental plants. By encouraging our insect allies, we can naturally protect our plants and reduce the use of pesticides in the garden.

Let’s face it, most insects are a bit scary looking and therefore assumed to be up to no good, so the first place to start is by identifying which bugs are the “good guys” and which are the “bad”. Use the search engine term “identifying beneficial insects”  to find some great online pictorial resources. One of my favorites is the simple “Pocket Field Guide, Recognizing Beneficial Insects in the Yard” by the Louisville Water Company, Louisville, KY. Print out this free guide and hand it to the young explorers in your family and you are sure to keep them occupied for the afternoon!

There are multiple ways to put out the welcome mat for beneficial insects in your garden:

Plant a beneficial buffet. By planting certain flowers and herbs in the garden, you provide a complimentary food supply that feeds beneficial insects when they are not feasting on other bugs. Include flowers such as marigolds, statice, salvia, sunflowers, sweet alyssum, and zinnias. Tuck culinary herbs such as chives, thyme and coriander (cilantro) between your vegetable plants. Flowering medicinal herbs such as yarrow, feverfew and lemon balm are also favorites. Cover crops such as buckwheat and hairy vetch not only benefit our soils but feed our beneficial insects too. Any plant that produces an “umbrella” shaped flower such as fennel, carrot, Queen Anne’s lace, parsley and dill provides a great “landing pad” for beneficial insects.The drinks are on us! Beneficial insects need liquid refreshment to go with the meaty bugs they find and vegetative buffet you offer. Provide clean water with garden features such as birdbaths, fountains or even a simple shallow saucer of water.Put a nice cover on the bed. Covering bare ground with a thick mulch of leaves or straw not only conserves water and smothers weeds, but provides a shelter for beneficial insects.Don’t leave the light on for them. Research shows that bug zapper lights kill more beneficial insects than pests.No poisons please! Using an insecticide with the words “broad-spectrum” or “persistent” on the label means the product will be toxic to every insect it comes in contact with - good or bad. Read the label on these products and you may find it is toxic to you too! Killing every insect in the garden may allow the pest population to recover quicker than the predator population, which creates an every bigger problem. Even “natural” insecticides must be used with caution and applied either very early in the morning, late in the evening (dusk) or after dark when our beneficial insects are not active.

Mary Roberts and Ray Tarlton are owners and managers of  Windcrest Farm, a USDA Certified Organic farm and greenhouse in Monroe, NC . Visit for more information about plants, produce and classes.