The Good Bugs
Beneficial garden critters prey on the insects that damage your plants. These good bugs are a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to chemical insecticides that wipe out every insect, good or bad. But before you buy one or more of these critters online, you need to know what it is you’re trying to control so that you arm yourself with the right predatory insect. Keep in mind that, despite your best efforts, there’s no guarantee that your good bugs will remain on your property once you release them. You’ll have the most success if you release them at the first sign of a problem. If you’re lucky, one "dose" of the right predator will be enough to control a pest population, but subsequent applications throughout the growing season aren’t uncommon.
Sometimes called aphid lions, green lacewings have an insatiable appetite for spider mites, aphids, thrips, whiteflies, and insect eggs. Unfortunately, they also consume butterfly eggs and small caterpillars, so pollinator gardeners should beware. Green lacewings are shipped as eggs, larvae, or adults, but it is the larvae that feed on scores of soft-bodied insects for two to three weeks before entering the adult cycle. Because adults feed on pollen and nectar, they don’t actively control pest populations, but they do help the cause by laying eggs throughout the yard. Available from GreenMethods.com as eggs, larvae, or adults; prices vary.
Lady Beetles (Ladybugs)
They’re the most popular of all beneficial insects, and the most misunderstood by homeowners who have aphid problems. Adult ladybugs aren’t the big eaters—their larvae are. But it can be challenging to keep the adults on your property long enough for them to lay eggs. You’re more likely to succeed if you release them at night into a soaking wet garden that's plagued with aphids. Ladybugs will not fly once the sun goes down, nor will they remain long in a dry location. Also, when you buy ladybugs, they'll probably be thirsty when they arrive, so depositing them in a wet environment may make them more likely to stick around. Then, if you're lucky, they'll quickly encounter a tasty aphid or two and decide to linger long enough to lay eggs in your garden. Available on Amazon; $3.25 for 1,500 ladybugs.
There are two main types of soil-dwelling beneficial nematodes, Heterorhabditis and Steinernema. Each targets a specific kind of pest, so you'll need to know the pest in order to buy the right nematode. For example, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora nematodes, often sold as Hb nematodes, have proven effective for the management of Japanese beetle grubs in the lawn. The microscopic soil-dwelling nematodes live close to the surface, burrowing in search of grubs that they parasitize and kill before moving on to the next host. Success depends on applying the nematodes when your target pest is close to the surface of the soil, which for most grubs is usually sometime between July and September. Available on Amazon; $21.99.
Turn kitchen scraps into garden gold with red wigglers. When you compost with worms, or vermicompost, you feed your non-meat scraps to the worms and let them do the dirty work in an aerated bin, ideally indoors. They’ll also process paper and cardboard. As they devour the scraps, red wigglers produce waste (known as castings) that contributes valuable nutrients when added to garden soil or houseplants. Available from UncleJimsWormFarm.com; $14.95 for 100 worms.
Unlike other wasp species, parasitic wasps like Trichogramma pose no danger to humans, yet these tiny insects can spell death for gypsy moths, army worms, tomato worms, web worms, borers, and about 150 other species of moths and caterpillars. The adult wasp injects its eggs into the egg of the host species, preventing it from hatching and effectively cutting off the life cycle of the pest. Parasitic wasps are especially valued by home gardeners who grow tomatoes and cabbage, because these beneficial insects target tomato hornworms and cabbage worms that could otherwise decimate entire crops. Available on Amazon; $12.99 for 12,000 eggs.
Wikimedia Commons via Dr Victor Fursov
The mason bee is one of approximately 4,000 species of bee that are native to North America. But unlike many others, the mason bee is a gentle, solitary hole-nesting soul that won’t hurt you or your home. Female mason bees lay their eggs in nests they build in existing holes in fences or in natural crevices. A single mason bee can pollinate your garden better than hundreds of honeybees, and they require far less work to maintain. Adding mason bees to the garden is a great way to alleviate the pressure we put on honeybees to pollinate our flowers and vegetables. Available from MasonBeesForSale.com; $19.99 for approximately 25 bees.
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