One of the common frustrations of gardening is having to deal with creepy, crawly insects that chew up the leaves of your plants and their fruits once they eventually make them, with bugs such as aphids, snails and mealybugs being some of the notable offenders.
But not all bugs are bad, and in fact, there are many insects that are highly beneficial either because they eat the bad bugs, or they pollinate your plants, or they even aid in breaking down organic matter such as compost and turning it into soil. Garden and bug experts say there’s a litany of good bugs you want to have around, some of which you can buy from stores and many others that you can attract to your garden naturally.
Store bought bugs and how to care for them
Take a trip to a garden store and you’ll likely find some of those beneficial bugs for sale.
Justin McKeever, a plant specialist at H&H Nursery in Lakewood, said that some of the bugs available for purchase at the nursery include predatory insects that eat the harmful insects in a garden and those include ladybugs, praying mantises, lacewings and beneficial nematodes but his business also sells worms for composting.
There are certain care considerations that you want to think about when putting out these store bought bugs, but perhaps one of the most important things is timing.
“Most of these insects you want to apply in the very early morning or even more advisable, toward the evening as the sun starts to go down,” McKeever said.
He said that’s especially the case with ladybugs because they’re active during the day and they rest at night. Letting them out during the hot, sunny daytime makes them more likely to take off and look for food elsewhere.
Quinn Bork, owner of Shore Gardens Nursery in San Clemente, recommends keeping the bugs in the fridge before putting them outside because that will help keep them dormant.
“Water the garden first so there’s water there and ideally put them near a plant that might have a food source like aphids for them to munch on and if the conditions are right the ladybugs will mate and lay eggs all around and actually the lady bug larvae is more voracious of an eater and will eat more than the adults,” Bork said.
For the praying mantises, which come inside eggs, Bork says it’s good to keep them them somewhere where you can check them every day and notice when they’re hatching out and then release them in the garden.
McKeever recommends keeping the container with the eggs inside the house for a week or two, or until they’ve started to hatch.
Building a habitat
Doug Yanega, senior museum scientist for the Entomology Research Museum at UC Riverside, said that it’s better to create conditions in your garden that will draw the bugs in rather than buying the bugs.
“The rule of thumb for getting beneficial insects into your garden is the field of dreams,” Yanega said. “It’s the principle if you build it they will come. If you make a nice a garden that has native plants in it then you will attract the native insects that benefit from that garden. You can make it into an ecosystem that will become better sustaining. It’s not the kind of thing that you can really push by buying stuff and bringing things in, except for the plants themselves.”
Yanega strongly recommends native plants to bring those insects in.
“Any good nursery should know what proper native vegetation is like and what grows in a certain climatic zone and things like that,” he said. “They should be able to help people find good choices for their garden.”
Carrie-Anne Parker, owner of plant grower Rolling Hills Herbs and Heirloom Annuals in Redlands, recommends planting a diverse array of plants.
“It’s about not having a monoculture,” she said explaining that adding fruit trees will attract pollinators, having trees that drop their leaves will give things like earthworms a food source to turn into soil and having flowers will attract things like aphids, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She said that contributes to the start of an ecosystem by providing a food source for things like ladybugs.
“If you just leave them a little bit of the time ladybugs are going to find them anyway,” she said.
Bork, from the nursery in San Clemente, said it’s a good idea to go easy on the pesticides because a lot of them will kill bugs, including the good ones, indiscriminately.
He said it’s better to have some pests.
“You’ll have some of the bad stuff but you’ll have enough of the predatory insects to kind of keep it at a balance,” he said.
One natural remedy for keeping away bad insects, Bork said, is by planting marigolds because they mask the odor of plants bad bugs might attack such as tomatoes.
“And also snails like to eat marigolds, so they’ll go after the marigolds first and leave your plants alone,” he said.
Good bug with bad clout
Plenty of bugs get a bad rap when maybe they shouldn’t.
“People are so afraid of spiders, but spiders are an amazing predator,” Parker said, adding they’re great for eating mites that can attack vegetable plants.
McKeever said that people often go after a bug called a Wolf Mealybug thinking it’s a pest, but it’s actually one of the good guys that eats other mealybugs.
“It’s a predatory mealybug that’s got kind of a curly white hair on the outside of it and people end up targeting specifically thinking that those are bad pests for the garden and definitely those would be be beneficial,” he said.
Another bug that’s gotten bad clout, McKeever said, is what’s known as an Assassin Bug.
“Elsewhere in the United States it’s become a nuisance and can even bite people, but here, by all intents and purposes would be beneficial in the garden,” he said, explaining the Assassin Bugs are opportunists that will take down a lot of different bugs, but mostly the bad ones.
Yanega said that wasps, scary as they may be, are also good.
“Some of the things that are among the best predators to have around, paper wasps and yellowjackets, most people if they see them they’re going to kill them,” he said. “People generally don’t like having yellowjackets or paper wasps around their house but they’re doing a positive thing for your garden having them around they’re keeping the caterpillars under control.”
Yanega said people will often delight in seeing butterflies in their garden but in actually butterflies are often eating their plants.
“It’s funny how that works, but that’s public relations,” he said. “Butterflies have good public relations officers and paper wasps have bad ones.”