A Healthy Garden is a Buggy Garden

Collage with several species of lady beetles. © 2006 Beatriz Moisset

I have in my hands a book published in 1941. It is hard to find because it has been out of print for many years; but, thanks to the sleuthing skills of my stepson, I received it as a gift a few Christmases ago.

Frank E. Lutz, an entomologist and gardener, wrote A Lot of Insects in which he tells us about all the six-legged fauna of his large suburban yard. He noticed that native plants were good at attracting what he called guests and residents of this realm. His property was located near the center of a small town not far from New York City. In the course of a few years, Dr. Lutz collected and identified every kind of insect that he found in his property, a grand total of 1,402 different species. Before you shrink in horror at that staggering number of buggy creatures, let me tell you that Dr. Lutz was a fine gardener and, while he was sorting out and studying the little creatures in his garden, he was winning numerous gardening awards.

So, are insects good for the garden? The answer is yes. We tend to notice those that damage our plants and overlook the ones that are harmless or beneficial to the ecosystem that is our garden. Worse yet, sometimes we paint all insects with the same brush and want to kill them all. The fact is that many, probably most, insects are invaluable components of the ecosystem. It is wise to learn to recognize and appreciate these gardener friends. A good dose of curiosity may allow you to enjoy their intriguing, sometimes perplexing, comings and goings if you manage to overcome your bias against insects.

I am leaving aside for now the pollinators, the decomposers and the ones that serve as food for birds, all of them important, in order to concentrate on the ones that fight the bad guys. These are the so-called biological controls or biocontrols for short. By feeding on other insects they provide checks and balances in the flora and fauna of the garden. Let us use aphids as an example. Aphids are ubiquitous in small numbers in every garden whether we notice them or not. What is keeping the lid on them so we dont see outbreaks everywhere and everyday?

In the fight against aphids, the first one that comes to mind is the ladybug. It is more correct to call them lady beetles because there are many different ones and because they are actually beetles, not bugs. Lady beetles, the adult ones, are called cute and pretty. They are roundish, brightly colored mostly in orange and black or red and black. They are found frequently among one of their favorite dishes, aphids. However few of us notice the larvae of these beetles, funny looking little alligators. Some people squash them mercilessly, not knowing that they are killing their garden friends.

Larva of multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) © Beatriz Moisset

Spotted lady beetle larva (Coleomegilla maculata) © Beatriz Moisset

Recently I got an e-mail with a picture of a lady beetle larva and the question: How do I get rid of this pest? There are lots of them on my plants.

I wrote back: this is the larva of a ladybug (better to use the more familiar term not to confuse the questioner). You must have an aphid infestation nearby that attracted them.

Her answer: Ugh! I hate these ugly things, but I love ladybugs. How do I get rid of these? Obviously she didnt get beyond the words aphid and larva.

Another explanation was in order: This is a ladybug baby. Let it be, and it will become the pretty adult you love. Kill it and the aphids will thank you. She finally understood and made peace with her visitors.

Syrphid fly or hover fly (Syrphus) © Beatriz Moisset

Larva of syrphid fly feeding on aphids © Beatriz Moisset

Lady beetles are not alone in the battle against aphids. There are many other bio-controls that altogether may be doing most of the heavy lifting. Syrphid flies or flower flies, the adults that is, are often seen flitting from flower to flower and may be mistaken for bees. Among them there is a group, the so-called Syrphinae, whose larvae (should I say babies?) feed on aphids. They can reach a size somewhat larger than the aphids among which you find them, but are usually green and plain looking, not very conspicuous. The mother fly lays its eggs in the midst of a growing aphid colony and the blind maggots search for their food, sucking the little pests dry one after another. Aphids tend to ignore these predators. I have seen them walking all over one of the hungry maggots unaware of the danger.

Parasitic wasp Aphidiinae and aphid. © Ilona Loser

Other gardener friends easily overlooked by most of us are tiny parasitic wasps that sneak around an aphid colony depositing eggs inside the younger aphids. The wasp larva grows and completes its development inside the aphid which eventually becomes bloated, dark and stiff. The mature wasp emerges from the mummified body of the aphid through a neat round hole. I know; nature has some gruesome ways.

Lacewing larva © Beatriz Moisset

Lacewing larvae are also unsung heroes of the battle against aphids. The adults are delicate looking, hence the name of lacewings. The larvae, about the same size of the aphids in which they feed, have formidable jaws. Usually their color matches that of the aphids and that is how they go unnoticed.

Larva of aphid midge (Aphidoletes) amid a colony of aphids © Beatriz Moisset

Another member of this army is a tiny fly, the aphid midge, which also lays eggs near aphids and, you guessed it, the larvae feed on them. There are many others but I will just mention a couple whose names match the militaristic language used here: some soldier beetles such as Podabrus and a stink bug, the spined soldier bug (Podisus maculiventris). And we thought that all stink bugs were terrible!

Soldier beetle (Podabrus) © Beatriz Moisset

Spined soldier bug (Podisus maculiventris). © Beatriz Moisset

A healthy garden maintains a reservoir of all these warriors at all times so they can jump into action when needed. How to accomplish this? Providing food and habitat for them. Syrphid flies and wasps visit flowers as adults because they need nectar and pollen. If you take care of pollinators you are already doing what is right for the adults of these aphid eaters. What about their larvae and all the others? Basically, what they need most of all is aphids. So, it may seem paradoxical, but you need aphids in your garden; not lots of them, of course, just enough to keep their enemies alive and fed.

Doug Tallamy talks frequently about turning all our gardens into nature preserves of sorts, what he calls the Homegrown National Park, with an abundance of wildlife. Frank Lutz created a garden with a good biological balance by allowing the presence of plant eaters and their biocontrols and also by cultivating a number of native plants. It seems that his yard was an early precursor of the Homegrown National Park.

© 2012, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Beatriz Moisset

Born in Argentina and a resident of the United States for about forty years. A biologist by profession and a photographer and painter by avocation. I finally found the way to combine all these different interests in one single package when I became interested in pollinators. I have been photographing and painting them and studying their biology and ecology and I probably could spend the rest of my life doing so because the subject is endlessly fascinating and of tremendous esthetic, ecological and economic importance. Author, with Steven Buchman, of Bee Basics: An Introduction to Native Bees

Comments

  1. Hal Mann says:

    Beatriz,

    You never fail to open my eyes wide. I knew I wanted lady bugs to protect the Butterflyweed, but never thought about their larva. Im now a whole year without outdoor pest control and the little creatures Im seeing are fascinating. New awareness by me, or healthy environment for them, or some of both? I cant really know. But it is so interesting. And one of these days Ill learn how you take these photos of the tiniest subjects. Thank you.

    Hal
    Hal Mann recently posted..Making a Difference

    Reply
  2. UrsulaV says:

    I was worried this year because our non-winter meant an extraordinary fleet of aphids, inchworms, and tobacco hornworms. The aphids, however, have largely vanished, the inchworms are done, and I was very glad to see lots of little white wasp larvae clinging to the back of a hornworm recently.

    This is one case where my natural laziness actually helps. By the time I finally get motivated to go pick off the hornworms or blast the aphids with the hose, the predators have generally taken care of it already.
    UrsulaV recently posted..Nasturium-splosion

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  3. Rambling Woods says:

    I was so happy today to go to a locally owned nursery and while I was checking out the sales person was showing me a bumble bee that had been nectering in the hanging baskets over her head. She was delighted and enjoying it and felt no need to reach for a can of Raid or something. I thought that was great..a very informative post for me especially.. Thank you..Michelle
    Rambling Woods recently posted..My New Summer Haircut Or Oliver’s Ears..You vote…..

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  4. Julie Stone says:

    Hey! You just answered two ID questions that have been bugging me (pun intended). Lacewing larva and syphid fly larva, thank you!

    Also, your article here illustrates why its important not to spray aphid infestations because youll also be killing the good bugs mixed in with them!
    Julie Stone recently posted..True or False?

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  5. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

    What a wonderful article, Beatriz! For so many their first reaction is to grab a can of Raid. What they dont realize is this throws the whole balance of your Ecosystem Garden off, youll be killing off the good guys (the bugs that keep other bugs in control) which will make any problem bugs much worse. Mother Nature has so many built-in biocontrols that shes quite good at maintaining balance without any help from us.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Starting Over: Deciding What Can Stay and What Must Go

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  6. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says:

    Beatriz I am still learning about all the insects I see but I do not grab for any chemicals. My biggest concern every year though are the Japanese beetles.I do not see any redeeming qualities for these invaders.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Gardens Eye Journal-June 2012

    Reply
    • Beatriz Moisset says:

      In fact, the trouble with Japanese beetles is that they are non-native and controls are lacking. Fortunately the native blue winged wasp has developed a taste for them. It may need help from other biocontrols, but at least it is a start.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Gardening for Honorary Butterflies (Mint Moths)

      Reply
  7. Ellen Honeycutt says:

    Great post I have shared it with several other folks. Hooray for bugs! Native ones, that is.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Roadside Plants in June

    Reply
    • Beatriz Moisset says:

      Yes, native ones. The introduced ones can do so much damage! Fortunately the native ones sometimes can help to control them.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Gardening for Honorary Butterflies (Mint Moths)

      Reply
  8. Mike B says:

    I love this post! I had the same experience this year with flower fly larva. I didnt know what they were, but I left them alone and the aphid infestation on my roses was soon gone.
    Mike B recently posted..More Crab Spiders

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  9. Loret says:

    Great information as always Beatriz. We learn a lot about insects with your expertise.

    You know I LOVE my bugs!

    and I LOVE your picture collage up top. Beautiful!
    Loret recently posted..Condo living for bluebirds?

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  10. Carol Duke says:

    Fabulous essay Beatriz! I laughed (exclaimed) out loud with the lady beetle larva dialogue. Not at anyone but just the idea that we can eliminate stages of life and still end up with the adult. The connection is often missed . . . and really it is no laughing matter. Your information and illustrations are outstanding. The collage is wonderful . . . is that photoshop?

    Reply
  11. Carol Duke says:

    PS . . . I confess to not having read Dougs work as yet . . . but love the term Homegrown National Park or homegrown nature preserve.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Early June Garden Fragrances Merge ~ A Potpourri of Pinks With Touches of White ~ Roses and Pink Lilacs

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  12. joan sessions says:

    I noticed those weird little scorpion/alligator creatues several years ago, but before blindly killing any insect I try to identify. When I found out what they were, I started to gather some from each spot that I saw and put them in my neighbors yards. Now we all have a nice, healthy number of ladybeetles in the the hood and I have tried to get all of them not to use chemicals anymore.

    Reply
    • Beatriz Moisset says:

      Glad to hear that. It is interesting how many people dont know that. It sounds like you are doing a good job in your neighborhood.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..No Tree is an Island

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Trackbacks

  1. A Trip to the Farmers Market says:

    [...] And your wildlife garden can also play a crucial role in protecting these pollinators. As Beatriz Moisset says, A Healthy Garden is a Buggy Garden. [...]

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  2. Insect Herbivores Support Food Chains says:

    [...] I made my peace with all this plant feeding when I realized what an important part of the food chain insects are. Birds, lizards, frogs, small mammals… many of them depend on those herbivorous insects or on the spiders that feed on insects. Even some large mammals value insect food; bears gorge themselves on countless fat caterpillars in preparation for winter. Many carnivores, in turn, depend on the animals that feed on insects. Golden tortoise beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata) larva on morning glory carrying a protective umbrella of its own feces. © Beatriz Moisset Golden tortoise beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata). The adult is as pretty as the larva is ugly. © Beatriz Moisset [...]

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