August 28, 2014

HOME & GARDEN: The good, the bad and the ugly: Beneficial bugs for your garden

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

A larval ladybug feeds on aphids. Professor Margaret Skinner suggests getting to know what beneficial bugs look like in both larval and adult forms. (Courtesy photo by Cheryl Frank)

Spring is here, and that means more time in the garden, fresh flowers, warm days—and bugs.

But not all of them are bad. Margaret Skinner, a University of Vermont research professor and extension entomologist, said to take a wider view. It’s all about learning to live with a balance of bugs—they all have a place, she said. Bugs provide two-thirds of the diet of birds and freshwater fish. Plus, they eat a wide range of other bugs, keeping pests at bay.

Here are some of the top bugs Skinner suggests you share your garden with.

Bees. The kings of garden insects. Honeybees and bumblebees pollinate tirelessly as they buzz around in search of nectar. We need them—one third of our food comes from animal-pollinated crops, and honeybees do the majority of that pollinating. Bees are easy to attract, all you need are pollen- and nectar-producing flowers.

Hoverflies. These small brown and yellow striped bugs, named because they hover in one place, are also excellent pollinators. As an added bonus, in their larval stage they feed on aphids and other vegetable-eating bugs.

Ladybugs. More properly classified as lady beetles, these brightly colored insects feed on garden pests, eating hundreds of aphids in their lifetimes.

Spiders. Creepy, yes. But spiders eat thousands of other insects, especially the nasty, biting variety.

Wasps. There are several species of wasps, but all of them are predators. The larger, stinging wasps eat caterpillars and other insects. Tiny parasitic wasps kill aphids, laying their eggs inside them. As long as they’re not too close to the garden (or in your house), leave them alone. In the words of an old preschool song, “If you don’t bother them, then they won’t bother you.”

Butterflies. If bees are the kings, then butterflies are most certainly the queens of the garden. Along with adding pops of color to the garden, they pollinate plants as they flit from flower to flower, albeit not as well as bees.

Lacewings. These long-bodied bugs with large wings, often green or brown, feed on aphids and other small pests.

Plenty of other bugs are general predators, meaning they munch on other insects but don’t necessarily distinguish between beneficial bugs and pests. These include centipedes and millipedes, ground beetles, dragonflies, praying mantis and others.

Skinner also recommended looking up what bugs look like in the larval stage, as it’s often completely different from the adult form. You don’t want to squash a juvenile ladybug without realizing it!

Though all of these bugs play a valuable role in the garden, Skinner said it’s not always so straightforward. A wide variety of bugs are needed for a healthy ecosystem, and most bugs have a place in the food chain. So think twice before you spray on the insecticide—it might hurt your garden more than it helps.

Got a question about insects in your garden? Call the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Helpline for answers to all your gardening questions. The number is (802) 656-5421 for Chittenden County callers or (800) 639-2230 (toll-free) for the rest of the state. The helpline is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.

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