Good Bugs (and other beneficial) for the garden and the planet 2-21-22
It’s spring and many insects start to awaken and inhabit the world, especially our gardens and farms.
Only a small percentage of insects and arachnids (spiders) are harmful to people. They all have a place in nature and have worked out their place in the balance of things long before humans came on the scene. A wise husband of the land knows the difference between the ones that harm them and those that help them. Thus benefiting from their hard work and beauty.
As children we have most all of us received a lot of direction from well meaning parents who try to protect us from stings and bites which is their job. But you can’t put them all in the ‘bad bug’ category. Especially since with all the chemicals introduced into the world in the last 100 or so years which were ‘solutions’ to scourges (a cause of wide or great affliction) impacting food sources or land use, we really need to reevaluate this concept that nature is only something to be conquered or killed. We live here, they do, we need to live in harmony and help each other. Even the bad bugs have their place, but how we handle that impacts our own health and well being.
When petrochemical (oil based) pesticides came into use it wasn’t until much later that it was recognized that these chemicals killed not only the unbalanced populations of ‘harmful’ (to farmers) bugs such as aphids, grasshoppers, etc. which eat our food sources, but they also kill the predators that hold them in check in nature. And that once the predators are wiped out along with the other bugs, the ‘prey’ (bad bugs) start to reproduce in a much greater rate making the continued use of these chemicals needed more and more. But they also are toxins to humans and animals. And they tend to accumulate in the land and in our food. Ever wonder why there is an epidemic of cancer, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses since your mom was a kid? All those chemicals though they ‘solve’ problems bring with them harm when used exclusively to control nature.
So, in Permaculture Design, nature is the pattern we follow, through observation and understanding of how nature works. By isolating which bugs are helpful – actually making our work more productive, efficient, and cutting down what we have to do, relying on natural processes to help – they go a long way in helping us living within nature’s laws.
Did you know that for every 5 bites of food humans eat, 3 of them are directly related to the pollinators such as bees, butterflies, humming birds, wasps, and other flying bugs, even some species of flies? We aren’t just talking about honey bees either. That mud wasp making its nest in the tree or under your eves is actually a friendly pollinating insect. I have lived harmoniously with mud wasps for decades. The only time one ever hurt me was once when I still had long hair and I brushed up against a peach tree out in my garden, the poor thing got caught in my hair, crawled up to my head, and stung me. She wasn’t angry, he was scared.
Of course there are some bugs you really don’t want in your garden like yellow jackets whose stings are painful and in enough numbers for those sensitive can be very bad. I’m not especially fond of black hornets either. But for every kind you don’t like, there are possibly hundreds you don’t notice which are helping keep the balance of nature.
Not all ants are the stinging variety. We have had fire ants here in the South for a couple of decades and they are a pain. But there are many kinds that are beneficial. For example Peony flowers can’t even open unless ants eat off the sticky substance around the bud. Some ants burrow into the soil and open it to air and water, very helpful for the health of the plants growing in that soil. In China ancient wisdom is ‘don’t mess with the ants, they are helpful and beneficial’. If you do have fire ants, consider diatomaceous earth or boiling water on their mounds and leave the pesticide or ant bait at the store. I haven’t really found any that work either, so being tricky and observant, you can fight them.
We have spiders here that range from little almost invisible ones up to giant black and yellow ‘orb’ spiders which populate our area. I protect these ladies and their webs because they eat some of the pests like squash beetle and some flying insects I’d rather not be eating my vegetables. They keep the balance in nature by being predators. Recently the Juro spider has invaded our area, and they need killin. They eat the orb spiders and unbalance things, being non-native invaders. They unbalance the spider population. But instead of hauling the can of bug killer out into the garden, I just use a long stick, twirl it around the nest where the spider is, bring it down and step on it. Then I protect my orb ladies. No chemicals, and they get taken out.
A few years ago we had an invasive kudzu beetle, a little thing about ¼” blackish brown bug which was also an invader. It wiped out my beans and sunflowers and covered the white part of the banisters on my front porch. I was mad. But I went around with a cottage cheese container with some water and dish soap, and a little brush and gave them a swimming lesson. I kept that up for two years, and last year I only found one or two of them, which were quickly dispatched. No chemicals.
People complain about squash beetles. I found out what their eggs and babies looked like (little bronze colored balls about 1/16th in diameter found under leaves on newly growing squash and pumpkin plants), (little white miniature bugs on the leaves a little while later), and do the same thing with the cottage cheese container and soapy water, only I use the lid of the container instead of a brush, works great. I then just cover the container once my chore is done, and leave it out in the sun. That water goes on the compost later, no bugs. Some people use duct tape to remove the eggs, but I just squish them – not being squeamish. If you catch them early, they just don’t repopulate. But I do check under the leaves and watch for them all summer.
When the aphids come out in force about the time of late summer when the plants start to bolt (send up stems of flowers and seeds), I either hand squish them, cut off the stems into a plastic bag and step on the bag if it’s a lot, or spray with vinegar and soapy water. But first I make sure I don’t kill any of my lady bugs or lace wing bugs because these are their food supply. They are the predators I want to help along.
Spiders other than orb and juro live in gardens. Pretty much all spiders are predators. Their neatly concentric webs decorate our garden spaces, or in the case of black widow, or some other spider species webs look like a cloud of webbing material over their nests. I used to kill all of those black bodies spiders but now I leave them alone because they are very efficient ‘bad bugs’ i.e. pests, killers and they are not aggressive. The only ones I watch out for are the brown recluse, but they are shy and don’t come out to attack you. Just watch for them in dark hidden spaces. But if you know the habits of these bugs, you can protect yourself. Just teach your children about this too so they are wise and not afraid.
So many of the flying bugs in a garden are going about their good business pollinating, preying on pests, or doing other mysterious jobs that keep nature in balance. Some of them are ugly, some beautiful, all of them interesting I think.
Next time you find a bug in your garden or yard that you don’t recognize, before you kill it, catch it in a glass jar or glass, carefully put an index card over the mouth of the jar, and look it up. You might find that it’s a friendly. Let it outside and wish it well. If it’s really an odd one, you can call your local extension officer or the etymology (study of bugs) department at your local university and get some information. They probably would appreciate it if they are watching the populations of various insects too. Once I had the etymology professor at UGA come out to my garden and bless his heart, he spent 4 hours here teaching me about the bugs that live here. I am much more respectful of their kind now for sure.
In the fall and winter, many of these beneficial insects over-winter in leaf mold or dead vegetation of the garden. Mason bees, solitary (not hive living) bees which are powerful pollinators, especially beneficial in orchards and for fruit trees, nest in hollow stems of dead vegetation. They over-winter and their babies emerge in the spring. If you are one of those gardeners who want their gardens to look like “Home and Garden” center spreads, you’ll be out there cutting down all the dead stuff, raking up all the leaves and debris in the garden, and feel good about it. But realize, you are making yourself handle many of the things those good bugs lodging in that stuff do without your hand, and energy and time.
You can help these native bees and pollinators by providing them houses in your garden. Here’s a great tutorial on making bee houses. https://blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu/2018/04/building-better-bee-home.html
Mason bees dos and don’ts: https://colinpurrington.com/2019/05/horrors-of-mass-produced-bee-houses/?fbclid=IwAR0EZZowLe18pp7RXFFGqMyJBorJDewjD9UwpokX7EbPz3w7bSkFkGfjq88
I leave dead stems with seeds on them realizing that those seeds are food for the little birds I need for my garden (they eat a lot of prey bugs and their song helps plants thrive). If there are no seeds on them, I often cut them but leave the debris on the ground for other good insects that need some insulation over the winter. Fallen autumn leaves are harbors of safety for many beneficial bug populations, so I wait till the buds start to blossom on my fruit trees (when the bugs come out of hiding) before I sweep up and prune up the garden in the spring. It may not look so pretty, to the untrained eye, but in the long run, those layers of leaves and dead plant debris help to refresh and fertilize the soil – cutting down on the need for soil amends and fertilizers. By spring most of it is broken down into composted matter, keeping down the weed populations. And the bugs come out and do their spring duties as good bugs.
Here are some references for IDing the good bugs. Hope this helps you have a more harmonious and healthy garden, not to mention a more healthful garden environment for growing your food and medicinal plants.
Getting to know the good guys from the ones you would rather not host means identifying them and understanding their roles in nature. Here is a fairly comprehensive list of websites that can help you know your bugs (and birds) which are your friends.
Don’t forget that many reptiles (friendly snakes), frogs and toads, turtles, etc. all help keep the balance too. But that is the subject of another article.
One of my favorite projects in the garden is planting the plants that host the beneficial insects so I have a bee haven garden plan which includes growing lots of flowers and flowering plants that bloom from early spring to late summer. Included in this plan are zinneas, butterfly bushes and milk weeds (butterfly food), almost any flowering annuals but also perennial Mexican Sage (blooms into late summer, early fall till first freeze), marigolds, big sunflowers (an especial love for bees), flowering fruit trees (cherry trees especially are first flowering for bees in spring), Rose of Sharon bush, and almost anything that blooms from spring to late fall. Just include flowers in with your vegetables to help pollinate the blossoms, all through the garden. I even have a whole bed dedicated to pollinator attractors. https://www.bbg.org/gardening/article/make_your_garden_a_haven_for_insect_diversity
Butterfly garden plants: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/490470215637907306/
Just as a tip, dandelions are one of the bee’s favorite foods. Every part of a dandelion is either edible, medicinal, or soil building, as well as beneficial to the whole environment. So I never spray my lawn either. If it’s green it gets mowed, but I don’t kill them off. I have found so many medicinal and edible plants growing natively in my yard I consider it another one of my garden beds.
Enjoy your garden, and know it is a gift from nature to be able to interact and sponsor those beautiful good bugs and natural little guys.
Diann Dirks, Certified Permaculture Designer
Explore the bugs in your garden, the good and the ‘bad’ and what to do to help them survive and stay in harmony:
General beneficial bugs in the garden as well as repellent recipes
Beneficial bugs and resources for ordering them for your garden:
Butterflies and other beneficial insects
Identifying butterflies in the garden:
Beneficial birds in the garden: