Creep, nuisance, vermin, trouble, and costly are synonymous when identifying insects. It’s a shame, too, because without insects, our world would be very different. Yes, we may all be familiar with the fleas on our pets or aphids on our plants; however, we shouldn’t let those few species spoil the large, diverse and essential world of insects.
The Smithsonian estimates that there are roughly 900,000 different kinds of living insects throughout the world. This means that insects account for around 80 percent of the world’s species. The number of described species in the U.S. alone is almost 100,000. According to the Department of Systematic Biology, which works with the Smithsonian Institute, the largest numbers of described species in the U.S. fall into four identifying insect Orders: Coleoptera (beetles) at 23,700; Diptera (flies) at 19,600; Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps) at 17,500; and Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) at 11,500. That’s a lot of bugs! Or should we say insects?
Bugs are a subset of insects. The words bugs and insects are not interchangeable. True bugs have a stylet, which is a body part that helps them consume their food. A stylet is a straw-like mouth that helps them suck up plant juices or their host’s blood, depending on the type of bug they are. True bugs also have broad, rubbery front wings with colored parts near their bodies and clear pieces at the end of the wings. Most bugs also only have three life stages (egg, larva/nymph, adult) while most insects have four (egg, larva/nymph, pupa, adult).
“They perform so many valuable services,” Virginia Overstreet says, with regards to identifying insects in the backyard. Overstreet is a Florida Master Gardener Volunteer, with the UF/IFAS Extension in Hillsborough County.
She adds that beneficial insects can be divided into four categories: predators (e.g. lady beetles); parasitoids and parasites (e.g. wasps that lay eggs on pest insects and feed on their bodies); decomposers (e.g. beetles and other insects found around compost piles); and pollinators (e.g. bees, wasps, and butterflies).
In addition to the ways that insects help out our gardens directly, insects also provide a source of protein for many of our favorite songbirds and backyard wildlife. In many parts of the world insects also provide humans with a source of protein.
“It’s really a matter of changing our attitudes about insects,” Overstreet says. “All homeowners should manage their landscapes with beneficial insects in mind.”
As I toured her garden, I noticed that she not only collects popular garden art like dragonflies and butterflies but also praying mantis sculptures. She gardens without any chemical fertilizers and broadspectrum pesticides. Overstreet believes that insects are a very important part of our homestead ecosystems, including both for flower and vegetable gardens.
Identifying Insect Invertebrates
“If you’re not sure what insects you have or how to control them, contact your local county extension service office for answers to your gardening questions,” Overstreet recommends. You can bring a sample or email them a photo. After successfully identifying insects, you can then determine the best course of action. Master Gardener volunteers will assist you in identifying and treating pests. Nicole Pinson, Extension Agent-Urban Horticulture, UF/IFAS Extension, Hillsborough County, Florida, says that they “can teach you how to manage pests responsibly, scout for insects, plant diverse gardens, and attract wildlife, such as beneficial insects.”
“All homesteads have a mixed insect population, some neutral, some beneficial and some potential plant pests,” Diane Kenworthy, a volunteer Sonoma County Master Gardener, says. Kenworthy is the leader of the Integrated Pest Management Specialists of University of California Cooperative Extension. The Integrated Pest Management Specialists are a team of Master Gardeners that get special training and volunteer to educate Sonoma County residents about identifying insects, reducing pesticide use and keeping gardens and the environment healthy.
“Since most homes have a mix of plants, there will be a balance of these three insect types, and the plant pests won’t build up to damaging levels unless the homeowner uses insecticides indiscriminately, without taking the balance into account.”
Most importantly, Diane Kenworthy says, homeowners should avoid broad spectrum insecticides. “They will harm the beneficial insects far more than the plant pests, and may even cause a flare-up of another plant pest that would have never been a problem without the spray.”
Christen Smith with Beneficial Insectary, Inc., says that spending time in your garden is a great way to become familiar with the beneficial and detrimental insects in your yard. “While you are out there hand-pulling or hoeing weeds, you can look for damage from pests or diseases,” Smith says. Smith suggests looking on the underside of leaves since that is where many insects lay eggs. “Put out insect traps, such as yellow sticky cards to monitor pest levels and to help identify gardens pests.”
Smith also recommends that you learn about common pests and their lifecycles so that you can use time control measures as natural pest control in gardens. With many online resources to help with identifying insect problems and diseases, such as the University of California-Davis IPM Program and the Penn State Pest Management Info Center, Smith says you will be able to distinguish between the good and the bad.
“Our website, Greenmethods.com, also has a wealth of information on plants pests and beneficial insects,” Smith adds.
There are also many good insect books available with detailed photographs and descriptions to help identify many different insect visitors to the garden. One popular choice is Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control by Jessica Walliser. This guide includes 19 detailed insect profiles and 39 plant profiles. The plant profiles suggest the best plants for attracting beneficial bugs and information on care requirements, zone information, and bloom time. The insect profiles include what they can do for you in your garden, along with photos for identifying insects and methods on how to attract them to your property.
“Anyone who is trying to cut down or eliminate pesticides should try to attract beneficial insects,” Chris Davis, a volunteer for the hotline of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, says.
“Of course, there are lots of plants that will attract beneficial insects, and some gardeners advocate planting these attractive plants next to plants that have problem insects,” Davis adds.
Davis recommends annual plants, such as marigolds, sunflowers, cosmos, alyssum, and perennials, such as yarrow and plants in the mint family, to attract beneficial insects.
“They also like the flower heads of dill, parsley, and cilantro, to name a few.”
Yes, the milkweed plant, Asclepias, is the host plant for Monarch butterflies, but there are so many more plants that you can choose to plant in your yard to attract other pollinators and beneficial insects. Davis also points out that insects don’t like dust, so it is good to keep the ground covered with plantings and/or mulch.
“Most insects are beneficial and, many times, no action is necessary,” Overstreet says. Increasing your tolerance threshold for cosmetic damage is also something to consider. A few nips from a plant may not warrant spraying pesticides.
Treating pests with the least toxic method possible is ideal for all organisms that depend on our homestead, including you.
“Most homeowners today know that chemicals are harmful to our health, our environment, and our children, and are looking for alternative ways to control pest problems without the use of poisonous chemicals,” says Don Cotton, General Manager of Buglogical Control Systems.
If you have reduced your pesticide dependence, added the plants that attract beneficial insects and are still struggling with nuisance insects, there is another option: purchase and release bugs.
Bringing in Bug Backup
“As more people started to buy organic produce, the demand by growers and home gardeners to use ‘beneficials’ to control pest problems has increased,” Cotton says.
Cotton has been in the business for 18 years. He said the demand for beneficial insects was small in the beginning, adding, “Now more homesteaders are buying ladybugs, praying mantis and green lacewings for their garden.”
“When it comes to gardening, one of the worst things for both humans and the environment is the use of pesticides,” Cotton says. “Pesticides are toxic to all living things, including us.”
Beneficial insects that can be purchased can control harmful insects such as spider mites, thrips, whiteflies, fly control, aphids, caterpillars, leafminers, scale, mealybugs, and soil pests.
I recently tried two of Buglogical’s products: Hippodamia convergens and Tenodera aridifolia sinensi. The Hippodamia came in the mail as 1,500 live convergent lady beetles and the Tenodera came as three praying mantis egg sacks, which I am currently incubating in my potting shed.
The ladybug release was great fun, as I slowly released a few at a time throughout my property. Crawling out of their shipping meshed bag, they would tickle my hands and arms. Some went into my shirt or crawled on my neck before they flew a short distance and landed on my edible gardens. My neighbors came over to watch and then we headed to their vegetable garden and released a few hundred more. Lady beetles, in both their adult and juvenile stages, are carnivorous eating aphids, scale, thrips, mealybugs, and mites.
Another popular beneficial insect that Buglogical Control Systems sell is beneficial nematodes, which help eliminate pest insects from in the soil.
“They can be used to control a broad range of soil-inhabiting insects and above-ground insects in their soil-inhabiting stage of life,” Cotton adds.
With an appetite of more than 200 species of insect pests from 100 insect families, these beneficial insect predators are a garden gift. “We carry three different species of beneficial nematodes. Steinernema feltiae, Steinernema carpocapsae and Heterorhabditis bacteriophora are our most popular nematodes in controlling grubs and Japanese beetles,” Cotton says. He believes that ladybugs, praying mantis and green lacewings are some of the best beneficial bugs to have around. “All those combinations will help reduce pests in the garden.”
While lacewings and ladybugs are predators of damaging insects on vegetables and flowers, praying mantis will help in controlling mosquitoes, spiders, and beetles.
Cotton would like to emphasize, “In the world of nature, an insect is neither good or bad. Each one is considered to have an essential role in maintaining a balanced, healthy ecosystem.” Maintaining a balance seems to be one of nature’s primary objectives and it should be reflected in our gardens, as well.
Christen Smith, with Beneficial Insectary, Inc., says that their most popular insects sold include green lacewings, Trichogramma, Amblyseius cucumeris, Stratiolaelaps scimitus and fly parasites. “Green lacewings are generalist predators that are both effective and economical for the homesteader to use,” she adds. They will feed on aphids, immature whiteflies, thrips, spider mites, mealybugs, small caterpillars and other soft bodied pests. They can be ordered to ship on a schedule so that you have good control throughout your whole growing season.
Trichogramma are parasites that affect moth eggs for caterpillar control. A. cucumeris are predatory mites that help control various thrips species. Stratiolaelaps scimitus is a soil dwelling mite that controls various thrips and soil pests including fungus gnat larvae. Fly parasites are very popular for controlling flies in livestock and poultry operations.
Another reason why homesteaders should consider promoting and, possibly, bringing in beneficial insects is that a great number of insects are showing resistance to chemical pesticides. “For example, the California strawberry industry brings in predatory mites to control the two spotted spider mites because this pest mite has a history of rapidly developing resistance to miticides,” Smith says. “Replacing or augmenting your pest control with beneficial insects means safer food and more economical means of controlling pests.” Ideally, you’d introduce beneficial insects onto your property that would prosper and reproduce.
Organic pest solutions are becoming cheaper as pesticide costs go up. The demand for sustainable solutions for pest control is growing. Home gardeners should be turning to natural pesticides for garden use and identifying insects to aid in mitigating the effects of pest insects. These beneficial insects are hard working, allies, pollinators, harmonious, meaningful, bountiful…bugs!
Do you have any tips for identifying insects and using them to control garden pests? Let us know!
Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA has a B.S. in animal behavior. He is a pet columnist and a regular contributor to Backyard Poultry and garden magazines. His children’s book, A Tenrec Named Treuy (and other odd lettered animals that like to play), is available online.
Originally published in Countryside July/August 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.