We know what attracts pests--our vegetables, mostly. But what attracts pest-eaters, honeybees, pollinators, and other beneficial insects?
These easy ways to attract helpful insects make the garden nicer for us, too.
Everyone knows that bees love flowers. What many people don't know is that pest-eating predator insects often drink nectar as well. Many, like parasitic wasps, eat nectar or pollen as flying adults, while the young crawl around and eat bugs. Lacewings, wasps, aphid-midges,and even ladybugs have young that look like tiny Komodo dragons and are just as fierce--if you are a caterpillar, aphid, or mite. Tachnid flies and hoverflies are other predators that depend on pollen for a power-meal before laying eggs. Flat-faced, single flowers like the coreopsis shown at left are perfect pollen and nectar sources.
Other predators, like assassin bugs, damsel bugs, pirate bugs, spiders, wasps, and mantises are the lions of the garden, chasing down other insects. What food attracts these? Well, bugs. Here's the hard truth: if you eradicate pests the first time you see them, their predators won't have time to show up and start eating. One year I had a lot of aphids. My first reaction was to spray soap. But I waited, and soon a platoon of wasps found them. Within a week, every last aphid was gone. So, go slow. Give predators a chance to multiply along with their food supply.
What does this wildflower meadow have that good bugs need? Those trees in the background provide places to hide, lay eggs, and hibernate. Beds of perennial herbs, flowers, berries, or shrubs make the garden more predator-friendly and less barren all winter. Leaf litter underneath the plants is where ground-dwelling beetles sleep during the day, before going out to eat symphylans, grubs, cutworms, and other pests all night.
Ground beetles need shelter within 20 feet of their food. Small piles of stones, brush, or stalks near your crop plants are like motels for them. You can make them decorative if you like--a ground beetle doesn't care if she lives under a log, a birdbath, or a mosaic stepping stone, so long as she has shelter.
If you don't have rain or overhead watering every few days, consider a water source for frogs, insects, and other pest-eating wildlife. One solution is a small pond, birdbath, or barrel for water plants. Another is simply saucers of water placed on the ground here and there. If mosquitoes are a concern, you can put goldfish in larger containers like ponds and rain barrels. Small containers can be filled with sand or gravel that just stays damp. It is wonderful to watch butterflies and other insects drink from damp sand, using their mouth tube as a straw.
Studies have shown that the best pollination and pest-eating effect comes when there are at least a dozen species blooming at once, all season. That sounds like a lot, but flowers can be everywhere. The zinnias at left grow easily with vegetables, and are good attractors, along with cosmos, daisies, sunflowers, coreopsis(top left), and other easy-to grow flat flowers. Herbs like thyme, basil, dill, fennel, cilantro, borage (shown top) are among the best. Kale or mustard that goes to flower is great. For a selection of superior pest-fighters, we have put together several collections of flowers that beneficial insects love.
Don't forget that many birds live on insects. Attract them with suet, not seeds. (Birds that are attracted to seeds will be more interested in your corn, sunflowers, and other seed crops.) Bats eat more than their own weight in insects every night, so bat houses or hollow trees can be real pest-fighters. Frogs love to eat pests like grasshoppers, while toads eat slugs and grubs. Attract them with water they can reach from ground level, and hiding places like perennials or trees. And remember, even natural pesticides kill both insects and frogs. So don't use them.
Know your Friends
Who would guess that the pirate bug at left or the parasitic wasp at right are voracious pest-eaters? If you want to know the players without wading through pages of confusing detail, we have found the perfect book. It's called Good Bug, Bad Bug.
Not only is it simple and easy to use, it even has water and mud-resistant pages, so you can take it out and use it.
This work by Bountiful Gardens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.