Pollinators, especially the beautiful butterflies and the honey producing European honeybee seem to be getting all of the good press lately. People seem to be more aware of the fact that insects can be good and can be valuable. People are starting to think about ‘bugs’ when they purchase plants and when they consider how to care for their landscapes. As you know, we are big fans of bugs here at New Moon Nursery.
We would like people to start thinking beyond the butterfly and bee, beyond pollinator to predator! Predatory insects are those that prey on other insects. We often hear these insects or mites called beneficials. Beneficials is a term used to describe any insect, mite, microbe, fungi with a positive effect in the landscape or to humans – be it pollination or pest control. But it is hard to love some of these beneficials, they do not have the exuberant beauty of the Monarch Butterfly or the sweet offerings of the honey bee. But believe us, if these predators disappeared from your landscape you would notice a change right away.
Perhaps the most famous of the predatory insects is the Ladybug. She is marketable. She is cute, people are not afraid to let a lady bug crawl up and down their arm. But what people do not realize as they let her maneuver around their knuckles is that the ladybug and especially the ladybug larva are voracious meat-eaters snarfing down soft bodied pest insects by the dozens.
You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with plants? If these insects eat other insects what do plants have to offer? The answer is that if you want the beneficial insects to help with pest control in your garden you must create a habitat where they will reproduce and stick around on your plants. In many cases it is the larva of the insect that is the excellent predator and as they transition to adults they become nectar or pollen or leaf eaters. So it is essential to provide the plant materials these insects and mites need in all stages of their lives. As it is with most things, diversity is key here. Planting a wide variety of native flowering plants, ensuring a long bloom time and shelter to overwinter, you will be sure to attract some predators to your plants.
Below you will find some descriptions of some of the predatory insects you may find in your landscapes around here and the plants you should be including in your planting plans to ensure they find you and stick around. Sure you can purchase these predators from a variety of places, but whether you purchase them or just want to attract the locals already in the area, you are going to need plants to keep them there.
Green Lacewings – The larva of these beauties are called aphid lions for their inclination to dine on the pear shaped piercing sucking insects given a chance. The adults, however, enjoy a more vegetarian diet feeding on pollen, nectar and aphid honeydew (is that vegetarian?) If you are wondering if you have created a habitat suitable for the reproduction of these predators, check the undersides of some of your leaves, look for tiny white eggs perches atop a fine filament of a stalk – there are lacewing eggs! Of course a suitable habitat also includes aphids for the larva to eat, which means you must tolerate some aphids on your plants and must be careful with any insecticide decisions you make. Check out video of an aphid lion at work.
Syrphid Flies – Often mistaken for bees (notice only one set of wings here = fly) and also known as hover flies or flower flies, like the Green Lacewing, the adults feed on nectar and pollen while the larva feed on soft bodied insects like aphids and some scales. There are many different species of Syrphid Flies you may be able to count on not only to help with pest control but to do some pollination as well! Watch the Syprhid Fly larva doing what it does best.
Minute Pirate Bugs and Insidious Flower Bugs – With names like these, how could you not want them to join the party? These two Orius species are considered ‘true bugs’. Beware, as they like to feed on living insects, they test you out for culinary suitability and give you a small bite. In this case both the larva and the adults feed on living insects. So what do you need plants for? Well, they need to find their prey somewhere!
Spined Soldier Bug – Believe it or not, here is a stink bug you actually want around! This particular species of stink bug uses its piercing sucking mouthpart to eat more than 100 species of insect pests, particularly searching out the larva of butterflies, moths and beetles (think caterpillars and grubs). Want to see how the soldier beetle does this? Check out this video!
Wheelbug – Like the minute pirate bug, this scary (cool) looking insect may give you a bite if handled roughly, but leave them alone and they will help control a number of different pest insects in your planting. Aptly, part of the group of insects known as assassin bugs, this armored insect has even been known to eat Japanese Beetles, however, like the famous Praying Mantis, this insect isn’t exactly particular also choosing to feed on ladybugs and even honeybees. Watch the wheelbug attack a caterpillar in this video.
As far as attracting all of these predatory insects to your landscape and encouraging them to stay, small flowers seem to be the key. Many of the perennials featuring lots of tiny flowers grouped together in larger flowerhead seem to be just what many of these insects are looking for in the way of habitat. Also, including some plants that are irresistible to aphids will help a lot too.
Native grasses also provide shelter for various stages of predatory insects. Be sure to include some grasses on your plant lists. Consider including Zizia, Eupatoriums, Eryngium, Coreopsis and Asters in your diverse and ecologically productive landscape.
Keep an eye out for a future post where we discuss the amazing parasitoids you want to have around your property. Science Fiction has nothing on these insects!