What lives in your garden? Check out this free lesson that explores the garden as a habitat for pollinators, wildlife, and other living organisms.
We can all use a little help in the garden. And the garden has an army of tiny helpers eager to lend a hand. They are the beneficial insects, ones that behave in ways that are helpful to the crops we grow. These “good bugs” help out in a variety of ways—by hunting and eating (or using as food for their young) insects that are harmful to our crops, by parasitizing insects we consider pests, or by pollinating the fruiting plants we grow.
Healthy populations of these “beneficials” help us to have a thriving garden and abundant yields without resorting to chemical pesticides that can be harmful to ourselves and the environment. All the good guys ask for is some food, water, and shelter. Encouraging beneficial insects not only can help you have a more successful, and more beautiful, garden, but also is a great way to introduce your kids to the idea of the garden as an interconnected ecosystem. Together you can to learn to identify and nurture the garden “good guys” and work on projects that make your garden more inviting to these helpful insects.
Here are some tips for attracting beneficial insects to your garden:
Minimize the use of pesticides, even organic ones. Even pesticides considered acceptable for organic gardens can harm the good guys along with the bad, so try to keep any pesticide use to a minimum. Of course, minimal pesticide use is a good idea when kids are in the garden as well. And a discussion with your children about the impact that pesticides can have on all the insects in the garden can be a starting point for talking with them about protecting our environment and all the creatures in it. It’s important to have some pests around for the beneficials to feed on. If there is nothing left to eat, the beneficials will move on to greener pastures! This is a good opportunity to point out to your children that the “bad” bugs aren’t really bad. Instead, they are interesting creatures in their own right that are part of the intricate food web of the garden, a part we are trying to keep in balance.
If you do use a pesticide, spray in the evening after most pollinators have stopped flying. Try to choose a spray with a narrow spectrum of control, like the microbial insecticide Bt, since this affects only caterpillar pests that are feeding on the sprayed plants.
Plant lots of flowers to attract beneficials. What a great excuse to fill the garden with beautiful blossoms! Flowers provide pollen and nectar for the different life stages of these insects. Think of daisies and umbrellas when it comes to choosing flowers and herbs. Those with umbrella-shaped clusters of small flowers, such as dill, caraway, coriander, yarrow, and Queen Anne’s lace are particularly appealing to beneficial insects. Daisy-like flowers such as golden marguerites, sunflowers, and asters are also attractive to many beneficials. Other good choices include tansy, butterfly weed, mint, baby-blue-eyes (Nemophilia), scabiosa, candytuft (Iberis), goldenrod, bishop’s flower (Ammi majus), cosmos, coreopsis, blazing star (Liatris), rudbeckia, bee balm, nasturtiums, borage, fennel, and zinnias.
The most important thing is to have a diversity of blossoms and plant sizes blooming throughout the growing season. A border of flowers around the vegetable garden is an excellent way to provide food and shelter for beneficials, along with flower plantings mixed into the vegetable beds themselves. Since the flowers of many herbs are excellent attractors, consider locating your herb garden in the center of your food garden. And let some of your veggies go to seed—the flowers of carrots, parsley, radishes, broccoli, and turnips are also favorites of beneficials. And finally, don’t forget about shrubs out in your landscape. The flowers of pussy willow, spirea, summersweet (Clethra), wild lilac (Ceanothus), ninebark (Physocarpus), bluebeard (Caryopteris), holly (Ilex), and serviceberry (Amelanchier) all provide pollen or nectar for beneficial insects. Go out with your children on a sunny summer day and let them delight in the sight of so many insects foraging among the blooms!
Provide a source of water. To help beneficials quench their thirst, let yourchild help you set out a shallow pool of water in which you’ve placed some stones or piles of gravel for insects to perch. The bowl of a birdbath setdirectly on the ground works well. Some insects, especially butterflies and some pollinator bees, prefer a mud puddle. Let a hose or faucet drip just a bit to form a damp, muddy sipping spot. Perhaps it can become your child’s responsibility to go out daily with a watering can to top off the water—and what kid wouldn’t like making a mud puddle?
Give them some shelter. If you can, let a corner of your yard go “wild.” A wooded area or hedgerow 10 to 20 feet north of the garden is ideal, but even a small undisturbed area will give beneficials a place to shelter and nest. You can also make nesting blocks for pollinating bees that nest in wood, such as mason bees, by drilling at least 10 holes 5 to 6 inches deep in a block of untreated wood. Hang it with the holes horizontal under the eaves on the south or east side of a building. Give children sections of wood pallets to lay in grass near the garden; this will give mantids a place to deposit their egg cases. You can also arrange some groups of flat rocks in the garden to give ground beetles a place to shelter.
Leave a little lawn. Leave a turf pathway through the garden. Turfgrass is home to predators such as ground, rove, and tiger beetles, and can serve as a spot for mantids, ladybugs, and other desirable insects to lay their eggs.
Learn what the good guys look like. This is important because gardeners have a tendency to view any bug they don’t recognize as a “bad” bug. Most of us can probably identify a ladybug as a “good guy,” but we may not realize when we find a larger, ferocious-looking, black-and-yellow creature that it is actually a ladybug larva, bent on gobbling up aphids. And we might not know that the forest of tiny green eggs carried atop hair-thin stalks on a leaf in the garden will hatch into fat, bristly lacewing larvae with large, tusklike jaws, also devourers of aphids, looking nothing like the delicate, gossamer-winged green adults. Check out National Gardening Association's Bug Mugs database to view photos and learn about a variety of insects that may impact your garden. Another great resource is the Illinois Natural History Survey website that has a selection of photos and information on many beneficials.
Welcome the beneficial insects. A fun way to introduce your children to beneficial insects and to overcome any “insect fear” is to create a designated space for different types of insects and try raising some at home. You can purchase our Butterfly Observation Kit, that includes a coupon for Painted Lady Butterfly catepillars, that allows children to observe the metamorphosis of this beautiful pollinator. To observe and attract pollinators consider giving beneficial insects a home of their own using our Ladybug House, Natural Wood Bee House, and the Spider Web Frame, all available through the Gardening with Kids Shop.
Read all about it. There are many good books to help you and your child learn about and appreciate the role of insects in the garden. Insects and Gardens, by Eric Grissell (Timber Press, 2001), is a great adult introduction to insect biology and the role of insects in the garden ecosystem. Good Bugs for Your Garden, by Allison Starcher (Algonquin Books, 1995), will help you identify the beneficials. Young children will enjoy Are You a Ladybug? by Judy Allen and Tudor Humphries (Kingfisher, 2003), while older children can find out about bugs in It’s a Good Thing There Are Insects, by Allan Fowler (Rookie Read About Science Series, Children’s Press, 1990).