Plant Story's Guide to Beneficial Insects!!! Who are my Friends in the garden?

May 19, 2021

Thomas Tran

Whether you're a seasoned gardener or starting out brand new, there will be a time where you will encounter visitors in your garden. Some may be large, some small, however you look at them, it is best to understand their place in your garden. Here, we will look at beneficial insects since not all insects are pests, the ones that are good for your garden. Many growers recognize the help provided by beneficial insects as well as the injury done by harmful ones.

Ladybug eating aphids
Ladybug eating aphids

So what exactly are beneficial insects ? Beneficial insects are nature's way of helping the garden. Some help to increase fruit yield by helping pollinate flowers and increasing genetic diversity by way of spreading pollen. Others help by controlling damaging insects that want to feast on your hard worked plants. With beneficial insects, there is no need to use chemicals to rid pests, they do it naturally. Because there is no need for chemicals, this is also a more cost efficient way to manage your garden.

Chemical Free alternative
Chemical Free alternative

So what exactly are the garden's beneficial insects? Lets take a look at each one and see how they help and why they are important.

Ladybugs - Aphid eating machines

Ladybug beetles are perhaps one of the most well known of the beneficial insects. Don't let their name fool you, they're not all ladies. The most common legend as to how ladybugs got their name is that during the middle ages in Europe, swarms of aphids were destroying crops. The farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary for help and help came in the form of ladybugs that devoured the plant-destroying pests and saved the crops!

An adult ladybug can consume over 50 scale insects, mites, and/or aphids each per day (up to 5000 in their lifetime) and have been known to eat each other when food is scarce.

It is a thrill to find one of these helping out around the yard. These days, you can even purchase them at garden centers and nurseries and release them in your yards to help. With over 5,000 species of ladybugs around the world, you are bound to run into one.

Below is a list of facts about ladybugs in your garden.

1. They eat damaging aphids, spider mites and mealybugs

2. They lay their eggs among the aphids and their larvae eat the aphids also

3. They also prey on eggs of the European Corn Borer and the Colorado Potato Beetle

4. Ladybugs live for about a year

5. They beat their wings around 85 times per second in flight

6. They come in various colors and patterns, not just black and red

Bees - Nature's pollinator

Bees are perhaps one of the most well known beneficial insects besides the ladybug. They have been modeled in cartoons, tv, books and even professional wrestling. But what is it about these 6-legged beings that gets people in a buzz?

For one, they are super pollinators and one bee can pollinate up to 5,000 flowers a day! Their presence is so astounding that it is theorized that the bee is responsible for 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat. Most food crops—including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds—must go through pollination. That’s the process of moving tiny pollen cells between plants to help them make seeds.

Pollen is collected onto the leg hairs of bees when they land on a flower. The force is similar to that of static that draws the pollen toward the bees. As they hop around from flower to flower, this pollen is dispersed as they land and rub around inside the flowers. When this pollen reaches the stigma of another flower, it completes the process of pollination and fruit then develops from the flower.

Bees are very social insects and live in colonies inside a hive. The hive not only serves as a home but also as a nursery, food bank and social gathering place for the bees. A colony can consist of as many as 40,000 - 60,000 individuals during the summer. The colony is made of different types of bees, each with their own unique role.

  • Queen Bee – (one per hive) responsible for reproduction
  • Drone Bee – (few hundred per hive) all male and are responsible for mating with the queen bee
  • Worker Bee – (thousands) responsible for feeding, maintaining and protecting the hive

With most of their lives spent on pollinating flowers, it is no wonder they are so efficient and such a reliable source for food crops.

Below is a list of facts about bees in your garden.

1. They beat their wings 11,400 times a minute

2. There are 20,000 bee species in the world

3. Only female bees can sting

4. Bee keepers wear white to keep bees calm

5. The honey bee has FIVE eyes, two large compound eyes and three smaller ocelli eyes in the center of its head

6. They're the inly insect that makes food people can eat

Ground Beetles - Ground foragers

Another beneficial insect that does not initially look beneficial are ground beetles. Resembling something that may come out of a horror movie, ground beetles help the garden by feeling on other insects as well as other invertebrate animals. With more than 40,000 species of ground beetles around there world, there is not a shortage of one around.

Ground beetles live and breed in the soil. They are about 1/8 - 1/2 inches long (a few can become as large as 1 inch in length), are Oval and elongated, with three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings. These beetles also have prominent mandibles. Ground beetles do not damage buildings, food or clothing.

They hide during the day and are found on the ground under leaves, logs, stones, loose bark and in grassy areas. Most ground beetles feed on other insects as well as other invertebrate animals.

Below is a list of facts about ground beetles in your garden.

1. If they are mishandled, they could pinch the skin.

2. They are found in many types of environments including forests, fields, shorelines and agriculture.

3. Some species can be brightly colored, including blues, greens and reds.

4. Ground beetles are not harmful to people

5. They range in size from about 2 to 25 mm or more in length

6. When exposed, ground beetles move quickly to find shelter but rarely fly.

Praying Mantis - Nature's assasins

One of the more interesting and definitely exciting beneficial insects is the Praying Mantis. One of nature's most prolific assassins in the garden, they can take out other animals larger in size (up to hummingbirds). Mantids are insects belonging to the order Mantodea.

Due of the posture that they hold their modified forelegs, it gives them the illusion of them praying. This was how they were given their name.

They have bee known to eat a great amount of pest insects and helps the balance in the garden. The female praying mantis usually are unable to fly due to their wings unable to support their size. To many gardeners it is a blessing to have them in your garden and even more so when a sack of eggs is seen. That means a whole bunch of mantis babies will eventually hatch and protect the garden. Live mantis egg sacks have been more widely available to the home gardener and contains hundreds of mantises.

1. They have a voracious appetite for insects

2. Juvenile "nymphs" look like the smaller versions of the adult

3. Praying Mantis has 5 eyes, 6 legs, 2 antennae, and a triangular head

4. Female Praying Mantis eat the males during copulation by tearing his head off

5. Their "arms" are actually modified forelegs and are used to capture prey

6. Their eyes can move independently of one another

7. There are over 2300 matis varieties around the earth

Green Lacewing - Chrysopidae

The Green Lacewing is an insect that you need in your garden. As with the others on this list, they are very beneficial to the garden and often under appreciated.

The adult green lacewing is about 3/4 inch (1.9 cm) long, light green and has a delicate appearance with lacy transparent wings. One unusual characteristic are its eyes, they look like two golden globes. They are weak fliers and are commonly found near aphid colonies on which they feed. They are prime examples of a voracious eating machines.

Although the adults primarily feed on honeydew, nectar and pollen, they sometimes are predacious on soft bodied insects such as aphids as well. The larvae are the ones that do most damage on pests. Green Lacewing larvae have nicknames such as "aphid wolves" or "aphid lions" for good reason, as they are especially fond of aphids. They also prey on a wide variety of other soft-bodied insects and mites, including insect eggs, thrips, mealybugs.

1. They lay their eggs on underside of leaves

2. There are 27 species of lacewing in North America

3. Each lacewing can consume up to 100 aphids a week

4. The female lacewings may produce around 100 to 200 eggs

5. Green lacewings wingspan can grow up to 65 mm

6. There are 1.300 to 2.000 species of green lacewings that can be found all over the world.

Butterflies - Beautiful and graceful pollinators

One of the most beautiful creatures you will encounter in your garden, a butterfly brings feelings of hope and joy. They symbolize (through the different stages of metamorphosis) rebirth and often they start to show in the spring time in line with the rebirth of plants as they wake up from their winter slumber.

There are about 18,000 species of butterflies and are found on all continents of the world except Antarctica. They are super pollinators and help pollinate flowers as they flutter from one flower to another looking for nectar to feed on.

Butterfly wings are transparent and are covered by thousands of tiny scales. And those colors you see when a butterfly flits across your yard are the reflection of various colors through the scales. That is what rubs off after having touched a butterfly. The wings themselves are made up of a protein called chitin, which is the same protein that forms an insect’s exoskeleton. And much like an exoskeleton, chitin is transparent.

One of the most recognized butterflies in the world is the monarch which can migrate up to 3000 miles.

They utilize all of what they eat and have almost zero waste.

Just like Dragonflies, Butterflies can only feed or fly when their bodies are warmed to a certain temperature, at least 30°C in this case. In order to do that they bask in the sun while perched on top of a structure such as a branch. Once warmed, they go about their way feeding and getting ready to lay their eggs.

1. Butterflies are one of the larger pollinators behind bees

2. The were originally called flutterbys

3. The fly at the rate of 10 to 50 Km/hr (6 mph to 31 mph)

4. When resting, their wings stay closed

5. The cabbage white butterfly is the most abundant in the US

6. Butterflies have sensory organs on their feet and heads to help them identify different plants

Spiders - Deadly ambush artists

Many horror stories have had spiders play a role at one point or another. With that said, spiders elicit very eerie feelings to people primarily due to the fact they are great predators. Usually not harmful unless aggravated, they have 8 legs and 6-8 eyes, are very aware of their surroundings and are capable of moving about swiftly.

They feed mostly on insects and invertebrates though some of the larger species of spiders like the Goliath Birdeater can eat larger animals such as amphibians, lizards and birds.

A single spider can eat up to 2,000 insects in just one year. This is great because it helps maintain a healthy level of insects and pests in the garden.

Spider silk is extruded from the spinnerets at the back of their abdomen. Each spider has anywhere from 2 to 8 spinnerets for silk making. Silk first comes out as a liquid and hardens as it comes into contact with the air. A spider can eat its own web and then reuses it to weave a new web later.

With over 40,000 kinds of spiders in the world, more likely than not, it is most likely there is one near you.

1. Most spiders are nearsighted

2. Spiders have blue blood, not red, due to the copper binding hemocyanin

3. Spider silk is one of the strongest natural substances in the world

4. They are nocturnal and do their silk weaving during this time

5. All spiders produce silk and have 8 legs

6. Spiders hear and smell through the tiny hairs on their legs

Dragonflies - Snake Doctors, Devil's darning Needle, skeeter hawk and more

As with other garden visitors, dragonflies are normally seen flying through the garden gracefully and effortlessly. Mostly solitary insects, they have been known to fly in pairs and/or small groups. The distinctive shape and dragonfly has inspired lots of different nicknames for this insect and folklore does not hold back. These names include snake doctor, devil’s darning needle, skeeter hawk, spindle, snake eyes, and ear sewer. Each nickname leading back to old stories pass down from generation to generation. Containing over 5000 species, their range is wide and can be found in most parts of the world. Their long bodies, sets of wings, dangling legs and super large eyes make them stand out from other insects.

Dragonflies start their life cycle as eggs laid on or near water. Once hatched, they are considered a larvae (nymphs or naiads) that obtain oxygen underwater through gills. After several molts, the nymphs emerge out of the water and eventually does one last molt into adulthood. The result is a newly emerged dragonfly that, after a few hours of drying, will fly off and continues the last stage of its lifecycle.

Dragonflies have the ability to catch their prey while in flight and their prey normally consist of small flying insects. They also find and mate while in mid air. In order to do such acrobatic feats their muscles must first be warm and they have been seen basking in the sun (on a log, tree limb, or anything protruding object), in order to absorb the heat from the sun.

The benefits of having dragonflies around is that they do their share in pest control by eating mosquitoes, midges, butterflies, moths, bees, flies and sporadically other dragonflies. Larger dragonflies will eat their own body weight every day.

1. Most dragonfly species have transparent wings

2. They can see almost 360 degrees around them

3. The largest current dragonfly species has a wingspan of up to 6 inches (~150mm)

4. Dragonfly larvae can catch and eat small fish

5. Fossilized dragonfly specimens have been found to be over 2 feet in length

6. A single dragonfly can reportedly eat anywhere from 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day

Braconid Wasp - Deadly predators

Quite possibly one of nature's more amazing predators is the Braconid Wasp. This wasp takes the term "seek and destroy" to a whole new level.

Braconid Wasps are small wasps with narrow waists, long antennae, and ant-like heads. Their body color ranges from the usual black to red and sometimes orange as well.

One of the great champions in the home and commercial gardens, they help target pest insects by targeting them and controlling them naturally. They do so by taking the role of a parasite to pest insects. Primarily targeting horn worms that threaten tomato and tobacco crops, they also are known to control aphids, beetles, flies, moths and even butterflies. This is done by way of laying their eggs in or on the host prey and thus, creating a platform from which their offspring will feast and obtain nourishment. Eventually, this process ends up killing the host and preventing it from causing more damage to the crop plant. The stage in which this occurs are usually at the larval stage. Generally, when a female wasp encounters a host, it lays its eggs into the host body. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the host body from the inside. Once they reach the point to where they can pupate, they then make their way onto the outside of the host body and create pupae there. This is done by spinning cocoons on the host's body where they will stay until they emerge as tiny adults. After hatching they go out and start the process over.

They are specialized to target particular hosts for each species and thus their life cycle is specific to the host's life cycle.

1. They can be found in urban areas, forests and woodlands, wetlands

2. Braconid wasps are considered parasitoids

3. They are specialized to target particular hosts for each species and thus their life cycle is specific to the host's life cycle

4. Wasps are usually less than 1/2" long

5. They do not sting

6. There are over 15,000 species of Braconid Wasps

Beneficial insects are extremely valuable to the garden. Now that we know which common ones you can find, we can use them to help combat the effects of pests naturally without harmful chemicals. This will lead to a better environment for future generations and maybe help lead to a healthier gardening culture.

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