While much of what we do as organic gardeners focuses on watching out for "bad" bugs -- those pesky ones who eat our plants and spread diseases -- it is just as important to know which bugs we should be welcoming into our gardens. These beneficial insects pollinate our plants and are more effective than we could ever hope to be at keeping insect pests under control. There are many beneficial insects, and I'll be writing more articles about good bugs in the future, but the five in this article are easily recognizable and common in most gardens. If you see them hanging around, you're doing something right!
If you're growing vegetables, you need bees. Crops such as melons, pumpkins and other squashes, apples and other tree fruit and many others are pollinated by bees. Without plenty of these helpful insects buzzing around your garden, you'd have to be sure to hand-pollinate.
How to Attract Bees: Plant a variety of flowering plants for continuous bloom and nectar sources all season long. Leave some of your soil unmulched to attract ground bees. Have a shallow water sources, such as a saucer or mud puddle available for the bees. Leave a dead tree standing, if at all possible. Mason bees may make their home there.
Lacewings are voracious predators. Both the adults and larvae feed on aphids, scales, thrips, mealybugs, and caterpillars.
How to Attract Lacewings: If you haven't seen many lacewings around, you can order lacewing larvae either online or from some nurseries. To attract them (and make them want to stay a while) plant sweet alyssum, coreopsis, and cosmos throughout your garden.
3. Ground Beetles
Your first reaction upon seeing a big black ground beetle might be to squish it -- don't do it! They are great partners to have in your garden. Because they're nocturnal (digging down into mulch and other organic matter during the day) they're great at keeping those night-time pests under control. Slugs, snails, and cutworms are just three of the more than 50 types of pests the ground beetle hunts. You'll want plenty of these in your garden!
How to Attract Ground Beetles: Because they make their homes in decaying plant matter (and lay their eggs there, as well) you'll want to mulch your garden well, all year long. Perennials provide a good place for them to overwinter as well, but if you don't have perennials in part of your garden (such as in a veggie garden) then just be sure to mulch for the winter.
4. Soldier Beetles
Soldier beetles are rather mercenary in their dietary preferences; they're just as likely to hunt the good bugs as they are the bad bugs. Even so, soldier beetles deserve to be welcomed into any garden. They help control pests such as aphids and many types of caterpillars.
How to Attract Soldier Beetles: Soldier beetles are attracted to goldenrod and catnip.
5. Lady Beetles
Lady beetles (ladybugs) are probably the first thing that comes into most people's minds when they hear the term "beneficial insect," and with good reason. While the adults eat a fair share of aphids, mealybugs, and mites, it's their larvae that are the true heroes. The larvae look like "bad bugs," on first glance: black and red, like miniature alligators making their way through your garden. But they have voracious appetites, and can get an aphid or mite infestation under control in no time.
How to Attract Lady Beetles: Lady beetles are attracted to members of the parsley family: think carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, and yarrow.
Of course, the best way to be sure that you're attracting beneficial bugs to your garden is to follow basic organic gardening practices: not spraying chemicals, mulching, and diversifying your planting. Do these three things, and chances are good that you'll have plenty of good bugs calling your garden "home."