Learning to love bugs in your garden

by Jan Spann

Not all bugs are bad. In fact, some insects can be the best tools to help fight the bugs you don’t want.

An essential aspect of being a good gardener is to learn the difference between pests and beneficial insects. So, as we snuggle inside our warm homes awaiting spring, consider the benefits nature offers us.

The perfect garden is not one with zero insects. Your garden is a small ecosystem, and an ideal garden will have many flying pollinators, predators, butterflies as well as arthropods in the soil. A garden in balance has predators and the pests on which the beneficials feed.

Horticulture professionals recommend an integrated pest management system, where chemical control is used only when the natural environment has lost its balance.

Pesticides used as the first line of defense actually encourage a greater probability of the insects we don’t want.

As part of the food chain, good bugs are an important component of a healthy system in your garden. Spiders hit the top of our “Ew!” list, but these arachnids are nature’s most effective predator, eating tons of pests each year. Of the 38,000 spider species, only four are poisonous. Your garden will be much healthier if you don’t crush these creatures. Create an environment for spiders by providing places for homes or web attachment, such as tall plants and mulch. Just walk away and leave them to their business.

Beetles are other friends in the garden, and the one you’ll most recognize is the ladybug. And while most of us easily identify the adult bug, it’s important to know that the lady beetle starts as orange or yellow oval-shaped eggs, found in the spring or summer in a protected spot like a plant stem or under a gutter. The black larva stage resembles tiny alligators with spines and spots, so let them grow, and they will feast on mealybugs and aphids, which can cause serious damage to your plants and shrubs.

The glossy black beetles in your garden enrich the soil and feed on cutworms, aphids, weevils, maggots and slugs. Even if you find them icky, just leave them alone, and your garden will be the better for it. Other bugs to encourage are lacewings, dragonflies, centipedes, parasitic wasps and praying mantises.

Invisible to the naked eye, microorganisms like bacteria, nematodes and fungi kill pests through disease. You can encourage their habitat by keeping gardens mulched with leaves over the winter. Nature’s best mulch, leaves decompose through the wet, chilly winter months, adding nutrients to your soil and allowing these tiny creatures to do their work. This vast web of life depends on nutrients, not chemicals. In addition to leaf mulch, compost or compost tea comprises the simplest and best ways to support your garden’s ecosystem. Pull back the leaf mulch in spring to see soil that’s rich and ready for new growth.

In addition to the creepy crawlies, pollinators like bees, butterflies and fritillaries are essential for garden health. Flowering plants evolved with insects as their primary pollinators, so it’s especially important to avoid chemical pesticides when plants are in bloom. Flowers that later become the seeds, fruits and berries that we eat require pollinators and have evolved to attract them. These pollinators are even more susceptible to synthetic chemical pesticides.

Because of declining honeybee populations, farmers from Maine to South Carolina to California now rent these pollinators. Rented bees start the year pollinating almond trees in California, then move on to apples, cherries and blueberries in other states in the spring, then go to the Midwest to pollinate clover and alfalfa, finishing their trek in the blueberry fields of Maine.

“The pollination companies are the cowboys and the bees are the cattle,” said Anthony Jadczak, Maine’s apiarist, where 4.8 billion honeybees are imported annually. “They just herd them around the country.”

By now you might be wondering how you can possibly determine what’s good and what’s a bad bug in your garden. Once again, nature has the answer for that. When your landscape includes native trees, shrubs and perennials, you will naturally attract the predators that will do battle against the pests. Problems in our garden’s balance arise when we choose non-natives, as these varieties too often have pests with no predators and thus require a chemical solution.

Pesticides and chemicals are certainly part of a home gardener’s arsenal, and these products should be used cautiously as they can do more harm to the creatures that aid your garden ecosystem. Read labels and spray carefully when natural methods haven’t worked. Insecticidal dust is most hazardous to bees, while water-soluble compounds and granules are the safer choices. Remove standing water in containers and pot saucers, as this is mosquito breeding heaven. Stacked pots are attractive to ant infestations, so rotate your pots occasionally to deter them.

Spray your vegetables with bio-degradable soap (works on ornamentals, too). Use plants that emit odors that are unpleasant to pests, like catnip, basil, mint and chives. You can also boil plants like ginger, garlic, horseradish and cayenne and spray it as another all-natural solution.

If you’re interested in learning more about natural pest control, Arbico Organics (arbico-organics.com) is one of several online companies, and you can also find non-chemical solutions at your local garden center. You’ll find beneficial insects and organisms as well as traps, books and other resources. You can also find information at uaex.edu, the website for the U of A Cooperative Extension Service.

In a perfect garden, our plants and critters would live in harmony, with lovely blooms and only the butterflies and fireflies to grace the air. But in reality, our best garden will have plants with holes in their leaves, spider webs and creepy crawlies protecting our plants’ roots. Yes, a messy garden is OK, and the garden we share with all aspects of nature is even better.

According to an American Quaker saying, “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.”


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardene
rs for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.