One of the incredible benefits of living in Florida is exposure to the biodiversity of our wildlife population. From ordinary squirrels and mockingbirds to the more exotic panthers and migratory tropical birds, it is rare one can step outside the house without seeing or hearing wildlife of some variety. One of the practices we “preach” here at Extension is to provide habitat for wildlife in our yards and gardens. While cities and neighborhoods are human-centric, we share these spaces with thousands of wild animals, birds, fish, and insects and should always consider them in our actions.
Attracting birds and butterflies are popular pastimes, and Extension faculty can provide a tremendous amount of information on their preferences and food sources. However, a few unsung critters deserve homes and space as well. Just yesterday, I took a call from a gentleman who was excited to discover a small colony of bats roosting in a tree on his property. He was looking for ways to encourage them to stay, because he realized the countless benefits they provide in free insect control. Many people are nervous around bats of because of their unpredictable, irregular night flight pattern and association with scary stories. However, an average Florida bat can eat 1,000 insects a night, keeping pest populations down, reducing mosquito-borne disease, and saving millions of dollars in crop damage.
In our demonstration garden today, I was delighted to walk up on a black racer sunning itself in the grass. These common garden snakes provide valuable pest control of rats and mice, and are not aggressive or venomous. The fear of snakes often comes from the surprise of finding one unexpectedly, so always be alert and observant when outdoors. Respect for these creatures and a basic working knowledge of common venomous and nonvenomous species can go a long way towards calming one’s nerves. An excellent resource for snake identification in north Florida is this online guide. Like many snakes, this particular snake had been in tall grass, so it is always wise to be cautious in those areas.
This black racer sunning in the grass must have gotten the message about utilizing habitat provided for wildlife! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
To attract wildlife, learn about their life cycle and food sources, and provide shelter, water, and food for the species you are interested in attracting. Keep in mind that inviting wildlife may also draw their predators, but know that this is part of the larger cycle. Always keep safety in mind, and if necessary keep tall vegetation and deep water to a minimum in play areas frequented by young children. The benefits of providing food and shelter for wildlife are countless for human observers and wildlife alike.
Many gardeners plant a spring vegetable garden with a number of different vegetable types, which is excellent because a diverse and varied garden is proven to improve soil health. Intercropping is a gardening practice of growing different crops in the same field. When planting a mixture of crops in the same field year after year, it is important to rotate the location of each type of vegetable. This is a practice known as crop rotation. Intercropping and crop rotation will help reduce insect pest populations, increase beneficial insect populations, and reduce weed populations .
Including plants that pest insects don’t like to eat in a garden forces the pests work harder to find what they find palatable. Studies have found reduced whitefly numbers on squash plantings mixed with a crop of buckwheat when compared to squash planted alone. Another crop mixture that may be unintentional, but may be favorable, is a crapemyrtle stand along a garden’s edge. Crapemyrtles will attract the crapemyrtle aphid which will attract predatory insects. When the predatory insects run out of crapemyrtle aphids to eat, they will move to the vegetable garden and begin to hunt pest insects.
Squash with living mulch of buckwheat. Photo Credit: Oscar Liburd, UF/IFAS Extension
A trap crop is a plant that attracts a pest insect away from your food crops. Trap crops work best when planted at the garden’s edge, along a fence row, or in movable containers. A bare space, let’s say 5 feet or so, should be kept between trap crops and vegetable plantings. This will help keep the pests from moving desirable crops plants. When a large population of pests are found on the trap crop then it is time to spray them with insecticide, or cut the crop down and remove or destroy the debris. If trap crops are planted in containers, then it makes them much easier to remove from the garden when necessary.
Cover Crops and Green Manure
Soil organic matter can be increased by the use of green manure and cover crops. Cover crops are generally planted during the off-season, but they can be planted in between vegetable rows and tilled in at a designated time as a green manure. Both cover crops and green manure improve garden production by:
- Suppressing weeds by competing for water, light, and nutrients;
- Holding the soil in place and preventing erosion;
- Scavenging for nutrients that can be utilized in future crops;
- Reducing nematode populations;
- Providing a habitat for beneficial insects.
A mixed plot of cover crops and trap crops. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, UF/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
A number of different crops can serve as cover crops or green manure crops. Most are legumes (bean family) or grasses. A few that should be tried are:
- Sunn hemp
- Winter rye
More detailed information on cover crops and green manure can be found at this link: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217.
This tomato hornworm is being parasitized by beneficial wasps. Photo credit: Henry Crenshaw
Why would anyone allow dozens of wasps to thrive in their garden? Why would they let caterpillars keep moving through their pepper bushes? Don’t they know you can spray for that?
As Extension agents, one of the tenets we “preach” in gardening is the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This technique involves a series of insect control measures that begin with the “least toxic” method of control, using chemicals as a last resort. One of those least toxic measures is “biological control”, in which a natural predator or parasite is recognized and allowed to remove a pest insect naturally. It is important to be able to recognize some of the more common garden predators and parasites. Many times these insects look strange or dangerous, and they are mistaken for pests and killed.
One such beneficial insect to the home gardener is the braconid wasp (Cotesia congregatus). Most people shudder at the mention of wasps, but these tiny (1/8 inch long), mostly transparent wasps are of no danger to humans. Quite the opposite–they are an excellent addition to gardens, especially if you are growing tomatoes or peppers. One of the major pests to these favorite vegetables is the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), a fat green and white-striped caterpillar.
The beneficial wasp can control hornworms because females lay eggs under the caterpillar’s skin, after which the eggs hatch and larvae feed on the hornworm. After eating through the caterpillar, they form dozens of tiny white cocoons on the caterpillar’s skin. The tomato hornworm is rendered weak and near death, and the vegetable crop is saved.
If you happen to find a tomato hornworm covered in these small oval cocoons, consider yourself lucky. Let the process continue, allowing the new generation of beneficial wasps to hatch and continue their life cycle. They will control any future hornworms in your garden, and the whole process is fascinating to watch!
For questions on integrated pest management, beneficial insects, or growing peppers and tomatoes, call your local County Extension office.
In 2016, I wrote an article for Gardening in the Panhandle called “Attract Pollinators with Dotted Horsemint” introducing readers to this tough native plant that supports native pollinators. If you have flowers in your garden, you probably have pollinators and a whole lot of other insects but if you want a plant that lets you observe a really diverse palate of bugs dotted horsemint Monarda punctata.
When I find I have some downtime at home I have a habit of wandering the yard looking for interesting insects. Admittedly, I usually have my phone in hand hoping to get a great photo or video of my arthropod visitors, but it is a productive task, too. As strange as it may sound, I can count this hobby as part of my integrated pest management landscape maintenance strategy – scouting!
My favorite plant to visit on my scouting run is normally not afflicted with pests, but it hosts so many different insects it always gets a stop on my rounds. When dotted horsemint is in full flower it is visited by a lot more than pollinators. I’ve recorded daily visits from assassin bugs, ants, beetles, flies, dragonflies, spiders, thread-waisted wasps, honey bees, butterflies, and moths.
Here’s a photo album of frequent visitors to my dotted horsemint from this summer – enjoy!
A Florida Master Naturalist Uplands class visits the highest point in Florida, located in Walton County. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
For many Floridians, gardening is a window into learning the cycles of the natural world. Understanding pollination, distinguishing beneficial insects from harmful ones, creating compost, or knowing what time of year to apply iron supplements are important for a gardener to be successful. While we have our share of campers, hikers, and kayakers, over the years Extension agents have found that some of our best Master Naturalist students are those with fond memories of farming or gardening as children or adults.
If you have always been fascinated by the natural world and how plants, animals, and people interact, you might be a perfect candidate for the Master Naturalist program. Offered periodically in almost every county in Florida, this adult educational course combines classroom sessions with field instruction, typically over a six-week period. At graduation, students present an original project, which may vary from creating an exhibit, a children’s book, or even an environmental non-profit organization.
Master Naturalist students vary in backgrounds from retired military and teachers to park rangers and college students. Many Master Gardeners find the courses a helpful addition to their training, and utilize their newly gained knowledge when working with clientele. At completion, students receive an official Florida Master Naturalist certificate, pin, and patch.
The traditional 40-hour courses cover Upland, Coastal, and Freshwater Wetland habitats, while the newer “special topics” cover Conservation Science, Environmental Interpretation, Habitat Evaluation, and Wildlife Monitoring. A new “restoration” series has begun with the Coastal Restoration class, which kicked off in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and is currently being taught in Bay. Extension agents will be offering several classes in the Panhandle this fall—check out the FMNP registration site to see when a class will be offered near you!
Paper wasp, Photo Credit: UF/IFAS Extension
I respect the fact that wasps can sting when threatened or disturbed. But I also respect the fact that they are beneficial.
Every time I’ve been stung by wasps, I either accidentally disturbed a nest that I didn’t know was there or I intentionally disturbed the nest and paid the price.
Paper wasps are common in Florida. They frequently construct and attach their paper-like nests to building eaves or the ceilings of porches. The adults seek out caterpillars, which they sting and paralyze. They then take the caterpillars back to their nest and place them in individual cells as food for the developing larvae.
I’ve witnessed the paper wasp as it stings and carries away a caterpillar from my vegetable garden. They are busy insects and are doing us gardeners a favor by reducing the population of caterpillars in our landscapes and gardens.
There are other beneficial wasps in Florida. Mud daubers, for example, build their mud-like nests on the sides of buildings close to human activity.
Mud dauber, Photo Credit: UF/IFAS Extension
The mud dauber is not as aggressive as the paper wasp. It rarely stings people. It stings and paralyzes spiders. The mud dauber lays an egg on each paralyzed spider and seals it inside a chamber in its earthen nest. Upon hatching, the wasp larva feeds on the body of the spider. An emergence hole is made as the young wasp leaves the mud nest.
It may not be wise to tolerate all wasp species living in close proximity to your home. Even though yellow jackets, a type of wasp, could be considered beneficial, they are too aggressive and too likely to repeatedly sting to have as close neighbors. I also would be concerned with any type of wasp or bee nest existing in close proximity to individuals with a known allergy to insect stings.
Just because an insect has the ability to sting, it’s not all bad. Wasps can serve a beneficial purpose. But you’ll have to decide for yourself how close to you they can build their nests. The front porch may be too close.
Posted as part of the “Best Of” series, from August, 2014