I know this is going to come as a shock to some readers, but not all bugs are bad. In fact, while there are over 1 million species of insects worldwide, less than 1% are problem pests! This problem 1%, composed of common garden pests, including aphids, stinkbugs, nuisance caterpillars, and scales, get all the attention and for good reason; they can be extremely destructive to home and commercial crops. However, the good guys, beneficial predatory insects, are out there too, providing valuable pest control day and night and should be considered in part of a quality garden pest management strategy.
Beneficials come in many shapes and sizes. Some are commonly known predators, such as spiders, Lady Beetles and Praying Mantids, while others are lesser known pest nemeses, like Paper Wasps, Pirate Bugs, and Lacewings. Regardless, gardeners should do their homework and be able to identify beneficials when they see them and allow them to do their jobs. The presence, or not, of a handful of Lady Beetles or Lacewings on the attack can be the difference between needing to treat with insecticides for an aphid outbreak or just letting nature take its course. Studies have shown that just one individual Lady Beetle in the larval stage can consume as many as 500 aphids; adult Lady Beetles are even hungrier aphid eaters! Paper Wasps, you know the ones who make the large “papery” nests around eaves of house and other structures, play an important beneficial role, frequently preying on caterpillars. If their nests aren’t near highly trafficked areas around your home and you don’t have family members allergic to wasp stings, your garden will thank you for leaving a few paper wasp colonies as caterpillar insurance!
In many instances, beneficial insects can keep pest insect infestations at bay, allowing gardeners to spot treat outbreaks when they get out of hand or even prevent the problem from needing chemical intervention altogether.
As helpful as they are, beneficial insects in the garden won’t totally negate the need for chemical treatment entirely. From time to time, garden pest populations outpace the beneficials’ abilities to kill them and intervention from humans is needed. In these times, it is advisable to use a couple of best practices to limit exposure to beneficial insects. First, try to use selective insecticides that only target specific pests and are nontoxic to other bugs, like the product Bt for caterpillar pests (sold under many brands like Dipel, Garden Safe Bt Worm and Caterpillar Killer, Thuricide, etc). However, if a nonselective, general insecticide, like the Pyrethroids (many common homeowner insecticide brands) and carbamates (Sevin and others), is needed, timing these broad spectrum sprays for early in the morning and late in the evening when many beneficials are not very active can help reduce friendly fire casualties. Care should also be taken to only spot treat infested plants and not the entire garden, this helps reduce beneficial exposure to these broadly toxic pesticides.
Every gardener should have a plan for pest control and beneficials can play an important role in this overall strategy. Gardeners can help ensure that nature pulls its weight in controlling problem pests by taking a little time to scout for beneficial insect populations, keeping a close eye on developing pest outbreaks, using selective insecticides when you can, and only spraying broad spectrum products as spot treatments when necessary and timing those applications for very early or late in the day. If you have a question about whether or not a garden insect is a good guy or a pest or want more information on garden pest control strategies, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office! Happy Gardening!
The following resources were used in the development of this article:
- Be a Better Gardener with Raised Beds - March 16, 2023
- Getting Your Plants Through a Freeze - December 22, 2022
- Satsuma Fruit Puffiness in North Florida - December 22, 2022