There is little more gratifying than the beauty of a well-maintained flower garden. And nothing compares to a robust vegetable garden full of delicious fresh produce. Unfortunately, along with the beauty comes the beast. One, then two, then a whole family of plant-eating, life-sucking bugs will work their way across the landscape, resulting in utter plant death. But all is not lost. For every bad bug there are plenty of good bugs fighting on our side.
But when is it time to reach for the spray or let the bugs duke it out in the garden? Here's what you need to know about beneficial insects this gardening season.
Probably the most recognized and welcome predator in any garden is the ladybug. Feeding on a wide variety of insects, it is best known for consuming aphids. Aphids are light green, yellow, blue or brown soft-bodied insects that can be found on a wide variety of garden plants. Although the adults are recognized by children in kindergarten, their juvenile stage is not so well-known.
Immature lady bugs have even a larger appetite for luscious little aphids. However, they look nothing like the adults. Immature lady beetles are small, about a quarter-inch long, and have black legs with a long, slender body. They are not red with black spots, but bluish with orange stripes. However, they can be found on a wide variety of plants searching for an all-you-can-eat aphid buffet. When you see these bugs, let them go. Better yet, carefully transport them to a plant that you know has aphids, and they will thank you by cleaning up the plant.
A lesser-known but equally beneficial insect is the lacewing. Green lacewings can be identified by their delicate green-to-brownish glassy wings that have a characteristic "lacy" venation. The front wings are slightly larger than the hind ones, and the veins have a netlike appearance. Lacewings can be found flying around vegetable and flower gardens searching for a meal all summer long.
Some adults feed in insects, while others prefer nectar or pollen. The juveniles devour aphids and other injurious insects and are considered highly beneficial. The less recognizable larvae have sickle-shaped jaws and are often camouflaged by pieces of debris stuck to their body. Probably the most recognized stage of development of this species is the egg stage. They are small eggs perched atop of a tall, thin stalk. Oftentimes gardeners will come across these structures and destroy them. Take heed and leave them alone. When they hatch, the resulting insects will be a wonderful ally to have on your side.
Finally, no talk on beneficial insects would be complete without spiders. Although not considered true insects, these arachnids do more good than harm. Consuming numerous insects, they can help keep a garden clean of grasshoppers, moths and other flying and crawling insects.
One of the most impressive spiders is the golden garden spider. These large spiders can be found in most gardens, flower beds and bushes across Kansas. Easily recognized by the highly contrasting black, yellow and silvery white markings, these spiders look far more dangerous than they are. They construct large webs and hang head-downward in the middle. Kids of all ages enjoy tossing grasshoppers into the web to watching the spider attack and wrap its victim in silk. Leave well enough alone as these spiders will feed on damaging insects all summer long.
These are just a few of the many beneficial insects that can be found working on our side. There are many more that we don't know about or rarely see. There are some things, however, we can do to help attract these "friends" to our gardens. In many cases, the adults will use flowers for food by drinking the sugary-sweet nectar and consuming the protein-rich pollen. Likewise, they can use flowers as "singles bars." There, they can find a mate that can lead to larvae that help us immensely.
So plant flowers such as alyssum, coriander, dill, yarrow, black-eyed Susans and dwarf sunflowers to keep them happy. Finally, many beneficials are vagabonds that are always in search of prey. Use conventional pesticides sparingly because they not only kill the bad bugs but also the good ones.