Insects can get a bit of a bad press. Creepy crawlies are not for everyone but most insects are essential to sustainable biodiversity and usually have a very important role to perform.
How can insects be beneficial to the gardener?
Some insects such as honey bees and bumblebees are pollinators of flowers and other garden occupants such as vegetables and fruit. Bees have huge support and their decline in a number of countries around the world has had mass media attention. But there are other less well-known and attractive pollinators, certain types of flies for example.
Other insects work with the gardener and help to control pests – these are called predators. In simple terms, they eat large numbers of either one type or many and varied garden pests. In this category, you may find certain spiders, ground beetles, ladybugs, damsel bugs, green lacewings and Tachinid flies. Think of them as nature’s own biological warfare.
There is a third category and these are called Parasitoids, these are insects which parasite on another insect called the host usually resulting in the host’s destruction. Stingless wasps are one such example.
A delicate balance
There is a delicate ecological balance between beneficial insects and insects who have a bad press.
The symbiosis between them is interesting as generally, the pests need to be present in some numbers in order to attract and maintain a thriving population of the good guys. Beneficial insects won’t keep your garden parasite-free so you might feel that you need to use other measures as and when appropriate. But if you declare war on the insects that you don’t want and obliterate them, you will probably find that you deter and eventually repel the insects that you do want – the one needs the other to survive. If you do decide to use pesticides then think carefully about which one, how much and when or you could seriously upset the natural ecosystem going in your garden.
So what can you plant to attract beneficial insects?
Understanding the life cycle of beneficial insects can encourage good planting habits. All the three categories of beneficial insects but in particular, the pollinators, are attracted by a range of different blooms. Planting specifically to encourage good insects involves a variety of plants sometimes known as ‘insectary plants’.
Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus), a native perennial insectary plant belonging to the Plantaginaceae family, has showy violet-blue flowers on tall stems that blooms in June. These flowers attract hoverflies, ladybugs and bees in addition to hummingbirds.
You can spot plant these insectary plants throughout your garden or dedicate a complete area for them, whichever works best with your garden layout and design. Remember that some beneficial insects are non-flying so having rough or uncultivated areas on the ground is also important as is the provision of water. The majority of your beneficial insects will be fliers and so if they can’t find water in your garden then they will be tempted elsewhere to look for it and may not return.
Here we list some of the best insectary plants grouped in terms of flowers, herbs and vegetables.
Chamomile, Blazing Star, Marigold, Mexican Sunflower and Dandelion.
Dill, Lovage and Cilantro.
Broccoli and alfalfa.
Ladybugs enjoy coriander and fennel, dandelion and dill. Lacewings also like coriander and dandelion whilst hoverflies are attracted by common yarrow, coriander and wild bergamot.
Create wildflower areas or subtly mix in insectary plants with other blooms and fruit and vegetables. Remember that your level of bad bugs may skyrocket if you stop using a pesticide. Be patient as the good guys will do their job but you have to wait for nature’s leveling out effect. Don’t lose faith and panic, killing off their food source as you will deprive your beneficial insects of what they need to thrive on. It’s the perversity of nature’s clever interrelationships.
Try and understand the feeding habits of the insects you would like to encourage. Some of them will prefer feeding at height whereas others will want ground cover and low growing plants such as herbs. Oregano and thyme are ideal in this regard and the perfect habitats for ground beetles. A variety of plants of different types in terms of height and flower arrangement will create the greatest diversity in your garden.
Why encourage beneficial insects?
If you get smart with beneficial insects then you can reduce or even eliminate your reliance on toxic chemicals – better for you particularly if you are growing fruit and veg and better for the environment.
Chemicals will destroy the good, the bad and the ugly and ultimately are not effective in the long term whilst in the short term; they will have killed off the beneficial insects you want to encourage. It’s cheaper for your wallet too as well as better for the environment. Harness nature’s own weaponry and save some bucks and the planet into the bargain.
Optimise your environment
The World Wildlife Fund has some great advice about gardening for your environment and climate, working with your local conditions and supporting wildlife and insect life to create a real haven of plants and nature.
Growing a natural garden means accepting which plants work best in your climate and ecosystem, harnessing nature to create a biodiverse environment that is self-supporting and not chemically reliant. This means developing a habitat that welcomes both the good and the less good insects which are of course interdependent and also planting in such a way to support good environmental practices. And in all this, you can create a garden that you will be rightly proud of.
Beneficial insects will bring your garden to life, with life, flying, buzzing and crawling with activity. It will have a vibrancy that makes it not just a garden but a demonstration of nature in balance, doing what it does best which is being allowed to regulate itself.