Attracting the Good Guys
From the title, you might think that Bug Bytes has suddenly become an advice column for the lovelorn. Actually, since I began gardening here at the Butterfly Pavilion, I’ve learned to find emotional drama on a much smaller scale. Why else would I curse when I see a cluster of aphids on a new milkweed leaf, or laugh at the uncanny appearance of a praying mantis?
Okay, okay. I can accept that not everyone gets all gushy at the sight of a ladybug larvae (cootchie-cootchie coo!), but I will report that this small-scale soap opera is yielding many benefits for our habitat gardens here. We don’t use any pesticides in our gardens at the Butterfly Pavilion; butterflies and other beneficial invertebrates (the “good guys” of the title) are very sensitive to chemical contaminants, and the risk of wiping them out is just too great. In order to keep our gardens happy and healthy, we have to rely on other pest management (notice I didn’t say “pest elimination” or “pest Armageddon”) techniques.
The first principle is to monitor the garden closely. That’s right, watch your garden as if it was “The Sopranos” and “Wild Kingdom” combined. Actually, those ladybug larvae are pretty bloodthirsty, if you’re an aphid. By paying attention to your garden inhabitants, you can get a pretty good idea of how healthy your garden is and catch pest problems before they get out of hand. Here at the Butterfly Pavilion, we keep a running tally of what insects visit our plants and in what numbers. We also note what plants seem to suffer the most, and what plants attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies and beetles.
The second principle is to make your garden a home for beneficial insects. Do you envision yourself building thumbtack-size condos for ladybugs? Don’t worry, creating bug habitat is much simpler, and more satisfying. Predators of garden pests need food and shelter just like any other creature. Many beneficials need nectar as an energy source in their adult phase. Most healthy perennial gardens, if grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, do a fine job of attracting ladybugs, parasitoid wasps, praying mantises, hoverflies and the like. There are some plants, such as fennel, yarrow and rabbitbrush, which seem to bring the good guys in droves, however.
Of course, it is important to learn how to recognize a beneficial insect. Often, when I’m releasing ladybugs in our habitat garden, visitors will ask me about these strange black alligator-looking bugs they’ve seen in their own backyards. Are they pests? Will they bite? How relieved they are when I tell them they’ve just spotted a baby ladybug…and how relieved I am when they haven’t sprayed it yet! There are some great insect field guides available, and of course, the Internet has information on insect identification. A few minutes of research can mean a much happier garden for plants, people and wildlife.
Our habitat gardens at the Butterfly Pavilion are well-established and experience very few pest problems. To be honest, the biggest pest problem comes from the vertebrates: rabbits, voles and litterbugs. One of the goals of habitat gardening is to create a sustainable mini-ecosystem, and our “good guys” have made this possible.
Posted by Amy Yarger