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A bug’s life: A look at who’s who in the garden

May 4th, 2016 | Category: Growing

by Kate Ferry

A healthy garden is a beautiful system of organisms coexisting in a symbiotic relationship. Each piece of this community depends on the relationships with each other for food, survival, protection and success to create an elaborate infrastructure. The smallest of organisms, using the all encompassing term “bugs” to cover insects and arachnids, can play one of the largest roles in the success of growing healthy plants from below the ground and up.

Beckett, 7, looks at bugs at the Chuckanut Center’s “Kids and Bugs” event held in April.  PHOTO BY KATE FERRY

Beckett, 7, looks at bugs at the Chuckanut Center’s “Kids and Bugs” event held in April. PHOTO BY KATE FERRY

Insects, Hemiptera (also known as true bugs), are defined as small invertebrate animals with six legs, one or two pairs of wings, a three-part body, compound eyes or antennae. With respect to growing plants, this group can be divided into two parts – beneficial insects and pests. Beneficial insects prefer to eat bug juices over plant juices and can be subdivided into two groups – Predators and Parasitoids.

Predators are insects that do not harm plants and only focus on eating other insects. The Arachnida  (spiders, scorpions) family, which are not insects, are also considered predators. Specialists are predators that have a specific diet of one or two insects, while generalists are indiscriminate and always find something to eat in most gardens.

The Lady Beetle is considered an excellent barometer of a garden’s general health. These generalists feast on aphids, mites and mealy bugs and are attracted to Brassica vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower), sunflowers, tansy and sweet alyssum.

The Soldier Beetle lives in the ground, particular damp soil, and feasts on soil insects like maggots, grubs, caterpillars and grasshopper eggs.

Lacewings, and their larvae, are nicknamed the “Aphid Lion” for their voracious appetite making them one of the best generalists.  They are attracted to plants of the carrot family, including bishops lace, coriander/cilantro, fennel and dill.

The Syrphid Fly (or “hover fly”) has a dual purpose in the garden with assisting in pest control as it eats aphids and contributes to pollination. Its black and yellow splotched body, think “bee like,” is indicative of its role near flowers.

Parasitoids are insects that lay their eggs on or in other insects.  Fly Parasitoids, including the common tachinid fly, go after an enormous variety of pests including termites, ants, crickets, caterpillars, slugs and snails. Wasp Parasitoids are tiny, non-stinging specialists that should not be confused with the fear inducing wasps, like hornets and yellow jackets, that sting and attack.

We spend a lot of time planning what we want to grow,  and it is also important to consider the pests we may be inviting to settle in. If you would like to attract beneficial insects, “A good rule of thumb is to fill your garden with colorful, fragrant, flowering, diversified plants,” said Bruce Kosanovic, master gardener.

Creating your garden space to attract beneficial insects is rewarding and beautifying. At the beginning of planting, the parents will be the first residents. It is important to maintain a suitable habitat of moisture, shelter and nutrition (carbohydrates from nectar and protein from pollen) to encourage the growth of larvae and for the numbers to build up. Beneficial insects are generally small in size and attracted to shallow, clustering flowers.

According to Alison Kutz of Sound Horticulture, “Here in the northwest the biggest troublemakers for vegetable growers are cabbage maggots, carrot rust flies, aphids and wireworms.” We can follow the basic guidance of having a variety of plants from the Composite family (daisy, calendula, pyrethrum, yarrow, chamomile, marigolds, cosmos, sunflowers) and Umbel family (coriander, dill, angelica, parsley, chervil). You can also go bigger and plant Oak trees in your yard, a wonderful haven to encourage butterflies.

Beneficial insects offer a healthy alternative to treating problematic issues, but are not a quick fix and take patience, time and a bit of trial and error to find their niche.

Most pests are attracted to a certain scent that their food of choice gives off. Pests that attack the cabbage family of vegetables are attracted to the mustard oils these plants have. An additional method of controlling pests is to plant a pungent vegetable or herb, like tomatoes and alliums, nearby to mask this scent and discourage the pests.

Want to learn more about bugs?

“Did you know that less than 1% of the insect species in the world are the so-called bad bugs that eat us, our livestock, and/or our food? The other 99% are necessary to keeping a healthy environment in our gardens. They help pollinate our crops, eat the bad bugs, and help keep our gardens healthy in many ways.” —WSU Snohomish Extension

Following are two upcoming events and other sources to learn more about bug identification.

Learn the Good, Bad and (very) Ugly About Stink Bugs: Tuesday, May 24. The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) is a new invasive species, native to the far east, which is beginning to be found in the Puget Sound area. It is both a garden pest, feasting on a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and ornamentals, as well as a household pest noted for overwintering by the thousands in attics and walls. Learn to identify and control them as well as other stink bugs at this WSU-Snohomish County Extension workshop. 10 a.m. Extension Education Center, McCollum Park, 600 – 128th St. SE, Everett. The cost is $30. For more information and to register, please call (425) 357-6039.

The Lazy Gardener’s Guide to Insect Management: Saturday, May 28. Learn to minimize your lawn and garden pest frustration with Bev Gerdeman from WSU. She’ll teach you to identify locally common insects and the damage they do to plants; select plants to minimize frustration, understand the seasonal life cycle of insects, and attract beneficial insects to your garden. 10:30-noon. Anacortes Public Library, 1220 10th St. Part of Transition Fidalgo’s Skill Share workshops.

Master Gardeners’ Diagnostic Plant Clinics: Master Gardener Volunteer Educators, through the WSU Extension, are available regularly during the gardening season to answer your questions and help you figure out what’s wrong with your plants. Each county has an Extension, so contact your local chapter for help.

Books/Websites: Check out the Plant Disease Management Handbook, a Pacific Northwest Extension Publication that is revised annually, as well as  A Pocket Guide – Common Natural Enemies of Crop and Garden Pests in the Pacific Northwest, produced by the Oregon State University Extension Service and Oregon Tilth. Websites such as are also helpful.

–Grow Northwest


Published in the May 2016 issue of Grow Northwest 

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