Top Beneficial Insects for Your Garden!

Top Beneficial Insects for Your Garden!

Butterfly on a flower

"Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. 

So we might as well make peace with the landlord."

- Thomas Eisner

Pest control comes in all shapes and sizes! If you are trying to grow as organically as possible, then you need to be able to identify, learn about, and keep beneficial bugs returning to your garden every year! 

Beneficial insects save gardeners and farmers billions of dollars in pest control costs every year! And that helps keep chemicals out of the environment. Some even reduce the spread of disease and illness. And it doesn’t cost you a thing to encourage and keep these pest-hungry insects returning to your landscape! 

Many eat their body weight in pests every day - we’re sure they’ll earn their keep and make you glad you put in the effort on their behalf!

Top Beneficial Insects For Your Garden

Whether it’s your flower bed full of aphids, your breakfast nook plagued by mosquitoes, an orchard in need of pollination, or your vegetable garden that has some unwanted pests, beneficial insects are here to the rescue!

1. Honeybees, Bumblebees & Native Bees

Major pollinators the world over, Bees are always welcome (albeit sometimes a bit scary to be around) insects anywhere. With their decline around the world, there’s been a noted 90% decline in populations since 1962. These fuzzy flying bugs are responsible for a majority of all fruiting and flowering plant pollination. Honeybees alone pollinate 80% of all flowering plants! So their absence is noticed. 

However, before Honeybees were brought over to the States in the 17th century from Europe, native bees and bumblebees played their niche roles and did all the pollination heavy lifing here in North America before and with a little help from us, will continue picking up the slack.

Mostly solitary and stingerless, Solitary Bees are as important as Honeybees. It is just that Honeybees take the spotlight thanks to that delicious honey they create! All of these flying members of the Apidae family however face the same issues - habitat loss, native plant species decline, and loss, chemicals in their pollen and nectar, and climate change. 

With 4,000 native species of native Bee, honeybees, and bumblebees in the US, the top varieties here in the States are… Bee attached to flower

  • Sweat Bees
  • Blue Orchard Bees
  • Digger Bees
  • Leaf-Cutter Bees
  • Long-Horned Bees
  • Miner Bees
  • So Many More!

What to watch for and how to help

Provide water sources, keep an area ‘wild’ in your backyard, and plant native varieties that bees love and readily find growing in your neck of the woods. Avoid spraying pesticides on flowers, keep the dandelions and clover blooming until other food sources are available later in the spring, and don’t disturb hollow stems or small burrowed holes in the dirt until after spring.

2. Ladybugs

Over 200 species of native Ladybug, or Lady Bird Beetles, live here in the US and devour incredible amounts of soft-bodied plant-sucking insects! Also helping in a very small way to pollinate, these voracious insects eat pests both in larval and adult forms! Feasting on all kinds of aphids, mealybugs, thrips, leafhoppers, whiteflies, scale insects, and various mites that are major plant pests, while also eating nectar, pollen, and fungus.  Ladybug

  • Convergent Ladybug/Lady Beetle
  • Nine Spotted Ladybugs 
  • Two Spotted Ladybugs
  • Spotted Pink Ladybug
  • Transverse Ladybug
  • Parenthesis Ladybug

What to watch for and how to help

Leave hollow stemmed plants until spring or keep hollow stems, bamboo stems or Ladybug Hotels around for adults to hibernate in. Keep them in your garden with a water source, pesticide-free plants, pollen-rich native flowering plants, and plenty of places for them to stay out of the full sun or hide from birds and toads.

3. Praying Mantis

These unique and alien-looking insects sport four major varieties of native and naturalized varieties of Mantis here in the US and a few imports. Stealthy ambush predators, Mantids eat anything and everything they can catch (including each other), taking on even the most fearsome of prey without batting an eye. Long slender bugs with long folded forelimbs that can snatch and hold prey, Mantis are little garden ninjas that come in green, tan, and mottled gray coloration, depending on what they’re hiding on or in, and are common throughout vegetable andPraying Mantis flower gardens everywhere in the US. 

  • Chinese Mantis
  • European Mantis
  • Carolina Mantis 
  • Agile Mantis

What to watch for and how to help

Provide shrub and native plant cover for them to hide in, water sources, and pesticide-free areas for them to roam. Watch for round foamy-looking egg cases on plant stems and under leaves, or for long oval foamy-looking egg cases on fencing or your siding in the fall and spring. Be careful not to discard them with your yard waste to keep baby Mantis coming back every year.

4. Lacewing

You may not be familiar with these dainty garden fairies, but once you see one, you’ll always be able to recognize them! Named for their oversized wings compared to their small, slender, and delicate-looking bodies, they’re accented by long slender curving antennae. Both adults and larvae are voracious eaters of mites and other soft-bodied insects like aphids, caterpillars, lace bugs, leafhoppers, leafminers, mealybugs, psyllids, scales, and thrips! 

Also known as Net-Wing insects, their see-through lacy wings are usually bright mint green or tan as adults. They also like to eat nectar, pollen, and honeydew secreted from aphids. Their larvae are long, slender insects with descent jaws and resemble big thrips, but their appetite is insatiable - earning them the nickname aphid lions - one eating around 150 aphids per week! Don’t worry, they won’t sting or bite people! Lacewing

  • Green Lacewing
  • Brown Lacewings - Nocturnal
  • Dustywings - Minute and often mistaken as Whitefly
  • Antlions
  • Owlflies
  • Mantidflies
  • Snakeflies - Long necks

Some Lacewing larvae disguise themselves by wearing the shells of their victims, while others, like the Ant Lion (Antlion), dig funnels into loose dry sand to trap ants and other crawling insects. Sir David Attenborough narrates an amazing video of these little creatures in action.

What to watch for and how to help

Preferring to stay out of the full sun, and to move around during the twilight hours or at night, Lacewing often hangs out in any hiding spot on your siding, and in piles of leaves and branches. You may also see them gathering at the porch light like moths. 

Look for their eggs in the summer and fall which are very easy to identify - they look like tiny little bright green to white pearls standing erect from a leaf or stem surface on their own little slender stems. Often in clusters, the wands are tiny delicate things, so don’t be too hasty during garden clean up in the fall. If you can, and the leaves are not diseased or powdery mildew covered, leave them until spring so the larvae can hatch before you start your garden chores

Keep piles of undisturbed leaves and stems, a patch of wild area for them to hide in, turn off the porch light until much later in the evening, provide a water source and avoid spraying synthetic pesticides and spraying blooming plants. Plant the adults' favorite nectar and pollen-rich plants like Coreopsis, Cosmos, Yarrow, Goldenrod, Sunflowers, Queen Anne's Lace, and Marguerite Daisies.

5. Dragonfly, Darners & Skimmers

If you hate Mosquitoes as much as I do, you want these jet fighters in your garden! Snatching hundreds of mosquitoes from thin air a day, Dragonflies stop the itching bloodsuckers and slow the spread of disease that’s spread by these irritating little bugs in addition to about anything else they can catch while on the wing! Over 5,500 species in North America, these insects love water and tall grasses in sunny locations. Dragonfly on leaf

  • Dragonflies - Petaltails, Spiketails & Clubtails
  • Darners
  • Skimmers
  • River Cruisers
  • Damselflies

What to watch for and how to help

Dragonflies lay their eggs in and live for up to two years in the water. So living near or creating a year-round clean water source for these insects is the first step in attracting them. Once they molt and take to the wing, they can travel for miles around in search of food. 

Provide native plants, tall slender stems, and flat rocks for them to sunbathe in, a water source and pesticide-free shrubs, and native perennial plants for them to hide and hunt in. Pollinator-friendly plants, Milkweeds, Rudbeckia, Borage, Tall Joe Pye Weed, Meadow Sages, Yarrow (Achillea), and Pond Plants - Cattails, Rushes, Iris, Arrowhead, Horsetail, and Water Lily are some of their favorite plants.

6. Moths and Butterflies

Not just beautiful flying insects, Butterflies, and Moths are great pollinators and add a whimsical element to your landscape! Monarchs might get the spotlight, but here in the States, there are 72 species of Butterflies and nearly 11,000 species of Moths. While not as efficient as bees, Butterflies and moths are great pollinators, but their larvae can become a bit destructive to plants and crop varieties, but wasps and spiders help keep their numbers in check. We gladly put up with the damage because the adults are too pretty to go without!  Butterflies

With names like Viceroy, Red-Spotted Purple, Buckeye, Checkered White, Swallowtail, Fritillary, Skipper, Mourning Cloak, Comma and Question Mark, Hairstreak and Red Admiral to just barely break the tip of the iceberg of the butterfly world. For Moths, there are Sphinx, Tiger, Wood Satyr, Cecropia Silk Moths, Polyphemus, Tussock, and Gypsy Moths just to name a few.

What to watch for and how to help

Look for the unusual cocoons of butterflies attached to stems and under leaves, and the silk-spun cocoons of Moths in the bark of trees, on stems and branches or buried in the ground. 

These easy-going insects need pesticide-free flowers, a water source, and sunny areas full of native or nectar-rich flowering plants to eat from. Plus, you can plant their caterpillar their host plants, and native food sources to get more of your favorite Butterflies and Moths! Plant a pollinator garden a wildflower and a prairie garden, or benefit everyone with a cut flower garden!

7. Predatory Beetles

In addition to Ladybugs which are a type of Beetle, there are many hard-shelled Beetles that scour the landscape for food - both as adults and larvae! Soldier Beetles, Tiger Beetles, Ground Beetles, Blister Beetles, and Rove Beetles among others, all crawl around the nooks and crannies or burrow through the mulch, leaves and soil in search of prey.  Predatory beetle on leaf

  • There are over 2,000 species of Ground Beetles in North America. Feeding on caterpillars, slugs, snails, and grasshopper eggs
  • Blister Beetles seek out grasshopper eggs, soft-bodied insects, and grubs 
  • Rove Beetles devour root maggot larvae, mites, and other small insects
  • Soldier Beetles resemble adult Fireflies without the glowing end and eat soft-bodied insects, slugs and snails
  • Tiger Beetles eat other beetles, flies, caterpillars, ants, grasshopper nymphs and spiders

What to watch for and how to help

You won’t see too many Beetle eggs laying around, but you can leave some wild areas of native foliage plants, and yard waste in a pile in a back corner that’s out of the way, or let your compost pile go cold all fall and winter for them to hide in. Water sources, pesticide-free native wildflowers, weedy areas, piles of rocks for them to hide and forage in, your compost pile, and undisturbed rotting logs are their prime hideouts.

8. Wasps

Both the nest-building to solitary Wasp, and even the parasitizing species, Wasps are beneficial garden insects and major predators of caterpillars and other bugs that are damaging to plants in the garden. Also eating pollen and nectar as adults, Wasps of all kinds here in North America save us millions of dollars in free pest control. If you can let them live in areas away from your home and seating areas, please do! 

Adults will forage through your vegetable garden and landscape in search of caterpillars for their young and for nectar from their favorite plants. You may not notice the ground-dwelling and solitary Wasps, but their effect is just as positive all around! wasp on leafs

What to watch for and how to help

Watch for social Wasp paper nests and leave them alone as long as they are away from where you frequent, only destroying nests near areas you spend a lot of time in, especially if you are allergic to them. You may not notice solitary Wasp nests, but leave plants with hollow stems in place until mid-spring and don’t disturb any freshly dug holes the size of a pencil in the ground.

Attracting Wasps usually does not need much work on your part, rather allowing them to be when they are around. Though it does help to have a water source and not spray broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicides as they end up in the bodies of these insects as they eat bugs and pollen. Avoid spraying flowers and use target-specific treatments.

Plant native pollen-rich plants like Sunflowers, Sedum, Yarrow, Daisies, Goldenrod, Coreopsis, and flowers that are blue, purple, or white. They especially love Herb flowers, the flat-topped umbles of Dill, Fennel, and wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace, Hyssop, Boneset, and Asters.

9. Spiders

Yes, I’m going there… Spiders! For many with Arachniphobia, your skin is crawling now (if it wasn’t already after the mention of Wasps above). But Spiders are insanely beneficial superpredators to have in the garden! Most are the stuff of nightmares here in the States, but they do contribute to loads of free pest control every year. I may be a bit strange because I’m often found in the garden getting a close-up photo of a Zebra Jumping Spider or the jeweled fangs of a Phidippus Jumping Spider, or stopping to appreciate just how absolutely velvety-looking the hairy body of some types of Wolf Spiders can be!

From Orb Weavers and Garden Spiders that say in one place on their webs, to the flower-dwelling Crab Spiders, to the mobile hunters like Wolf Spiders, Lynx Spiders, and Sac Spiders, or the beloved free-roaming Jumping Spiders that pounce on their prey, all are voracious pest control. If you have a large pond, you may see an Aquatic Spider gliding over the surface gobbling up mosquito larvae. Spider in web

North America has Spiders with interesting names like the Bowl and Doily Spider, a variety of Spitting Spider that spits their web at prey! We also have Ground-Burrowing Spiders and Funnel Building varieties like the American Grass Spider that is nasty looking, but it’s the venomous Black Widows (Cobweb spiders) and wandering Brown Recluses you need to worry about around the garden.

What to watch for and how to help

There’s no real need to watch out for any egg cases of spiders in the garden since Spiders typically hide them well or protect them, or even carry them around with them. Garden favorites are the easily identifiable (Argiope) Banded Orb Weavers, and Black and Yellow Garden Spiders brownish, tear-drop-shaped, silk-spun egg cases in your garden and garden structures. Jumping spiders create silk-spun round, fine-textured, downy white pillows under about anything they can find. 

The best way to help beneficial spider species is to adopt a live-and-let-live strategy - if they're outside and not directly in your day-to-day path, let them remain and do their thing. Remove dangerous and venomous varieties as needed and don’t immediately smush one on sight if it's outdoors, just doing its thing and not a direct threat.

Spray for pest-specific issues and use organic control methods, or aromatic plants to chase Spiders away. In my garden, Banded Garden spiders or Jumping spiders are welcome sights and I guard their eggs closely all winter with the Mantis eggs in my garden (but then again, I’m a little weird that way!). 

Providing water sources, reducing chemical pesticides and going organic, avoiding broad-spectrum mass-killing pesticides, and education and identification are the best ways to help these beneficial garden predators.

10. Assassin Bugs

Also known as Wheel Bugs, these long-legged, unusually-shaped insects often have a long piercing proboscis on their mouth, and many have a protruding mohawk of spikes on their backs. AsAssassin Bug on leaf adults, they are often mistaken for Squash bugs, so look before you squish. Devouring a wide variety of prey, including other bugs, bees, flies, and caterpillars, Assassin Bugs can be orange and black to mottled gray. With the exception of the Kissing Bug, all other Assassin Bugs are beneficial for the garden and for humans. Avoid handling these bugs, they will deliver a venomless, yet painful bite.

What to watch for and how to help

The juvenile Assassin Bugs look like smaller versions of the adults. To attract these insects to your garden, there’s not much you need to do. They go where the bugs are and are not too widespread, to begin with, so if you see just one in your garden - count yourself lucky! I’ve only seen one this year and it, unfortunately, passed away after a frost.

Honorable Mentions

1 Predatory Flies - like Syrphid Flies are also known as Hover Flies, hang out on flowers as adults trying their best to mimic Bees and Wasps as part of their survival skill set. Those big fly-like eyes and the lack of hair is the big giveaway. Beneficial because the adults are important pollinators, but their larvae are insatiable predators, killing aphids, caterpillars, beetles, and thrips by sucking the juice from their victims! their larvae eat many soft-bodied bugs. 

2 Robber Flies - The ONE bug that really freaks me out, the Robber Fly resembles a mosquito on steroids. These bulging-eyed flying insects eat anything they can catch. 

3 Crane Flies - Mosquitoes not only have to worry about Dragonflies and Bats, but also Mosquito Hawks as well! A type of Crane Fly, these are like oversized, wispy mosquitoes themselves, they hunt mosquitoes in shady, shrubby areas.

4 Harvestmen Spiders - Also known as Daddy Longlegs, these are Spiders by name only. Daddy Longlegs are Arachnids but not true Spiders. They’re among the most harmless and widely identifiable garden bugs around. But they’re voracious predators and welcome garden visitors. Their round button bodies and long whispy legs run fast but clumsily around plants and on the ground. Catching small insects and other prey, but also eating dead insects, rotting fruit, mushrooms, and animal droppings.

How to Help Beneficial Insects

  1. Practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  2. Diversity is key - multiple varieties and not all one crop/plant.
  3. Keep plants healthy - stressed plants are a beacon for pests
  4. Include water sources, water features and/or Rain Gardens
  5. Keep a small area of the garden wild or plant a small prairie
  6. Plant a wildflower or Pollinator Garden - Include native flowering plants
  7. Plant trap/lure plants
  8. Keep a compost or leaf/stick pile for beneficial insects to hide and hibernate in
  9. Go organic and reduce chemical/synthetic pesticides and herbicides
  10. Be careful, even natural pesticides can contain harmful pyrethrum and rotenone
  11. Treat specific issues not broad-spectrum spraying that kills everything and anything
  12. Prevent issues vs treating issues
  13. Don’t spray pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers when pollinators are active or when flowers are in bloom
  14. Buy/build Ladybug Hotels, Bee Houses & Bug Hotels/Habitats
  15. Get the kids involved! Teach them young about good bugs and bad bugs!

Defeat the chomping hoards of pests in your garden with the army nature created just for that purpose! Inviting these sometimes creepy, but always beneficial insects into your landscape saves you time and money in the long run by just adapting a few key strategies!

Let Nature Hills Nursery help you enjoy a healthier and happier landscape this year while saving you money, time, and (hopefully) some of the fear associated with these great beneficial bugs!

Happy Planting!

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