Going Buggy

From bees to beetles, they’re beneficial

By Dan Vierria
May 2022

Gardening is fertilizer for the soul. Admire a flower. Inhale a patch of lavender. A few minutes with nature bring obvious benefits. Less obvious and underappreciated are creatures that live in our soil, on our plants or drop by Sacramento gardens for a visit.

Gardens teem with both pests and, hopefully, beneficial creatures. Beneficial, in a gardening sense, means critters that help in pollination and control pests. They also can improve soil.

As a lad, I learned to appreciate honeybees. Dad was a honeybee hobbyist who tended hives and extracted honey. Guess who was conscripted to help.

Bees are fascinating insects and essential pollinators. Observe them as they dart from flower to flower, collecting pollen and transferring it from anther (male plant reproductive part) to stigma (female). Bees forage for nectar and water. My pool net has rescued dozens of struggling bees. More than 100 million years on Earth and bees still have not learned to swim.

Earthworms generally are garden gold. Turn garden soil and if you spot earthworms, you have the type of soil plants love. Earthworms will not stick around poor growing conditions. They flee if soil is too dry or wet, too acidic, too hot or cold.

Earthworms aerate soil when they burrow, allowing better air and water penetration, and they eat organic matter and add more with castings (poop). The wigglers are self-contained recyclers.

Solarization is the process of using clear plastic sheets and intense summer heat to raise soil temperatures, kill harmful organisms and weed seeds. Earthworms are smart enough to sense the danger and will dive deeper into cooler soil. They return when it’s safe.

Lady beetles are the most recognized member of the Garden Good Guys Club, although one species could be mistaken for the voracious cucumber beetle pest. Once you spot aphid on roses, lady beetles will likely join the feast. One lady beetle can consume 100 aphid a day and 5,000 during its lifetime. Whiteflies, mealy bugs and spider mites are among other pests preferred by lady beetles.

Avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides that kill everything, including lady beetles! A strong spray of water will dislodge pests and there are safer alternatives such as insecticidal soap.

Should you spot an alligator-looking bug on your plants, don’t kill it. Lady beetle larvae look entirely different from adults, and have a raging appetite for plant pests. They eat as much and as often as a teenager.

While I don’t want to discourage anybody from buying and releasing large populations of lady beetles on plants, be aware that our friends will only stick around for a day or two.

More feared than respected, spiders are beneficial insects in the garden, preying on pests. Did you celebrate National Save a Spider Day on March 14?

Spiders are arachnids, not insects. Gardeners often have a skin-crawling tale of walking into a massive spider web that popped up overnight. Spiders are not as cuddly as lady beetles, but if you can tolerate them, please do. Most are harmless.

Birds are beneficial because they aid in pollination, disperse seeds (not always a positive) and are adept at insect and rodent control. A tomato hornworm’s final act is often to serve as bird breakfast.

Ground beetles, solider beetles, assassin bugs, hoverflies and parasitic wasps are beneficial insects. The praying mantis eats pest insects and beneficial insects, including bees and butterflies. Mixed reviews for the praying mantis.

Butterflies are much loved. Graceful and colorful, butterflies flutter about pollinating plants. However, in its caterpillar larval stage, it eats your plants. Mostly, we forgive the bad behavior.

How do you distinguish good bugs from bad bugs? Visit sacmg.ucanr.edu and in the left-side column click on “Beneficials” or “Insects” for photos and information. Included is a comprehensive list of garden plants that attract beneficial insects.

Now, go hug a good bug!

Dan Vierria is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener for Sacramento County. He can be reached at masterg29@gmail.com. For answers to gardening questions, contact the UCCE Master Gardeners at (916) 876-5338, email mgsacramento@ucanr.edu or visit sacmg.ucanr.edu. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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