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Creating an environment hostile to pests includes enlisting the help of beneficial insects. These insects keep undesirable pest populations in check through their feeding, as either predators or parasites. Both the adult and immature stages of predators actively search out and consume prey. Parasites help by depositing eggs in or on the host. When they hatch, the host becomes their food source.
What can you do to encourage helpful insects? Well, there is nothing like a non-toxic environment, a bit of nectar, a sip of water, and a protected spot to retain a beneficial insect. Here is how to make your yard attractive to beneficial insects by looking after their basic needs.
First, avoid using pesticides. You do not want to harm the insects, and you do not want to starve them by poisoning their favorite insect food sources. Second, beneficial insects are more likely to remain in your yard if you provide pollen and nectar sources. Common herbs such as fennel, dill, spearmint, caraway, and coriander, and tansy are a good start. Plant a border with wildflowers like yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace, along with nasturtiums and other flowering plants, to provide a succession of blooms.
Water is also important. Sink a few shallow pans with small rocks into the soil. They will fill from rain or watering. Finally, provide places to shelter and overwinter by adding shrubs, vines, or small evergreens. If these sheltering plants include berry-bearing plants such as choke berry, bayberry, sumac, and viburnums, the fruits will attract grub-eating birds for additional pest control. Below are some insects that feed on lawn pests.
Also known as ladybugs, they are perhaps the most widely recognized beneficial insects. As adults, and especially in the larval form, ladybugs feed on aphids and other small, soft-bodied insect pests. Adults have short legs and antennae, are ¼-inch or smaller, oval, brightly colored, and often spotted. Their ravenous larvae resemble tiny alligators with flat, gray bodies tapering to the tail, with red or orange spots.
Also known as “caterpillar hunters” they are valuable nocturnal predators with a taste for beetle grubs, caterpillars, army-worms, and cutworms. These fast-moving creatures, ¾- to 1-inch long with flattened blue, black, or brown bodies, spend their days hiding under stones and garden debris. Larvae are long, dark, and tapered, with segmented bodies.
A mantis is a large green or brownish insect up to 4-inches long. Called praying mantis after the position in which they hold their front legs, they are voracious predators who even eat their own young. While still considered beneficial, they are non-selective in choosing their prey and may consume helpful insects, including as well as pests.
Green to the east of the Rocky Mountains and brown to the west, these delicate ½- to ¾-inch-long insects hold their clear and highly veined wings up like a tent. Their larvae, “aphid lions,” are not averse to eating other pests, such as caterpillar eggs or leafhopper nymphs as well.
Especially helpful where chinch bugs are a problem, this bulging-eyed, 1/8- to ¼-inch-long black or gray insect also eats leafhoppers, aphids, and caterpillars. Unlike most insect predators, the bugs in this family (Lygaeidae Geocoris species) will also take an occasional bite or two from plants.
Spined Soldier Bugs
These beneficials are often mistaken for their stinkbug pest cousins. This ½-inch-long lover of caterpillars, grubs, and fall armyworms has a shield-shaped body and is differentiated from stinkbugs by pointed shoulders and a black mark on the wing membrane.
Slender 1/10- to ½-inch parasites that deposit eggs either inside of the host prey or in pupal cocoons on or near a dead host insect. A small species of braconid wasps infests aphids, and a larger species infests a wide variety of beetles, caterpillars, and other insects.