Friend or foe? 7 insects that are a huge benefit to your garden
For many people new to gardening, insects are generally viewed as 'pests'. Most wildflower and seed bombs are normally described as attracting butterflies or bees, and paint a rather idyllic picture of the garden. So, you might then feel a little put out when a number of crawlies are drawn to your outdoor space.
Well, insects are actually the most diverse group of animals and they include more than a million described species and represent more than half of all known living organisms. Instead of reading how to 'get rid' of insect pests, I'm a firm believer that every living thing has a part to play (yes, even wasps!), so instead, here are seven common garden insects that can actually benefit your plants and flowers. You'll all be queueing up to buy an insect house after this...
1. Ground Beetles (Coleoptera, Carabidae)
One of the biggest problems I found when growing certain vegetables was the slugs eating all of my crop. As a proud organic gardener, I refused to use chemical repellant and only wanted a natural deterrent. We tried everything from paprika, thorns around the plant, beer traps, you name it. However, ground beetles actually love slugs and snails. They eat by vomiting on their prey and waiting for their digestive enzymes to make their food more fluid and easier to eat. Only very few ground beetles can actually fly, and their long legs and powerful mandibles allow them to be voracious predators. Even the larvae of this insect have pincer-like mandibles which allow it to eat soil-dwelling organisms.
Many ground beetle species have such broad feeding habits that they have even been known to eat weed seeds. Ground beetles tend to shelter under mulch or in shallow burrows during the day, but be careful not to startle them – when alarmed they discharge a noxious, highly irritant fluid (harmless to humans) from the tip of their abdomen.
2. Hoverflies (Syrphidae)
There are over 280 species of hoverfly in Britain alone, and these flies are often overlooked when it comes to pollinating. Hoverflies get their name from their ability to hover in mid-air. Many hoverflies mimic wasps, honeybees or bumblebees with stripes, bands and markings of black and yellow. And they have even been known to mimic some behavioural patterns of bees. However, one important fact to note is that hoverflies do not bite or sting.
About half of British hoverflies are aphid predators as larvae and they can also prey on other sap-sucking garden insects such as leafhoppers, whiteflies and scale insects. Most adult hoverflies rely on nectar for their energetic flights and have mouthparts that dab like a sponge. This means they prefer to visit flowers with an open bloom with easily accessible nectar and pollen. They feed on nectar and in so doing spread pollen from flower to flower thus pollinating the flowers as they feed.
3. Bees (Anthophila)
I know we've heard a lot about our buzzy friends but to recap, bees are incredibly vital pollinators and are hugely beneficial to the environment and our gardens. Interestingly, certain species are better at pollinating than others. For example, honeybees have been known to be so successful and efficient at gathering pollen and returning it to their hives, that they actually leave very little behind. The honeybee makes the pollen balls and neatly grooms itself, picking up stray pollen grains in the process, whereas the red mason bee collects pollen on hairs on the underside of the abdomen and for this reason it loses a lot more pollen in flight than the honey bee would.
4. Wasps (Vespidae)
Despite their bad reputation, wasps are actually a vital part of the biodiversity that healthy gardens support. In Britain, seven species of wasp commonly occur in British gardens but the one of the most popular is the hornet, which is Britain's largest social wasp. They are incredibly useful to our garden spaces as natural pest control – they feed their grubs on caterpillars, flies, aphids and other insects, and so this can vastly reduce the amount of plant damage we would see in our outdoor spaces.
Another important wasp to note is the fig wasp, which as the name suggests, pollinates fig trees. It's a cruel method let me tell you, but such is the way with nature sometimes. The female fig wasp pushes itself into the fig through such a small hole that its wings are torn off in the process. If the fig is male, she has the space to lay her eggs and the larvae can come out when they're ready; but if the fig is female, there isn't enough space for the female wasp to lay her eggs. She is trapped inside, eventually dies there and is digested by the fig.
5. Butterflies (Rhopalocera)
This one is a bit of a pro/con because butterfly larvae a.k.a caterpillars are known to be a bit of a garden pest who feed on foliage and plants. However, butterflies are important pollinators, and will feed on flower nectar, just as bees do. Since they don't have any teeth, butterflies feed through their long tube-like tongue and suck up the nectar like a straw – they also taste through their feet.
Interestingly, they come from the same family as moths, yet butterflies come in every colour in the spectrum, making them a bit more pleasing to the eye and adding to the overall appeal of our gardens. Butterflies are also important insects to measure our environment as it has been said their delicate nature is very sensitive to the ecosystem, so scientists have used their numbers to help indicate if anything is amiss with the balance of things.
6. Spiders (Araneae)
These 'creepy crawlies' are another insect commonly squished rather than appreciated. However, since spiders are predators of insects and other small invertebrates, they do a fantastic job of reducing pest insects. A typical spider's diet will include flies, bugs, leaf-hoppers and beetles. The only problem is, spiders will make no distinction between pests and the other helpful insects in the garden like hoverflies and bees, but they do help maintain a natural balance wherever they are. They arrive in your garden at the precise moment other garden pests become more active, and not only this, but removing pests means less chance of disease and reduced harmful bacteria and pathogens that could destroy your garden. So, the next time you find a common spider in your house, think twice before squishing, and instead move them into your garden and get them to work.
7. Black Garden Ants (Lasius niger)
Finally, the unsung hero of the ecosystem, the black garden ant. Large masses of ant can often be perceived as a problem, but really they are incredibly useful in the garden and the environment. From tasks such as soil aeration, pollination, and seed dispersing (some species of wildflowers rely solely on ants to distribute their seeds), ants are efficient and useful workers that add biodiversity to the environment as well as your garden.
Ants are often drawn to sweet nectar, you may have seen many of them sprawling over peony buds for example, but whilst doing this they are also protecting the flowers from destructive insects that can damage the plant. When foraging for food they will spread pollen from flower to flower, much like bees, and aid pollination. Ants also tunnel through the ground, moving large amounts of dirt underground, hauling 20 times their weight as they work. Their work aerates the soil and oxygenates the soil, which helps roots plunge their shoots more easily. Excellent all-rounders, if you ask me!
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