Bugs Rule: Insects you actually WANT in your garden

What better way to experience the wonder of bugs than to get out into nature and experience them for yourself?

What better way to discover the intriguing world of bugs than to head out there and experience them for yourself? (Photo by Betty Scarlata)


Now’s a great time to celebrate all the flying, hopping, swimming, creeping, crawling, and utterly fascinating insects that share our world…


What’s the buzz? If you are among those who think bugs are as at best annoyances and at worst things to be eradicated from your yard, you may be surprised to learn that insects of all sorts play a huge role in our world.  In fact, there are more types of insects on our planet than any other kind of animal!  And while a small percentage are considered harmful to humans or property, the vast majority of insects are highly beneficial to people, gardens and the environment at large.

More than just beautiful, butterflies help pollinate flowers and their caterpillars provide food for lots of other animals. (Photo by ____)

More than just beautiful, butterflies help pollinate flowers and their caterpillars provide food for lots of other animals. (Photo by David Byers)

Bugs with benefits: While most people know that food crops depend heavily on bees, butterflies and other insects for pollination, it may come as a surprise that when it comes to controlling backyard pests and plant diseases, insects themselves can provide the best means of control.

Certain types of “beneficial” insects – namely those that that feed on other more harmful bugs—actually offer a safer and more effective approach to pest management.  They are not only highly effective at reducing the infestation levels of harmful pests, but a healthy population of  “good bugs” can also save money by reducing the need for costly (and toxic) pesticides. It’s a garden win-win.

For a list of some of the top beneficials in our area, see our fact sheet on BENEFICIAL INSECTS.

Putting bugs to work for you:  Beneficial insects can be be found just about anywhere.  The trick to taking advantage beneficials, is getting a sufficient number of them to hang around long enough to keep pest species in check. Turns out that beneficials will only stay on your property if they find enough harmful insects to feed upon.  So you can forget about using traditional chemical controls. Pesticide sprays wipe out both beneficial insects and their food source, which can lead to an even worse  situation, since it often leads to a rebound in the original pest population.

Yarrow is just one of the flowers that can attract beneficials to your yard. (Photo by ___)

Yarrow is just one of the flowers that can attract beneficials to your yard.

Finding fast food: Another key to getting beneficial insects to set up shop in your yard is providing food for all stages of their lifecycle.  For most full grown insects, this means flowers.

When deciding what to plant, it’s a good idea to select a wide variety of flowers that provide constant bloom from spring through fall. Pollen and nectar from wildflowers are especially attractive to beneficial insects and encourage them to lay their eggs nearby. Some particular favorites of beneficial insects are: daisy, black-eyed Susan, sunflower, ornamental goldenrod, yarrow, aster, and Queen Anne’s lace.

Herbs such as parsley, dill, fennel, catnip, spearmint, and thyme also attract beneficials.  For a list of other plants that are favorites of beneficial insects, see Attracting Beneficials.

Photo 2Herb Gardens like this one at Mercer Educational Gardens are magnets for beneficial insects offering food, shelter and a place to raise young. (Photo by ____)

Herb gardens, like the one above at Mercer Educational Gardens, are magnets for beneficial insects offering food, shelter and a place to raise their young. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Looking for inspiration? Any garden type or style can become a “good bug” hub. If you’re wondering how to put it all together where you live, try visiting a few insect-friendly gardens like the ones at Mercer Educational Gardens.   All of the seven demonstration gardens there — Annual, Butterfly, Cottage, Herb, Native Plant, Perennial and Weed ID– are pesticide free and use Responsible Gardening Principles that support beneficial insects.

Mercer Educational Gardens is an award-winning garden that features seven display gardens that all adhere to principles of responsible gardening and pest management.

Mercer Educational Gardens is an award-winning site that features seven display gardens, all of which adhere to principles of responsible gardening and pest management. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

A sheltered life: Beneficial insects need protection during the warm months and shelter during the winter. Be sure there is sufficient vegetation nearby (woods, weeds, mulch) to keep good bugs safe.  Hedges and foundation plantings also provide great protection for beneficials. Even garden pathways and borders play an important refuge role by offering soil-dwelling insects–like digger wasps–safe places to raise their young. Although digger wasps may look intimidating, they are nonaggressive and definitely do more good than harm.  For instance, the adult wasps pollinate plants by feeding on flower nectar, females prey on grasshoppers and similar pests that might otherwise cause a lot of damage to vegetable and ornamental plants, and by digging holes in the ground, digger wasps help to aerate the soil and improve drainage.

Great golden digger wasps look dangerous but they are beneficial insects that help keep garden pests in check. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

Great golden digger wasps look dangerous, but  are beneficial insects that help keep garden pests in check. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

Friend or Foe? Although most home landscapes support a wide assortment of bugs, it’s important for gardeners to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Being able to identify what that thing buzzing or creeping through the backyard actually is, can be key to getting the full benefit from beneficials.

What the heck is that?! Teaching kids about insects and the many ways bugs benefit us can help them understand that not all insects are scary or icky.

What the heck is that?! Learning to determine which insects are garden pests and which are beneficials is key to creating a balanced backyard ecosystem.  (Photo by David Byers)

When you come across an insect you’d like to  identify, you can start by consulting a local field guide to insects or call the Master Gardener Helpline.

With a trusty field guide in one hand and the insect in quesiton in another, naturalists solve the puzzle of insect identification. (Photo by___)

With a trusty field guide in one hand and mystery insect in another, naturalists solve the puzzle of insect identification. (Photo by David Byers)

Master Gardeners can answer all kinds of questions about  insects–beneficial and otherwise— and can even tell you the key elements to look at when trying to figure out what type of  insect a specimen is.

If you are able to safely capture your mystery bug, you can also bring it by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office, and talk to a Master Gardener in person.

Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturalist fields questions about bugs at a recent Insect Festival. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturalist, fields questions about bugs at a recent Insect Festival. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Kids love bugs! Parents who are considering adding beneficial insects to their yards, should be sure to include the kids in the experience.  Children, especially younger ones, seem naturally fascinated with all sorts of creepy crawlers.  By encouraging them to take a closer look at insects– as opposed to stepping on them or just saying “Yuck!” — can help kids develop a deeper appreciation for insects and how they benefit the environment.  And while not every kid is born a bug lover, showing them that not all insects are harmful, can at least give them a better appreciation for the role insects play in the world we share.

Bugs have a lot to teach us, and can develop important science skill like observation, categorization and identification. (Photo by ___)

Bugs have a lot to teach us, and can help kids develop important science skills like observation, categorization and identification. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Taking part in bug-centric events like Insect Festival can also help fuel kids’ natural curiosity.  Activities like tagging Monarchs can be an unforgettable experience for kids and can broaden their knowledge of a wide array of subjects –from the stages of insect metamorphosis—to geography, as they learn the route Monarchs travel on their annual migration to Mexico.

A newly emerged monarch butterfly tagged and ready to set off on it’s winter migration to Mexico. (Photo by ___)

A newly emerged monarch butterfly tagged and ready to set off on it’s winter migration to Mexico.
(Photo by David Byers)

Experiences that feed kid’s curiosity about insects at a young age can inspire a lifelong passion for the natural world.

 


Teaching kids about the many ways bugs benefit us can help them understand that not all insects are scary or icky.


Focus on fun.

Not every insect-related activity has to be focused on education.  Make sure to include insect activities that are purely for fun –like crafts, scavenger hunts and storybooks.

Bugs can be fun! Crafty little cardboard bees keep insect activities from becoming too serious. (Photo by____)

Bugs can be fun! Crafts like these little cardboard bees can keep insect activities from becoming too serious. (Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

Anything that inspires kids (of any age) to go outside and explore the strange, incredible, and often beautiful insects of New Jersey is a big win for bugs, people and the planet.

Insects are amazing creatures and can inspire kids--of all ages-- to unplug and and go outside and explore. Photo by ____

Insects are amazing creatures and can inspire kids–of all ages– to unplug,  go outside, and explore. (Photo by  Betty Scarlata) 


References:

Attracting Beneficials

Beneficial Insects

Natural Pest Control

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Turf war: Is your once-lush lawn looking a little “ruffed” up by the dog days of summer?

Some grass greening guidance to toughen your turf for the long haul…

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Doggone it! Late summer heat and drought can be tough on turf. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

As summer blazes toward its scorching conclusion, lawns tend to suffer under the twin stressors of high temperatures and either too much or too little rain. Common signs of heat and water stress are: brown patches, weeds, and an over-all brown and brittle appearance.

Wake me up when it’s over
Once temperatures get into the 80s and stay there, lawns can begin to struggle, and may even go dormant if they don’t get enough water.  Luckily, lawns usually wake up again once watering or rainfall resumes—unless there’s been a period of prolonged drought. Under those circumstances, it can take more than a single rainfall or a few passes with the sprinkler to bring grass out of dormancy and back to green.

Wise watering
Most lawns need about an inch of water per week to actively grow. This is true for most soil types —even clay. Sandy soils are the exception and need a bit more water–more like 1½ inches per week. When deciding whether or not to water, be sure to take into account both rainfall and irrigation amounts.

If you're noticing weeds underfoot --or brown patches or wilt--your lawn is showing signs of summer stress. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

If you’re noticing weeds underfoot –or brown patches or wilt–your lawn may be showing signs of stress. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Don’t set it and forget it
Automatic sprinklers can be a real time saver, but be sure to check their settings.  Many sprinkler systems are set up to go on automatically every other day for 20 minutes per zone. This procedure will not stimulate deep root systems (particularly on heavy soils). Most lawns are better off if they’re watered deeply just once every 5 to 7 days .

Too much of a good thing 
Overwatering can actually cause more problems than under watering. Too much water can lead to “waterlogging,” which results in a poorly developed root system and greater probability of diseases like necrotic ring spot, anthracnose, and summer patch. Keep an eye on the weather and don’t irrigate water-soaked lawns. For more on common lawn diseases, download: Managing Diseases of Landscape Turf.

Don't wait until late afternoon or evening to water lawns. Grass stays wet overnight sets the stage for a number of common turf diseases.

Don’t wait until late afternoon or evening to water lawns. Grass that stays wet overnight sets the stage for a number of common turf diseases. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Timing is everything
The best time of day to water is from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. Also, watering from midnight to about 9:00 a.m. is good for grass, since blades are already wet from dew. Watering early in the morning reduces evaporation while decreasing the amount of time the blades stay wet. (The longer the grass remains wet, the greater the potential for disease.) The worst times of day to water lawns are late morning (9:00 a.m. to noon) and late afternoon to early evening (5:00-7:00 p.m.)


Keep in mind that it’s better to water lawns deeply and infrequently, rather than shallowly and often.  


Know when to mow 
To reduce the spread of disease, don’t mow when grass is wet. Don’t mow when grass is seriously drought stressed or dormant either—it could damage the crown. When you do mow, keep the mower blade on the highest setting and try not to remove more than a third of the grass at any one time. In summer, that translates to a mowing height of up to 3½ inches.

Longer is better when it comes to home lawns. So skip the golf course crop and let blades grow a little longer – up to 3 1/2 inches in summer. Longer grass is more resilient and can head off disease and drought better than shorter blades.

Longer is better — so skip the golf course crop and let grass grow a little longer during the heat of summer. When left a little taller, grass is more resilient and can head off disease and drought better than shorter blades.  (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Don’t bother bagging
It’s always best to keep grass clippings on the lawn. Try a mulching mower or a mulching blade so clippings stay put. This not only makes mowing easier (since you don’t have to keep stopping to empty mower bag) but is also better for the grass. Decomposing clippings contribute organic matter to soil and actually help fertilize lawns. For more info, see: Minimizing Waste Disposal: Grass Clippings


Important: Never apply pesticides or fertilizers to lawns suffering from heat or drought stress. Wait until things cool off and conditions moderate.


What’s bugging you?
Certain lawn pests make their appearance during the dog days of summer. Now is the time to watch for chinch bug injury, which causes grass to wilt, turn yellow, then brown, and eventually die. The spots can often blend into large areas of thinning, dead, or dying turf. Moisture or heat stressed turf with thick thatch is most susceptible to chinch bug injury. Chinch bug injury is often mistaken for drought or sunscald because it frequently occurs during the height of summer when grass is dormant. The first indication of chinch bugs is often when grass doesn’t recover after irrigation or when late summer rains arrive. For more information on handling chinch bugs, download Insect Management in Turfgrass: Hairy Chinch Bug

A number of lawn pests make their mark in mid-summer. Check conditions carefully since a number of conditions can show similar symptoms.

A number of lawn pests make their mark in mid-summer–and often show similar symptoms. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir) 

Worming their way in
This is also the time of year to watch for sod webworms. Their damage begins as a general thinning, followed by small patches of brown, closely cropped grass. Closer inspection will reveal the silk-lined sod web worm tunnels, often with clumps of pinhead-sized, green pellets around the mouth of the burrows. For more information on handling sod web worms download: Insect Management in Turfgrass: Sod Webworms

Lawn Looking Grubby?
Grubs are among the most widespread and destructive of lawn pests. If, despite plenty of water, you notice a gradual thinning, yellowing or wilting in your lawn or you find scattered, irregular dead patches–you may have grubs. Infested turf can also feel spongy underfoot and can be pulled up like a carpet. For more information on handling grubs, refer to: Insect Management in Turfgrass: White Grubs

What did you expect?
Keep in mind that a “perfect” lawn” is a nearly impossible standard to achieve. Accepting a couple of weeds, a few insects, and a mix of several shades of green is far more practical. Tight trimmed turf might look nice on a golf course, but maintaining it is not only stressful for the grass—it can be stressful for homeowners too! Since it means spending more time mowing and less time enjoying every last minute of summer. It’s going fast—take time to savor it!

(Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

When it comes to lawns, perfection comes at a cost. Learning to live with a few weeds and a medley of greens can save both time and money. (Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

For additional information, see:

The Beauty of Bees: Why you should be glad your yard is always so full of bees

bee on dahlia

Photo by Maureen Amter

When working in your garden, do you ever stop to notice bees settling on your flowers? Totally absorbed in the activity, they light atop flowers and vegetables alike. Reaching into the nectar area of each blossom, they emerge with colorful yellow pollen grains attached to their fuzzy hind legs.

Small as they may seem, bees are a “keystone species,” and have a big impact in the natural order of things, with lots of other animal species depending on them for life.

Their presence and well-being say a lot about the health of your garden – and the larger environment as well.

So if you find that your garden is buzzing with life, pat yourself on the back.  That means you are doing a lot of things right!

Gardeners who find their plots humming with bees seem to share a lot of the same pollinator promoting practices–whether they are aware of it or not.   See how many of these garden golden rules you employ …and let the buzzing begin:

  • Say Nay to the Spray:  Protect pollinators by avoiding the use of insecticides in your yard and asking whether nursery-bought plants have been treated with insecticides before you purchase them. If spraying is necessary it is best to do so after dark.  Pollinators are typically not foraging at night.  It is also important to not spray flowering plants, including weeds.

    A carpenter bee on our native milkweed.  There are many varieties of milkweed that thrive in our area.  In addition to being a favorite nectar source for bees, milkweeds are important to other pollinators too, like Monarch butterflies.

  • Go Wild and Plant Natives:  Wildflowers and other native plants are adapted to our local conditions and provide the best sources of nectar and pollen for native bees.   [To learn more about which plants are best for native bees see: Blooms for Bees: How to Provide Pollen and Nectar Sources ]
  • Bumble bee on lupine flowers. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

    Bumble bee on lupine flowers. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

    Think Long Term:  Be sure to choose a variety of plants with different bloom times to make sure bees have enough food throughout the seasons.

  • Home Sweet Habitat: Gardens that are good for bees also tend to offer good nesting sites for bees.  Some native bees are ground bees and nest in open ground or bare spots at the base of trees. So  leaving some areas like this undisturbed will help bees thrive.
Stacks of reeds and bamboo stalks make a cosy bee shelter for wood nesting bees.

Stacks of reeds and bamboo stalks make a cosy bee shelter for wood nesting bees.

You can build a bee nest for your yard by tying together 10-20 bamboo or reed stems (or even paper straws) with one end closed (6-8” long.) 
Gather them into a bundle and hang in a protected area about 4 feet off the ground.   Install bee houses close to sources of nectar and pollen

  • Bold is Better: When it comes to flowers, big swaths of bright  blossoms make it easier it is for bees to find the nectar and pollen they need.  In addition to broad swaths of color, bees are also attracted to certain flower shapes.  In fact, some flowers even contain “nectar guides” which are a type of veining or color pattern on their petals that guide insects to the nectar reward. 
  •  Worried about stings? Gayle Henkin, Rutgers Master Gardener in Mercer County, stresses that native bees are different in many ways from wasps and imported European honey bees. She points out that most native bees are not likely to sting and far from being feared, should be welcomed into our gardens.  

Flying under the radar:  Compare the size of a non-native honey bee to the tiny sweat bees fluttering around the edges of the flower.  (Photo by Maureen Amter)

 More Information, see…

Blooms for Bees: How to Provide Pollen and Nectar Sources

ATTRACTING BENEFICIALS Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer Co. Horticulturist

CARPENTER BEES, Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturist

Bees and Wasps Fact Sheet 

Incorporating Native Plants in Your Residential Landscape