For some gardeners, the word bug is automatically equated with the word pest.
Folks with this mind-set keep a hefty stock of insecticides on hand to annihilate every kind of six-legged critter that dares to crawl through their flowerbeds.
If you're guilty of zapping everything that moves with a bottle of bug spray, consider for a moment that while some types of insects truly are nuisances, there are just as many that cause no harm.
"There are hundreds of thousands of insects in the world, and of all those, only about 60 types that cause economic harm and invade our food sources," said David Goerig, horticultural specialist at Mahoning County's Ohio State University Extension Office in Canfield.
Even more noteworthy is that there are several good bugs that devour and destroy the bad bugs.
"Most people don't want to be around any type of bug, but there are 'good bugs' that feed on the 'bad bugs' and can be used as alternatives to pesticides," Goerig said.
Lady Beetles or ladybugs are one of the most commonly recognized good bugs. (The ladybugs native to our area are a different type than those obnoxious Asian lady beetles that cause annoyance by invading our homes.)
Ladybugs love to dine on aphids, but they will also eat other soft-bodied insects such as mealy bugs and spider mites.
If ladybug populations in your garden are sparse, consider purchasing some from a garden catalog or online. Just make sure there's something for them to eat when they arrive.
"If you don't have a problem with aphids, then realize that when you get the ladybugs and release them into your garden, they won't stick around if there's nothing for them to eat," Goerig said.
Of course, if your garden isn't overrun with aphids, you can also attract ladybugs by growing the right kinds of flowers and herbs.
"Ladybugs like to feed on nectar and pollen. They prefer herbs such as dill, yarrow and tansy. They also like dandelion and wild carrot," Goerig said.
If you do order ladybugs through the mail, give them special care when they arrive.
Open the container and sprinkle them with a little water to give them a drink, and then wait until outdoor conditions are right for their release.
Do not set ladybugs free in the middle of a hot day. Instead, wait until evening, preferably after a rain or after you've watered your garden.
If you can lure ladybugs to your garden and keep them there long enough for the adults to lay eggs, the eggs will hatch and the larvae will devour aphids by the hundreds.
"One larva will eat about 400 medium-sized aphids during its development, and one adult will eat about 300 medium-sized aphids before it lays eggs," Goerig said. "An adult ladybug can eat about 5,000 aphids during its lifetime."
Lacewings, which are small, green insects with lacy-looking wings, also have a voracious appetite for aphids. Lacewings will also eat thrips, mealy bugs, scale, moth eggs, small caterpillars and mites.
Lacewings are native to our area, but they too can be ordered in the mail if populations are scarce.
Other beneficial bugs found in our neck of the woods include:
UGarden spider: Although these big black arachnids with splashes of yellow on their bodies give some folks the creeps, garden spiders trap and devour many harmful insects in their large webs. Flies, aphids, apple maggots and moths are some of their favorite foods.
UPraying mantis: These large insects are colored green, brown or tan and are said to be praying because they hold their front legs in a prayerlike manner. They dine on aphids and a variety of other insects.
USpined soldier bugs: Common throughout North America, these yellow or brown bugs are shaped like a shield and are about one-half inch long. After hatching, spined soldier bugs will eat several kinds of caterpillars including gypsy moth caterpillars and potato beetle larvae.
UTrichogramma wasps: These tiny wasps do not sting humans. Adults lay their eggs in the freshly laid eggs of many garden pests including cutworms, cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms. The wasp larvae then develop inside the host eggs and eventually eat the contents of the eggs.
UNematodes: These very tiny parasitic worms live in the soil and feed on a variety of bad bug grubs including cutworms, root weevils, wireworms and white grubs. If you order nematodes from a garden catalog or online, you will receive a small container that contains millions of them. Before releasing them into the soil, rake back any mulch or thatch, then water the soil thoroughly and mix the nematodes with water according to package directions. This is best done in the evening since exposure to hot sun and dry air can kill nematodes.
Of course, even if you have an army of good bugs living in your back yard, there will probably still be a time or two when you'll want to use a pesticide.
Just do so in moderation.
"We recommend integrated pest management, or an approach where a chemical is the last resort," Goerig said. "Before you reach for a bottle of pesticide, first learn about the pest and its life cycle, and take steps to control it naturally."
Goerig said there are also many 'common sense' types of things gardeners can do to keep 'bad bug' populations from ballooning in the first place.
Here are a few of them:
UEmpty and refill birdbaths frequently to keep mosquito larvae from multiplying. If you have a water garden and don't have any fish to eat mosquito larvae, purchase some mosquito control pellets (an environmentally friendly product that kills larvae) and place them in the water.
UAfter the first frost has killed the plants in the vegetable garden, rake up plant debris and put them on the compost pile. "Insects that plagued your garden all summer and laid their eggs in the soil are more likely to survive the winter and hatch next year with the plant debris there to protect the ground," Goerig explained.
UDon't spray flowering plants with pesticides when they are in bloom. The pesticide will also kill the honeybee that pollinates the flower.
UTake good care of your plants and keep them in top condition. "A plant under stress is more likely to be attacked by an insect. Plants that are wilted are easier to bite into," Goerig said.
UWhen using an insecticide, read the label and follow directions carefully. "Remember a little goes a long way," Goerig said.
XAdditional source: "Natural Insect Control: The Ecological Gardener's Guide to Foiling Pests" by Brooklyn Botanic Garden Publications

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