While many of us might think of the tiny things that creep and crawl around our property as a nuisance to be squished, the truth is that many of them are the unsung heroes of the gardening world.
Some distribute nutrients through your soil; others pollinate flowering plants. Among the most important are those which prey upon the smaller insects that, left unchecked, will chew through your beloved turnips and spread disease through your cabbage patch.
With the help of these helpful bugs, you’ll be able to cut back on your use of chemical pesticides, and enjoy a thriving, harmonious garden. Let’s take a look at some of the most common insects that will help your garden thrive…
Aphids, like greenflies and plant lice, will wreak havoc in your garden. They subsist entirely on sap, and view your flowerbed in much the same way that you or I might view an all-you-can-eat buffet. Fortunately, there’s a form of midge that eats these pests. Aphid midges and their larvae will paralyse aphids with toxic saliva before gobbling them down. You can find out more about these midges on Wikipedia.
You’ve probably heard grumbling from the scientific community about the disappearance of bees. This concern is justified – were bees to disappear, flowers would be unable to pollinate one another, and ecological calamity would swiftly follow. This is equally the case with small ecosystems, like your garden, as it is larger ones. Unless you have a crippling allergy to bee stings, these little furry insects are to be welcomed.
This beetle comes out at night, and spends its time hunting slugs, snails, caterpillars and other cabbage-munching pests. A single beetle can eat dozens of caterpillars in a single night, but it’ll need a secure habitat if it’s to stick around. Intersperse perennials throughout your garden, and they’ll always have somewhere to hide.
Like aphid midges, ladybirds will prey upon aphids. The other major pillar of their diet is pollen, which means attracting them is as easy as planting the right herbs. Dill, chive and fennel serve the purpose brilliantly.
Minute Pirate Bugs
These little insects are easily identified thanks to their distinctive white markings. They prey upon aphids, spider mites and thrips. They’re at their most effective in the confines of a greenhouse, and are attracted to marigold, fennel and caraway (so if you don’t have these, it may be worth popping to your local garden shop!).
You might have seen these bugs hovering around your flowers. They’re around five centimetres long, with black stripes, and so the uninitiated might easily mistake them for a wasp. They prefer open-centred flowers, like sunflowers, and their larvae will eat aphids.
Bees are one thing – but wasps? How could these villains possibly have any redeeming features? Well, during summer they’ll spread rapidly and eat whiteflies, thus protecting tomatoes and cucumbers.
Braconid wasps are particularly helpful; they’re parasitic insects who’ll inject their eggs into host caterpillars. They look utterly unlike the common wasp, having a long thin body. Attract them with dill, parsley and carrots.
Not all pests live above the ground – others will do considerable damage to the roots of your plants, and centipedes are the answer! They thrive in damp, dark log piles and compost heaps. In the UK, they come in two forms: the long thin sort and the short fat sort. Both will burrow into the ground and eat small bugs.
Despite having six legs, these creatures do not qualify as insects, since their mouthparts are inside their bodies. Springtails are omnivores, subsisting on everything from pollen to animal remains and bacteria. They’ll happily breakdown all the tiny dead things in your garden, and in the process they’ll enrich the surrounding soil. Like centipedes, they thrive in compost heaps and leaf piles.
Earwigs are instantly recognisable, thanks to the sizeable pincers (or ‘forceps’) sprouting from their abdomen. They can protect fruit plants from aphids while doing minimal damage to the plant. With that said, they’ll also eat the young leaves of flowering plants like chrysanthemums and dahlia, and so you’ll need to be careful. These plants can be protected by earwig ‘traps’ – small upturned flower-pots, stuffed with hay.
Okay, we know that an earthworm doesn’t qualify as a bug. But we still couldn’t resist including it in this list – since its role in improving soil structure and fertility is paramount. They will emerge at night-time to drag fallen leaves and other debris into their tunnels, saving you the trouble. TIP: Resist the urge to pick up every dead piece of plant matter in autumn, and you’ll naturally encourage the local earthworm population.
To make sure your little bug buddies have a place to call home, why not build them a ‘bug hotel‘? As for our flying friends, take a look at these tips on how to attract bees (and other flying insects).