Beneficial Bees & Bugs

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Joining Generations

I spent a lovely Mother’s Day with my sons, who took turns cooking and cleaning, then helped me in the garden, along with my mother (who is turning 88 but still loves to garden). We were joined by my house guest, Summer, who just turned fifteen and is discovering her own delight in gardening.

We made a perfect Maiden-Matron-Crone trio as we delved and divided, weeded and winnowed together. At one point, I asked them not to disturb a swath of native plants intermingled with a jumble of herbs, explaining that it is a bug bank. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce the role of beneficial bugs to a young gardener.

Bringing In The Bugs

ladybug & larvaNewer gardeners can understandably be confused about the role of beneficial bugs in the garden. Scary advertising campaigns suggest that the only good bug is a dead bug. In truth, over 95% of all insects are benign or actively helpful.

If you don’t find them in abundance, the best of the helpful bugs can be bought from nurseries, where they are known as beneficials. Some, like ladybugs, are cute looking, gaining them instant acceptance. Aphids are also formidable aphid eaters, but unless you know what they need, releasing ladybugs is likely to be more frustrating than functional.

What Do Bugs Want?

Adult ladybugs are harvested while hibernating. When they wake up in your garden, the first thing they want is water and the second thing is sex. To keep ladybugs in place, lightly mist the surrounding foliage before releasing them. You can’t help with the sex part, but providing water will ensure that procreation takes place in your garden.

Mating adults soon produce larvae, little black wigglers that look like baby alligators. These eat many times their weight in aphids each day before turning into the familiar spotted adult form.

Caterpillar Killer Wasps Preferred

Tiny parasitic wasps almost too small to be seen are used to control the destructive, nonnative tent caterpillars that periodically ravage our gardens and woodlands. These little wasps also appreciate damp foliage and should be released on a warm, windless day. They don’t sting people or pets and are amazingly good controls for rampaging caterpillars.

Beautiful, Bountiful Bees

We hear a lot about honeybees in trouble these days and many gardeners want to know how to help. Honeybees are not native to the Northwest, though we do have hundreds of native species (all classified as solitary bees). One spring, my kids identified over 30 kinds on a single pear tree in full bloom. Like the honeybees, our native bees are harmed by pesticides and herbicides and their numbers are falling rapidly.

We need bees to pollinate much of the foods we eat, as well a countless flowers, trees, and shrubs. To attract bees to your garden, plant a wide variety of flowers, giving preference to single rather than double forms. Some bees have a hard time wriggling into complex double flowers, but simple annuals like sweet alyssum and cosmos are appreciated by all kinds of pollinators.

Our Pollinator Pals

Bees are far from the only pollinator for Northwestern plants.  Wasps, ants, moths, birds, bats, and butterflies also do their share, and even the lowly mosquitoes pollinates certain bog orchids.

Native bees naturally prefer native plants but also visit their exotic cousins, from asters to yarrow and rhododendrons to roses. Native favorites include flowering currant, willow herb, lupines, Oregon grape, penstemons, goldenrods and geraniums. Rosemary, lavender, mints and most other herbs are also popular with many pollinators.

Building Your Bee & Bug Bank

Whether you want to encourage birds, bees, or butterflies to visit your garden, the goals are the same. First, plant a wide range of flower forms and colors to appeal to the greatest number of pollinators. Choose a sequence of blooms to create the longest possible blooming period. Big clumps of the same kind of plant are more attractive to pollinators than scattered singletons (and look better to humans as well).

Once you bring in these native creatures, you’ll want to provide food, water, shelter, and a safe environment. While hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies all like flower nectar, butterfly larvae (and some bees) need fodder plants as well.

Good Bugs Need Shelter

This means allowing baby caterpillars to eat some leaves and letting leaf cutter bees slice a few circles from leathery foliage like rose leaves. Some butterfly caterpillars also wrap themselves in leaves as they pupate, so it’s important to leave these bundled leaves alone.

My bug bank planting does net get rigorously weeded or trimmed because it harbors larval beneficials that need a stable home environment to mature in. To provide this, place your less-groomed bug bank plantings by the garage or amid the shrubbery where it won’t be visually obtrusive.

Cool, Clear Water

All critters need water as well, whether still, running, or in the form of mud (butterflies like to wallow in mud). A birdbath will serve many pollinators, especially if you splash some water around when you refill it each day, since some bees and butterflies drink best from damp soil.

Lastly, never spray anything but water when bees or other beneficials are present (usually in full daylight hours). Even the safe and generally nontoxic pesticides included in natural care programs (like neem oil and insecticidal soaps) can harm or kill bees and other non-target creatures.

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