Beneficial Insects You'll Want to Have Around

The pleasant arrival of Spring weather and new plant growth is also accompanied by the return of insects, which many of we consider nasty little plant munching pests.  We've written recently about the benefits of having pollinating insects around in a recent blog,  such as beesBut did you know there are many other insects to consider as beneficial  for your garden/yard because they eat the pests for dinner Learn to recognize these "good guys" because they are valued allies in keeping the "bad guys" in check.  Below we've given just a few of these hungry beneficials the spotlight and you may be surprised to discover you'll want them around...

Assassin Bugs

 A common type of Assassin bug found in our Southeast Texas region. "Milkweed Assassin Bug" by Carlos De Soto Molinari/CC BY

A common type of Assassin bug found in our Southeast Texas region. "Milkweed Assassin Bug" by Carlos De Soto Molinari/CC BY

It’s sneaky, swift, and deadly—at least as far as insects go!  The appropriately named assassin bug eats a wide variety of pests including caterpillars, aphids, bean beetles, leaf-hoppers, stink bugs, houseflies, etc.  

They have a bright red-colored body with long black legs, black wings, and a long black antenna.  With their front legs they capture their prey, which they then pierce with a dagger-like mouthpart and inject a lethal toxin, killing the prey within seconds. The toxin liquefies the insides of the prey and the assassin bug sucks them up like a protein shake, leaving only the empty exoskeleton behind.

 Immature stages of the Assassin Bug do not have fully-developed wings "Tiny assassin bug" on green tomato by Martin LaBar/CC BY

Immature stages of the Assassin Bug do not have fully-developed wings "Tiny assassin bug" on green tomato by Martin LaBar/CC BY

True, these predators don't discriminate and will capture a beneficial ladybug or bee along the way, and they wouldn't be a welcomed guest in a butterfly garden because they eat caterpillars as well.  But overall they’re on our team, working to control pests in any landscape (as long as it's not regularly blanketed with chemical pesticides), so they are considered highly beneficial.  

Exercise caution if you ever handle an assassin bug because it can also sting a human handler, leaving a nasty welt.   But luckily assassin bugs work undercover and aren’t encountered by people on a regular basis.

Dragonflies

Dragonflies DON'T bite (unless mishandled) or sting, and should be welcomed in the garden as beneficial predators. They are hunters, like hawks, with good eyesight and great speed.  Their flight speeds reach up to 35 miles per hour and they have eyes that cover most of their head surface, allowing them to see a full 360 degrees!

Dragonflies use their legs as a basket to scoop up flying insects. feeding on mosquitoes, gnats, flies, swarming ants, swarming termites…just about any flying insect small enough for them to catch.  In fact, they can eat as many as 300 mosquitoes a day!

Damselflies   (the dragonfly's cousin) look similar, but fold their wings over their backs when perched.  Both of these flying beneficials eat huge numbers of mosquitoes, and other flying insects.

Note:  Dragonflies are sun-lovers and must have water to breed.

Ensign Wasp

Ensign Wasp  by Ian JacobsCC BY
Ensign Wasp by Ian JacobsCC BY

This wasp does NOT sting, bite or cause damage so it is not considered a pest.  The adult ensign wasps are usually found outdoors but may be indoors also, wherever cockroaches are found.  Why?  Because the larva feed on cockroach eggs!  Any resident of Texas, no matter how clean a household, is familiar with the dreaded, disgusting cockroach at some point because of our geographical location and weather.  So anything that is an enemy of the cockroach is a friend of ours.

The female wasp is very efficient in locating a cockroach egg case. She penetrates the hard egg case and lays one white egg inside. The larva develops while feeding on the cockroach eggs.  At maturity the adult emerges by cutting a small hole in one end of the egg case. There are at least three generations per year. The adults live two to three weeks.

Lacewing:

Green Lacewing   by nutmeg66CC BY
Green Lacewing by nutmeg66CC BY

These little beauties are a wonderful addition to any pest control program.  The larvae are called 'aphid lions' because they have an insatiable appetite for aphids, mites, thrips, mealybugs small caterpillars, insect eggs, and immature whiteflies just to name a few.  The larva will pierce it's prey with their large mandibles and suck out the body fluids.  The larvae will eat for 2-3 weeks, spin a cocoon, and 10-14 days later, emerge as adults.  The adults only consume pollen, nectar, and aphid honeydew. 

Ladybugs:

Ladybugs are widely recognized as beneficial insects because of their easily recognized beauty, and because both the adults and larvae feed on many different small, plant-feeding insects, such as whiteflies, mealybugs, scales, mites, and mostly aphids.There are many species of Ladybugs (sometime called lady beetles) in Texas, and probably as many as 4,000 species found worldwide. 

 Ladybug larvae

Ladybug larvae

The adults enter hibernation during winter, and disperse in search of prey and suitable egg laying sites in the Spring.  Development from egg to adult requires about six weeks.  When the eggs hatch into dark and alligator-like larvae, they grow from about 1 mm to 4-7 mm in length over a 10 to 30 day period.  So they are constantly feeding and eat hundreds of aphids and other insects that cause plant damage!  Adults can live for weeks or months, depending on the location, availability of prey, and the time of the year.

*Some interesting facts about how Ladybugs protect themselves:

  • Their orange, red, or black coloration warns birds that they would not make a tasty meal.  Birds learn that insects that are red, black, or yellow usually sting or taste bad and will leave such insects alone.
  • They will "play dead" when in danger.  Many predators will not eat an insect that doesn't move.
  • Ladybugs produce a bad smelling odor, which may help to protect them.

*A word of caution regarding commercially shipped Ladybugs:

While initially an active insect feeder in the spring, the ladybug later enters a resting stage in the summer, using their stored reserves of body fat.  During this time little feeding occurs and they usually accumulate in large numbers, so they are easily collected for sale. Unfortunately, once released during this state they tend to leave the release area entirely, or resume their collective resting state, thus providing little garden insect control.   Some ladybug suppliers sell the ladybugs collected during the spring feeding phase, or ones environmentally preconditioned to remain near the release point.  Gardeners should be sure their supplier is selling this type of lady beetle.

Spiders

Don't forget about spiders!  All types of spiders are excellent predators of flying insect, thus making them a great beneficial insect to have around.

Remember! Any attempt to kill a pest runs the danger of killing a beneficial insect that eats the pest for dinner!   We detailed just a few in this blog, but we need to learn to value all beneficial insects because they play a vital role in keeping our gardens healthy.  To avoid killing these helpful insects, don't use pesticides indiscriminately!  You may even find that the more beneficial insects you have around, the less you will need to use chemical pest control anyway.

Living Expression Landscapes is more than an experienced landscape design company.  We can also expertly assist you in the selection and growth of companion plants, which can attract beneficial insects, repel pests, or provide nutrients and support to your unique landscape.  Call us for a consultation today.

*Special Thanks to reference material: http://www.fbmg.com/library/