What’s Bugging You? Not!

16 bugs gardeners should love

1. Ladybug

Lady Bug

The bug: These tiny (0.3 to 0.4 inch) critters are a species of beetle. They look like itty-bitty Volkswagen “bugs” with great paint jobs. Many wear distinctive black polka dots on a background of red, orange, yellow or gray. Others have black splotches or stripes, while some are solid. In many places in North America, native ladybugs are being replaced by species imported from Southeast Asia.

The benefit: When your prize roses or tender vegetable crops are plagued with aphid infestations, ladybugs come to the rescue: Adults eat 100 aphids a day; larvae can consume 100 aphids an hour. Ladybugs also devour garden mites, small insects and the eggs of pests like mealybugs, thrips, boll worms, leaf hoppers and scale.

Locale: Throughout North America.

Attract them: Plant or encourage dandelions, dill, wild carrots, Queen Anne’s lace, angelica, cilantro, fennel, cosmos, geraniums, tansy, dwarf morning glory or coreopsis. Keep the garden moist. Buy a ladybug house.

2. Dragonfly or damselfly

The bug: North America has 450 species of Odonata, ranging from less than an inch to 6 inches long. All have big, compound eyes and four transparent wings on a long, narrow body. These stunning creatures are bright and sometimes iridescent blue, green, yellow, violet or red. They lay eggs in or near water, where the young (“nymphs”) live for a time.

The benefit: Dragonflies feast on mosquitoes, aphids and other garden pests.

Locale: Found in most states. The Dragonfly Society of the Americas hosts this list of links and species by state.

Attract them: They’re drawn to bodies of water. If none is nearby, a garden pond or a plastic wading pool will attract them.

3. Spider

The bug: Spiders aren’t insects; they’re arachnids. There are between 37,000 and 40,000 species worldwide. All have eight legs and a two-part body with a small head and a bigger abdomen. They range from nearly microscopic to giant tarantulas, whose leg span can reach 10 inches. Most spiders are shy and harmless. The ones that enter houses are different from the garden species.

The benefit: Spiders eat huge quantities of insects, killing more garden pests than all other beneficial bugs combined.

Locale: They live everywhere except Antarctica.

Attract them: Spread mulch on the garden; they love moisture and hiding places. Leave some areas uncultivated. Let leaves and stalks stand over the winter

4. Ground beetle

The bug: About 2,500 species have been identified in North America. Most are a half-inch to an inch long, though a few are bigger. Ground beetles are generally black or brown with long, skinny legs. They are nocturnal and hide during the day under leaves and stones.

The benefit: They take down slugs and snails, the bane of many gardeners’ lives, and eat a host of other garden pests, too, including cutworms and root maggots. They clean up the garden, poking under fallen leaves for insects to eat.

Locale: Many species are dispersed throughout North America.

Attract them: Include low-growing plants for them to hide under; grow amaranth.

5. Hover fly

Hover fly

The bug: Hover flies are also called syrphid flies, drone flies or flower flies. Their size ranges from about a quarter-inch to more than a half-inch in length. The black and yellow horizontal stripes might make you think they’re bees or wasps, but hover flies don’t sting. Here’s how to tell the difference: Bees and wasps have four wings; flies — hover flies included — have just two wings. Hover flies can hang in the air like tiny helicopters, darting and hovering from flower to flower. They’ll even fly backward.

The benefit: They not only eat loads of aphids and lay their eggs right in the aphid colonies, but their voracious larvae eat masses of aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, thrips and scale. Besides cleaning up garden pests, hover flies help pollinate flowers.

Locale: Hover flies live in most states in the U.S.

Attract them: Plant alyssum, globe candytuft, dwarf morning glory, cosmos, Queen Anne’s lace, statice, lupine and parsley.

6. Green lacewing

The bug: Like dragonflies, green lacewings have long, slender bodies and big wings. But lacewings are even more delicate, and their green wings are covered with a lacelike network of veins. They have copper-colored eyes and long, slender antennae.

The benefit: The adults eat aphids. But the appetite of infant lacewings earns them the name “aphid lions.” The babies look like little alligators and they also eat spider mites, leafhopper nymphs, mealybugs, whiteflies, caterpillars and other garden pests and their eggs.

Locale: They live in the American Midwest, West and Northeast.

Attract them: Grow fernleaf yarrow, cosmos, Queen Anne’s lace, fennel and tansy.

7. Bumblebee

The bug: These big, noisy insects are often confused with honeybees. Both are furry, but bumblebees are bigger — nearly an inch long. They’re mostly black, perhaps with stripes of yellow, brown or a bit of red. They nest in the ground. Unlike honeybees, which lose their stingers when they strike, bumblebee stingers can be withdrawn and used again and again.

The benefit: In their work of taking nectar from flowers, they track pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing plants as they go. Because of their size, bumblebees are even more efficient pollinators than honeybees. But they are less numerous, with only a couple hundred per colony.

Locale: There’s probably at least one bumblebee species near you. Here’s an illustrated chart.

Attract them: Grow a variety of flowering plants in each season, including these bee favorites: sunflowers, plum trees, clover, vetch, cherry trees, apples, willow and yellow poplar.

8. Paper wasp

The bug: There are as many as 21 different paper wasps. They are a mixed blessing, because they will sting, although they usually leave people alone unless they’re bothered. You’ll know them by their long, narrow bodies and their conical, gray, papery nests. Unlike bees, wasps are not hairy.

The benefit: Unless they’ve built a nest too near your home, “détente” is a good policy, since paper wasps eat caterpillars whose ravenous gnawing can badly damage trees and garden plants.

Locale: The American Northeast, Florida, the West Coast, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Colorado.

Attract them: Plant fennel or have a picnic (they like food).

9. Butterfly

The bug: Butterflies have slender bodies, knobbed antennae and relatively massive wings with a great range of patterns and colors that vary by species. Some migrate huge distances with the seasons.

The benefit: A few are pests because their hungry larvae — caterpillars — damage crops and trees. But most help humans: As butterflies flit from plant to plant, searching for nectar, pollen sticks to their legs, and they inadvertently fertilize flowers and crops. They’re less efficient than honeybees, but with the losses of honeybee colonies to mysterious illness, the butterfly’s importance as a pollinator is growing.

Locale: Every state has butterflies. This map of the states at TheButterflySite.com shows species by county.

Attract them: Butterflies love big, bright-colored flowers on which they can rest, wings spread, while sipping nectar. Some gardeners create butterfly gardens to attract them. TheButterflySite.com explains how and lists favorite plants — including red clover, oregano, marigold, cosmos, zinnia, butterfly bush, garlic and black-eyed Susans — for nectar and for hosting butterflies and caterpillars. Also, see The University of Kentucky’s site for butterfly gardeners.

10. Honeybee

The bug: There are many bee species but only one honeybee. Honeybees are about half the size of bumblebees — roughly a half-inch long.

The benefit: Because each colony contains thousands of individuals, honeybees are the best pollinators, making them valuable to both farmers and gardeners.

Locale: Although they have been widely distributed throughout the United States, entire colonies have been mysteriously dying in the last several years. The reason for colony collapse disorder is unclear, although some experts believe that mite infestations, together with susceptibility from environmental stresses, may be at fault.

Attract them: Grow a variety of flowering plants in each season, including these bee favorites: sunflowers, plum trees, clover, vetch, cherry trees, apples, willow and yellow poplar.

11. Beneficial nematode

Beneficial nematode

The bug: Nematodes are tiny parasitic worms that attack the larvae of soil-dwelling insects but are otherwise harmless. They are so effective at controlling 200 or more species of pests that they are used on a large scale for agricultural pest control.

The benefit: They’re used in lawn care and gardens to control pests such as fleas, crane flies, caterpillars, large beetles and root weevils. They’re not toxic to people or animals.

Locale: It’s necessary to purchase beneficial nematodes from a supplier to use them in pest control. Products include BioSafe, Guardian, Scanmask, Exhibit, BioVector and Oti-Nem.

Attract them: Beneficial nematodes must be repurchased yearly and applied according to specific supplier directions, at the rate of about 6,000 to 46,000 per square foot. Here’s a fact sheet from Colorado State University extension service.

12. Earthworm

The bug: Earthworms (large ones are also called night crawlers) are treasured by organic gardeners. They aerate the soil and break down leaves, wood, grass and stems into rich soil. Researchers report 182 categories of earthworms in the U.S. and Canada; some individuals can reach 12 to 14 inches.

The benefit: Earthworms force air into the soil as they tunnel through it, loosening the ground, which allows roots to spread and water to drain. Their rich castings (excrement) make nutrients from compost available to plants. Earthworms make good fishing bait and, more importantly, they’re the basis for many food chains and sustain numerous species of birds.

Locale: Throughout the United States.

Attract them: Avoid pesticides. Use plenty of organic compost, which gives them food and warms the soil in the winter and cools it in summer.

13. Centipedes and millipedes

The bug: These invertebrates lay eggs in the ground each autumn and spring. They molt repeatedly, adding body sections, each with its own set of legs. Centipedes have one set of legs per segment, millipedes have two. They can reach 3 inches in length, depending on the species. Although they can bite, North American species are not dangerous. They like the damp and hide in cracks and under logs, rocks or leaves, coming out at night.

The benefit: Centipedes and millipedes are both a help and a hindrance for homeowners. They’re great for the garden, if only they’ll stay there. Millipedes chew up organic material into fluffy, rich compost. Centipedes patrol the garden for slugs, fly pupae, cockroaches, crickets and worms. Big centipedes, such as those that live in South America’s Amazon jungle, even eat small birds, bats and reptiles. But some species come indoors. Although they eat spiders, carpet beetles and ants indoors, they’re usually unwelcome. Seal cracks and openings to keep them out. This University of Kentucky article tells how to treat more serious indoor invasions.

Locale: Throughout the United States.

Attract them: Mulch deeply and avoid tilling the soil deeply.

14. Praying mantis

The bug: This weird, elegant creature can morph from brown to green to gray, melding inconspicuously into its surroundings. The long stem of a neck rotates the triangular head for a 300-degree scan. There are about 2,000 species of this cockroach relative. They range from less than a half-inch to 6 inches long. The mantis (or mantid) has five eyes (two compound and three simple) that spot movement 60 feet away. Its hooked and serrated forelegs fold up neatly, giving it the appearance of a penitent at prayer. (Watch a mantid eat a wasp in this YouTube video.)

The benefit: Mantids eat pests, including aphids, moths, beetles, crickets, mosquitoes, grasshoppers and flies.

Locale: Mantids live wild in parts of the South and the Eastern U.S. They’re the state insect of Connecticut.

Attract them: Mantids are difficult to attract. They’re marketed to home gardeners for purchase as a biological control agent but are not usually effective because of their short lives and tendency to eat other beneficial bugs, including each other.

15. Assassin bug

Assassin bug

The bug: True to its name, this bug creeps up on prey, using its curved beak to inject saliva that liquefies the captive’s innards, which it then sucks up. Assassins range from tiny to longer than an inch. They have long heads on narrow necks and range in color from dark to pale with splashes of brown, black, orange or red.

The benefit: They eat beetles, mosquitoes, bedbugs, aphids, caterpillars and flies, but they can be tough to have around because they also eat bees, and some species bite humans and carry disease.

Locale: About 100 species are found across North America.

Attract them: Encourage or plant alfalfa, daisies, camphorweed, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, carrots and their relatives, and oleander.

16. Firefly (or lightning bug or lightning beetle)

The bug: This beetle is a summer evening favorite in many parts of the U.S. because the luminous organ on its abdomen lights up to attract a mate. Fireflies are a half-inch to an inch long.

The benefit: The carnivorous larvae of the 136 species in North America devour other insects’ larvae, cutworms, slugs and snails but also, alas, earthworms.

Locale: Fireflies breed in regions where summer humidity is high.

Attract them: Encourage preservation of large meadows, wetlands, streams and prairies.