How do I attract the “good bugs?”
The nine principles of Florida-Friendly Landscaping* are designed to help:
- Save water
- Support wildlife
- Reduce guesswork
- Improve water quality
- Make YOUR ideal landscape a reality!
*(Need a refresher on the 9 FFL Principles? Check out this previous post.)
In today’s post, let’s explore an important, but often misunderstood, principle of Florida-Friendly Landscaping – “Attract Wildlife.” I’m going to show you why “attracting wildlife” isn’t just about pretty pollinators and beautiful birds. In fact, the wildlife you attract can help with another important FFL principle – “Managing Pests Responsibly.” So stick around, and let’s take a deep dive into how your landscaping choices help determine who (if anyone) is defending your landscape…
Attracting wildlife – it’s for the birds… or is it?
Often, when discussing the FFL principle “Attract Wildlife,” everyone’s focus immediately goes to pretty songbirds and pollinators fluttering around. Tranquil and relaxing garden visitors…
Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing butterflies fluttering through the garden just as much as anyone… But there’s another side to attracting wildlife to your landscape that’s even more important to me… If I want a healthy, self-sustaining landscape, with minimal use of harsh pesticides, then attracting the right wildlife can make all the difference.
When the inevitable pests arrive in your yard, is anyone waiting to meet them…?
When you think of “attracting wildlife,” don’t just think about pretty looks. Think about function. Think about attracting critters with appetites & attitudes. Your own personal pest-defense squad. Abandon hope all ye who enter here… Carnage awaits the unfortunate pest that enters this garden!!!
Ahem… Sorry, I got a bit carried away there…
“The time to dig a well isn’t when you’re already thirsty…”
“Aphids are attacking all of my plants! How can I attract some ladybugs to my garden?”
We hear this sort of question a lot. In fact, there are online mail-order businesses devoted entirely to selling ladybugs to desperate gardeners…
There’s an old saying – “The time to dig a well isn’t when you’re already thirsty…”
Likewise, the time to attract “good bugs” isn’t after your landscape is already infested with pests!
Let’s take a look at some common examples of places we encounter pest issues, from the perspective of a “good bug.”.
Is this an attractive place for a “good bug” to hang out?
No way! You’d take one look at this and keep flying… This looks like a terrible place to live and raise a family of good bugs… There’s not enough shelter. Your offspring would probably be gobbled up by hungry birds and lizards. And there’s not enough food on these baby veggie plants (yet…)
How about this?
Definitely not. If you were a good bug and you happened to land here… it might just be your final stop.
(Author’s side-note: An alternative working title for this section was: “So… what’s a good bug like you doing in a place like this?”)
The regular use of broad-spectrum pesticides or insecticides is a relatively modern “solution” for controlling pests.
But there’s a really BIG problem with regular use of broad-spectrum pesticides – most bugs aren’t pests!
(PLUS, some pesticides can be harmful to people and non-target wildlife, especially if used improperly.)
(PLUS, a LOT of critters depend on bugs for food…)
(PLUS, overuse of pesticides can lead to pesticide resistance & decreased effectiveness…)
Well, you get the idea….
Over-reliance on strong pesticides will often cause far more problems than solutions…
If you build it, they will come…
Your landscape can (and should) serve as much more than outdoor decor… With the right plants in the right places, you can actually provide the food and refuge needed to cultivate your very own team of beneficial insects… not to mention helpful birds, lizards, tree frogs, etc…
Many types of beneficial wildlife can be attracted to your landscape with three easy steps:
- Spray less pesticides. Don’t use broad-spectrum pesticides as your first line of defense.
- Provide refuge – This could include clustered, layered plants and shrubs, and/or areas that aren’t as frequently mowed, sprayed, or disturbed.
- Include a variety of plants which can provide sources of nectar and pollen throughout the year. Many beneficial insects will use nectar and pollen to supplement their diet, especially when pest prey are scarce.
To help prove it, UF researchers have been testing what happens if you transform out-of-play turf areas of golf courses into pollinator habitat. The goal? To see whether these plantings could attract and support beneficial wildlife – especially pollinators & “good bugs.”
Here is a peek at the early results:
1) The pollinator plots look good. (For settings like golf courses, yards, or HOA common areas, this can be really important – it has to look good, right?)
2) The research plots are attractive to a wide variety of interesting pollinators and beneficial insects!
3) With greater wildlife abundance & diversity, there were measurable decreases in nearby landscape pests.
(You can check out a short video discussing the research here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHmGBHJcqaU)
The takeaway – By creating habitats with reliable, abundant sources of pollen, nectar, insects, and shelter, you can help attract a natural pest-control team!
A quick side-note about wasps…
Wasps have a bad reputation. (Certain wasp species’ attitudes that “the best defense is a good offense,” certainly doesn’t help them win any public relations contests…)
But if you’re able to give them some space and observe from a distance, I’m willing to wager that you’d start to appreciate wasps for their role in the garden… both as pollinators and as finely-honed hunters.
(Think of them like the big cats of the insect world…)
“But they eat my butterfly caterpillars!”
Many of us enjoy attracting butterflies to the yard. It can be shocking to watch a wasp fly off with one of “our” caterpillars to go provision its nest with food… But remind yourself that nature has perfected this balance through the years, and butterflies have survived for millennia without our help. (Their biggest threat is actually habitat loss, NOT predators. More habitat = more butterflies!)
Consider this –
- Butterflies will often lay waaaay more eggs than a host plant can support. (Anyone who’s attempted to “raise” butterflies has probably encountered this situation at least once, resulting in a panicked search for additional “caterpillar food”…)
Want to know the reason they lay so many eggs? Many of the caterpillars are destined to become food for other wildlife – i.e. wasps, birds, lizards, etc. There has been plenty of recent research showing that caterpillars make up a crucial part of the food chain – providing abundant, digestible, high-calorie food sources for many types of wildlife.
- The butterfly population (as a whole) actually benefits from natural predation. While becoming a meal isn’t great for an individual caterpillar, it’s actually important for the fitness and survival of the species as a whole. Keep in mind – If it weren’t for selective pressure from predators, caterpillars wouldn’t have developed all their fancy, fascinating defensive tricks – warning colors, chemical defenses, mimicry, camouflage, etc. Sick, weak, poorly defended caterpillars become a meal. The caterpillars that survive and pass on their genes to the next generations are the ones that had just the right combo of traits (plus maybe a bit of luck).
- FUN FACT: Not every wasp actually wants to eat your butterfly caterpillars! For example, these Myzinum wasps (below) visit flowers for nectar while their larvae control burrowing beetle grubs! Another type of wasp known as Larra bicolor specifically hunts mole crickets – an invasive lawn pest!
How do you know if the pest-patrol team really has your problem under control? When should you step in? In PART 2, we’ll explore the art / science of scouting for pests, and learn to recognize some of the “good bugs” you’re likely to meet in your landscape…
In the meantime, if you’re looking for additional info on these topics, feel free to check out the following UF publications:
About the Author: As the Florida Friendly Landscaping (FFL) Program Coordinator in Pasco County, Frank works with the residents, homebuilders, and businesses of Pasco to help prove that attractive landscapes DON’T require a lot of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Through an innovative collaboration with Pasco County Utilities, the Florida-Friendly Landscaping program in Pasco County provides targeted on-site troubleshooting assistance to individuals and communities identified as high water users. His motto is – “Less guesswork, better landscapes.” Frank can be reached at (813)929.2716.
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