Aphids feed on firebush leaves. Ladybug larva feeds on aphids.

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…

Tiny Cassius blue butterfly perched on the tip of a leaf

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…?

Aphids & mites BEWARE! This garden is protected by brown lacewing larvae – also known as “aphid wolves.” ~ Photo by Lyle Buss, UF.

 

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?

Small vegetable seedlings in a large planter

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?

Turf yard - watered and sprayed with pesticides

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.

Application of pesticide by fogger in early citrus grove

Pesticide application in a citrus grove. UF/IFAS Photo – Smathers Archives

 

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…

 

Larval ladybug feasting on helpless aphids.

Toward the end of its flowering cycle, this fennel plant began to attract aphids. Numerous beneficial insects quickly showed up to enjoy the feast, including this larval ladybug. Attempting to kill the aphids with pesticides would have likely killed all of the “good bugs” too. TIP: By allowing certain “sacrificial plants” to stay in the garden & host a few pests, the beneficial wildlife will feast, lay more eggs, and remain ready to assist!

 

 

 

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:

  1. Spray less pesticides. Don’t use broad-spectrum pesticides as your first line of defense.
  2. Provide refuge – This could include clustered, layered plants and shrubs, and/or areas that aren’t as frequently mowed, sprayed, or disturbed.
  3. 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:

Pollinator / good bug research plot on a golf course

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?)

Bee on flower

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!

Hornworm caterpillar parasitized by braconid wasp larvae

This hornworm caterpillar isn’t having a very good day. Like something from a horror film, tiny parasitoid wasp larvae have been eating it (from within). Now, they’ve emerged through its skin to pupate. The white rice-looking cocoons hanging from its back will each hatch to become new parasitoid wasps, ready to patrol this landscape for other caterpillar pests unfortunate enough to hatch here…

 

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…)

Wasp patrolling fennel

“Garden tiger?”

 

“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”…)
Numerous swallowtail caterpillars on a parsley plant

So many swallowtails…. this parsley probably couldn’t support them all to adulthood.

 

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).

 

Swallowtail chrysalis on fennel

Future black swallowtail butterfly. Chrysalis hidden among the fronds of a fennel plant.

 

  • 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!
Mizinum wasps on fennel flowers

Myzinum sp. wasps are parasitoids on burrowing beetle grubs. The adult wasps enjoy sipping nectar from flowers. Despite its intimidating looks, the pointy curved pseudo-stinger isn’t actually dangerous.

 

COMING UP…

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…

Syrphid fly larva hunting aphids

COMING SOON: Scouting for pests & recognizing the “good guys” – like this syrphid fly larva!

 

In the meantime, if you’re looking for additional info on these topics, feel free to check out the following UF publications:

Natural Enemies and Biological Control

Natural Products for Managing Landscape and Garden Pests in Florida

 

 


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.

Thirsty for more FFL knowledge? Check out some previous posts! And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook or Twitter!

Have an idea for a future post? Let me know at fgaldo@ufl.edu

 


About UF/IFAS Extension: UF/IFAS Extension – We are that helpful friend. UF/IFAS Extension serves as a source of non-biased, research-based information for the residents, businesses, and communities of Florida, providing educational materials and programs for adults and youth. We proudly “provide solutions for your life.”

 

Live in Pasco County? Come learn at one of our workshops! Check out our Eventbrite page for a list of upcoming events: bitly.com/eventbritepasco

(Not in Pasco County? Not a problem! Click here to find your local UF/IFAS Extension office!)

 

 

UF/IFAS Extension Is An Equal Opportunity Institution.

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