Most insects in the garden are harmless

Published on Wednesday, 6 December 2017 15:41 - Written by GREG GRANT, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

Up until this week, it has been so mild than all kinds of insects were still active. Did you know that 97 percent of the insects most commonly seen in homes and gardens are considered either beneficial or innocuous?

Learning how to put these “beneficials” to work is an important Earth-Kind practice that can help reduce the use of chemical pesticides in the environment. Beneficial insects come in a remarkable variety of sizes, shapes and functions. Using function as the determining factor, they can be divided into four basic types: predators, parasitoids, decomposers and pollinators.

Predators are insects that hunt for a living. They catch, kill and eat other insects. In general, predators are as large as, or larger than, their prey. Predators are typically general feeders. Hover fly larvae feed on aphids, mealy bugs, scale and other soft-bodied insects, as do ladybugs and lacewings. Others like assassin bugs, spiders and praying mantids are more generalists, eating anything that comes their way. Non-insect predators in the garden include bats, birds, lizards, snakes and toads.

Parasitoids are another kind of desirable natural pest control. They are different from parasites in several important ways. Most importantly, a parasitoid always kills its host, while a parasite usually weakens its host but rarely kills it. Parasitoids tend to be highly host-specific. They choose one species as a host or, in some cases, a group of related species on which to raise their young. Most parasitoids are tiny wasps that don’t sting humans. Many help control assorted caterpillars.

The next type of beneficial insect is the decomposer group. Without these lowly little critters, we would be quite literally over our heads in dead bodies. A decomposer’s job begins when some other organism’s life ends. Within that dead organism’s body, essential nutrients are tightly locked into various chemical compounds. Decomposers break down the more complicated compounds into a simpler form usable to themselves and to other life forms by eating and digesting dead and waste materials. Carbon, nitrogen and other raw elements that are essential to all life are released back into the air, water and soil through the waste products of this group. The humble earthworm is a decomposer deluxe. Other decomposers are the larval stages of love bugs, lightning bugs and crane flies.

The fourth type of beneficial is more widely known and appreciated. Pollinators have long been recognized for their contributions to mankind’s welfare and comfort. Without pollinators, we would have no apples, almonds, pears, peaches, cherries, citrus, coffee, cucumbers, melons, squash and many other common fruits and vegetables. The best known “flower duster” is, of course, the European honey bee. However, Texas is home to more than 400 native bees, including carpenter bees and bumble bees, all considered beneficial.

Earth-Kind Landscaping uses research-proven techniques to provide maximum garden and landscape enjoyment while preserving and protecting the environment. The objective of Earth-Kind Landscaping is to combine the best of organic and traditional gardening and landscaping principles to create a horticultural system based on real-world effectiveness and environmental responsibility.

So before you start swatting, squashing or stomping, pause to consider the jobs the critters are doing. Just as in life, there are a lot more good guys than bad ones.

If you’d like to apply for the training to be a member of our Smith County Master Gardener volunteer team, we are still accepting applications. For more information, call 903-590-2980.

Greg Grant is the Smith County Horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. You can follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” He writes a monthly blog titled “Greg’s Ramblings” at arborgate.com, and writes “In Greg’s Garden” for Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com).