Lacewings, lady bugs and manits, oh my!
Now, this is not another article about bees, or any other pollinators for that matter. Bees get entirely too much press when it comes to insects in the garden. Bless their little honeycrusted hearts, but there’s a whole other cast of characters that deserve a little time in the limelight. This is an article about a voracious crew of blood-thirsty assassins, hellbent on keeping pest populations to a minimum: predatory insects.
I’m fond of repeating the mantra, “There are no pest problems, only a lack of predators.” In a balanced ecosystem, predators and their prey tend to reach an equilibrium in their respective populations. When we achieve this balance in the garden, the result is that we see very little sustained damage from pests. The occasional infestation may pop up, but before you have time to worry, they’re gone, a feast for our good guy insect allies. Unfortunately, most gardens are severely lacking in beneficial insects, and this is generally caused by one of two things; the use of broad spectrum insecticides in the garden, or a lack of the habitat needed to sustain a healthy beneficial insect population.
I’d like to point out that the slaughter of beneficial insects often occurs even in “organic” gardens and farms. In USDA Organic agriculture, it is prohibited for the grower to spray broad spectrum insecticides made from petrochemicals, yet it is entirely acceptable to use insecticides made from flowers. (Pyrethrins, which can be made from the chrysanthemum flower, fit this description). While slightly less toxic to people and planet, these broad-spectrum organic insecticides still kill indiscriminantly, and even the occasional use of these products will disrupt the balance we are seeking with our insect populations. It’s nearly impossible to wipe out an entire pest population, and they tend to repopulate rapidly. Conversely, our beneficial insect population tends to breed much slower than the pests, so by using insecticides we end up favoring pest insects in our garden.
By avoiding wholesale slaughter of insect populations, we allow the numbers of our beneficial insects to build up to control levels. Once a healthy balance is achieved, pest populations can be constantly suppressed. Rock the boat with pesticides, and it’s back to square one. This is a longterm solution, and it will take time for balance to be achieved. Be patient, quick fixes are almost always temporary. Every time you reach for an insecticide, organic or conventional, you are actually making the problem worse, and increasing your dependency on the product. Furthermore, these products are harmful to the microbes on the plants and in the soil as well, which further weaken the resiliency of our garden ecosystem. I’m not saying you’re an a**hole for using insecticides; wait, yes I am. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Stop using them.
Once we’ve committed to not killing our beneficial insects, we can focus on attracting and sustaining their presence in our gardens. A simple equation to accomplish this is Food + Water + Shelter = Sexy Time. Provide the first three and your beneficial insects will stick around and breed, and you’ll have a self-sustained population of beneficial insects.
Reminder: When in doubt, don’t kill a bug! A general rule of thumb is that most pests occur in clusters, and most beneficials are somewhat more solitary. Learning to identify and spotting beneficial insects can add another layer of enjoyment and action in your garden. In a future column, I’ll help you learn to identify the various stages of our generalist predators, as well as their eggs.
Now get outside and grow!
James Loomis is a “Beyond Organic” grower, farm consultant, and mentor. He teaches workshops on a variety of topics related to regenerative agriculture.