Ann Wright: Getting to know the beneficials |

Ann Wright: Getting to know the beneficials

Ann Wright

If a group of gardeners is asked why they like gardening, there may be many different answers! Most will highlight the positive aspects of the garden world. Gardens are complex places — with the good and the bad. One gardener’s pest might be someone else’s favorite predatory bug. Certainly, one of the most positive aspects of gardening is the abundance of good things to find there. The soil nurturing the plants, the fragrance of herbs and flowers, not to mention the troops of beneficial insects arriving to do what they do, which is to feast on plant-eating insects! As pests start to attack our precious plants, many beneficials are at the ready to tackle some tough jobs. Many garden insects are considered beneficial because they feed on a variety of pest insects.

Aphid-eating lady bugs, or lady beetles (in the family Coccinellidae) are some of the more well-known beneficials in the garden. These beautiful little creatures can consume thousands of aphids, but they also feed on scale insects and mealybugs. With the classic shiny, dome-shaped body and typical black spotted, orange or red backs of the adults, the young lady beetles (larvae) look very different — somewhat like minute alligators! Most lady bug larvae are black, some with spots, but they don’t much resemble the adult form.

Bees (Hymenoptera) are an important class of pollinators and are as critical to fruit and vegetable production in the garden as soil, water and sunlight. Bees include the more commonly known honey bee as well as native or wild bees. Orchard mason bees resemble house flies but are gaining notoriety as pollinators. (Mason bees garnered their name because they use mud to construct their nests.)

Lacewings (Neuroptera) are voracious predators in both adult and larval stages. Lacewings are greenish in color and derive their name by their lacy-looking wings. Larval lacewings resemble something prehistoric with almost armor-like bodies. Adults may be hanging out in the garden at dawn and dusk, or fluttering in the kitchen window at night, attracted to the light. Lacewings devour aphids, scales, whiteflies, caterpillars, leafhoppers mites and thrips.

Hoverflies are in the category of predatory flies, in the family Syrphidae. These little flies, although looking much like a wasp, are not wasps — bees and wasps have four wings, while hoverflies have two. Hoverfly larva are tiny green worms, usually with a white stripe and are vigorous aphid predators.

Spiders, although not insects, are eight-legged friends to the garden. Their contribution to managing insect pests in the garden is sometimes underestimated, and they get a bad rap! Most spiders (arachnids) are shy, and hide during the day, only hunting at night. The black widow spider is one that does require some respect as its bite may produce a reaction to the venom it produces.

How to help keep beneficials happy in a garden

Learn about the beneficial insects in the garden. Seek to identify the good bugs both in adult and larval or immature forms.

Use non-chemical pest control methods such as washing off or pruning out aphids, avoiding highly toxic broad-spectrum pesticides, particularly pyrethroids. First identify what pests are attacking your plants — the first step in Integrated Pest Management. Once the pest is identified, it will be easier to determine the least toxic method of treatment. Seeking help from the IPM website is a good place to start: (

Keep a source of plants favored by bees, and other pollinators, including native plants. A garden with a variety of plants is an inviting place for beneficials to live. Provide beneficial insects with plants that add pollen, nectar and shelter to the garden space. Include keeping ants out of pest-infested plants as part of your IPM strategy. Also, include a water source for the beneficials.

The Master Gardeners of Nevada County has been directed to continue to limit on-site operations. Therefore, the Master Gardeners office in Grass Valley (at the Veteran’s Hall) remains closed. However, Master Gardeners are still accessible via the website ( at the “Got Questions” link as well as on Facebook. Live radio shows, “Master Gardeners and Friends” are being aired on KNCO at AM 830 from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.

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