I was at a garden party the other day and when a small insect – a gentle giant of a bumblebee – zoomed across the garden, our hostess went ever-so-slightly berserk. Indeed, while you may wonder how one would go “ever-so-slightly” berserk, given that berserkers rarely do it in a small way, you do have to understand that our otherwise gentle hostess was about to nuke this small and harmless insect. She had seen a bumble bee.
Now, regular readers know that I’m a great fan of bumble bees as anything that loud and stumbly in the garden has to be great fun.I’ve loved them ever since I read that some scientist had conclusively proven they couldn’t fly and whether this little bit of lore is true or not, it endeared me to them completely.
And this is not the first time I’ve seen a bumblebee or gentle honeybee mistaken for a wasp, indeed those small sweat bees we see gently hovering around the garden (they don’t sting by the way) are often mistaken for loathsome small wasps.
Even wasps, those terrors of the afternoon picnic, are not all bad guys in the garden.
Wasps are famous predators of garden pests and left alone to do their thing, the adults and larva chow down on all kinds of aphids, caterpillars, and pests that eat your flowers. The small adult sweat bees (actually Hover Flies) are stingless and while a bit of a pesky flier, they’re simply after the sweet nectar and pollen. The young ones though are Attila the Huns of the garden world, ridding your garden of aphids, thrips, and even small caterpillars.
So, what we have here is a classic failure to communicate.
The chemical advertisers have convinced us that a good bug is a dead bug and we’ve bought into that thinking.
The reality is quite different and only a very small percentage of insects are true pests in the garden and come with no redeeming qualities. With the exception of wasps that nest in garden areas and tend to sting quite quickly, I see no reason to remove any insect from the flower or vegetable garden as it is either eating a garden pest or about to be eaten by another insect.
Sure, knock pests off your plants with a strong jet of water or hand collect those potato and squash beetles but leave the chemicals in the cupboard. In fact, if you’re really smart, you’ll encourage insects to come to your garden so the good guys will eat the bad ones.
And here’s how to encourage bumblebees
Eliminate the chemicals, even organic ones. Yes, I know that sounds a trifle harsh but even rotenone is a very powerful chemical and can upset the ecological balance in the garden. Allow the natural cycle to establish itself while you mechanically protect your favorite plants with jets of water and sticky traps.
Learn how to recognize good bugs and bad ones. There are only a few bad ones and they can be controlled by mechanical means. If you have to use a spray of some kind, ensure it is a specific spray. For example, Bt is a specific spray that only kills caterpillars. Diazinon is a general spray that nukes almost every insect (good and bad) it finds and does some not-so-nice things to the environment along the way.If you only attack the bug that is doing the damage and not the predators that are trying to eat it, you’ll be doing us all a favor.
Plant a wide variety of plants in your garden. This includes natives as well as imported garden plants. The wider the variety the better, as this diversity will enable a wider range of insects to thrive in your yard. Fruiting trees and shrubs attract birds and you know how voracious they are when it comes to pests. The pollen from the assorted flowers will provide food for insects and some birds. You might think that hummingbirds eat nectar as their main source of food but the reality is that they consume many times their weight in insects; in fact, they are regular aphid-killing machines. Plant it and they will indeed come.
Plant natives and food plants such as dill in the back corners of your garden where you don’t care if some bug chows down and reduces all the leaves to lace. Allow the pests to thrive in the back corners and the predators will survive as well. Other candidates include: sweet alyssum, fennel, lovage, coriander, white lace flower, gaillardia, cosmos, tansy, sunflowers, and Echinacea. Allow some leafy vegetables to flower.
It is a great idea to have some shallow water in the garden where both insects and other garden inhabitants can drink. If you’ve ever seen butterflies at a puddle on a hot day, you’ll quickly recognize the value of a drinking area. And frogs and toads appreciate a bit of water and mud; if you’ve ever seen toads eat slugs, you’ll want to help them out all you can. Toads also love a bit of protection and large rocks or logs provide shelter for them out of the noonday sun.
So please confine your berserking to planting excessive numbers of flowers in your yard and leave our insect pests to themselves. They’ll sort it all out eventually and all we need is the patience and wisdom to allow them to do so.